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Observations

How Do You Want Your Change?

Once, I worked for a supermarket. In addition to selling food, we had a customer-service department that cashed checks, wired money and paid bills. Our customers lived paycheck to paycheck. It amazed me how a person walked in each week to begin and end their financial life all in a grocery store.

After 40 hours of hard work, plus maybe some lucky overtime, they stood at my counter to pay their bills in segments, purchase money orders for the rent and buy bus tokens. They left with enough to pay the cashier for their cart of groceries. Their children hungrily waited for the final receipt and for the hope of loose change for an ice cream cone.

Seven days later, it would all happen again.

I learned the customers. Week in and week out, their patterns never changed. The seniors appeared on the third of each month, just after the postman placed Social Security checks into their mailboxes.

The third was busy, and no one wanted to wait in a long line.

Hattie Mae Wilson edged her way out of the roped line up to my window. She clutched her purse tightly to her chest as she pulled out a brown envelope.

She wore a floral housedress. Her lipstick was a bright fuchsia. “Good morning, Mrs. Wilson. How are you today?” I asked.

She passed her check and driver’s license across the counter. Her nails were short. A thin silver band encircled her left wrist.

“Any morning I’m breathing is a good day, Missy.”

I looked down at her driver’s license and noted her birthday: March 15, 1901. Hattie Mae Wilson was 102 years old!

Her brilliant smile captured my full attention. “I think you’re right, Mrs. Wilson. What can I do for you today?”

She was the rare customer who wanted to chat rather than just shove through a busy day. Unfortunately, I had 40 other customers with checks like hers waiting in the line behind her.

“Come on, old lady,” I heard someone whine from the roped area.

“Well, Missy, first I want you to cash that check.”

I felt the heated stares from the line. I had no choice but to serve one customer at a time. I knew the customers wouldn’t leave. We didn’t charge fees for the service, and no one could afford to go to the pawnshop where they cashed checks for a 5 percent service charge. They were stuck.

“Yes ma’am, would you like big or small bills?”

It’s funny how people are particular about how they like to receive their money. I imagined people having their own system of money management, and getting the currency in different ways just makes them all feel in control. To me, $500 is all the same, whether you have it in fives or hundreds.

“It doesn’t matter, big or small, because you’re getting all of it back. I just want to hold it for a while.”

Several customers made sighing noises. Impatience flowed through the crowd. Two children ran in and out of the roped area. A baby fussed in frustration.

The pressure to move her along grew when the manager of the front end stared at me and made a face about the line. “If you need other transactions like paying a bill or money orders, I can do that all at once,” I said. This was my feeble attempt to move the lady along. The customers back in the line strained their necks to look at me.

Hattie Mae would not be rushed. “No, Missy, I’m in no hurry this morning. I just want to hold the money for a while,” she said for the second time.

I cashed the check and handed over five crisp hundred-dollar bills and a twenty—the sum total. She smiled, and her white teeth gleamed against her black skin. She counted each bill to herself. She touched them as if each had a special meaning. She laid them out on the counter, folded her arms and smiled.

One customer made a circle with her finger, her attempt to tell me that Hattie Mae needed to wrap it up. I could hear the other customers in line grumbling.

Hattie Mae could not have cared less. She was deaf to their remarks, and nothing was interrupting her as she counted the money for the fourth time.

With a wide smile and a wink, she shoved all the money back at me.

“I need a $300 money order, and put the rest on my light and phone bill. I only need some quarters. A lady still has to do her laundry.”

After double-checking my math on the computer, I saw that exactly $10 was left of the check. A roll of quarters.

She wouldn’t have any money left. “You don’t need anything for groceries this week?” I asked.

“Nope. I got enough to last for a few days.”

“Move the line!” Several customers thought that they could bully me into scaring this lady along. I shot them an ugly look.

“But you won’t get another check for a month.”

“I know.”

“I could put less on the utility bills.” I didn’t want to see her go hungry.

“No, I need to be paid up this time. God and me, we got a deal.

I handle the money down here. He promises to do it up there.”

She buckled her raffia purse and then patted my hand. “I sure will miss holding it.”

“The money?” I asked.

She winked. “No, honey. Life.”

I never saw her again. Mrs. Wilson’s obituary appeared in the local newspaper several days later. She had died in her sleep.

Out of thousands of customers, I have remembered her face, her voice, her words, for many years. Her actions have something to tell us: Take your time. Ignore the comments from the crowd around you. Pay attention to the task at hand.

Just hold it in your hands for a while.

Bettina Restrepo is a Frisco-based writer of children’s literature.