My Paper or Plastic Hero

I think his name is Jimmy. He works at the local supermarket back in our little town in Alaska. I might stop in once or twice a week to pick up all the things I need for my return to Tokyo. You know how it is, all the things you think you should have bought and brought back after your vacation to the “old country.” You learn and the next time home you have a list ready.

The clerk smiled at me at the check out. I was not sure if it was the copious amount of powdered drink mixes I was buying, or the scandalous amounts of deodorant, followed by the plethora of toothpaste tubes rattling on the conveyor belt to the scanner in their crisp cardboard boxes—but it must have been eye catching.

“Paper or plastic?” would be the first thing the check out clerk asks, and then conveys it to the young person standing at the back end of the belt, to package it all up. The bagger holds rapt attention at other people’s conversations until he is set to task, and then quickly tips his head down, and carefully packs everything. Usually they want to walk you to your car, which is great if it is snowing or late at night. They are very visible in red smocks and baseball caps.

“I made sure to put all things together like you did on the conveyor,” Jimmy says to me as we walk out to the car. I glance down into my bag as he had asked to carry the other three.

“Oh, thank you very much.” All the boxes are all in the same direction, right side up.

He stands just a little bit straighter and says, “I watch for those things.” I am sure he does. There is a slight twinge of guilt in me because I chat with the stockers and the clerks. But sometimes my conversations with Jimmy are a bit more limited. I try to stick to topics within his comfort zone: payday crowds, baseball and the weather, seem to work fine. His world is much of an “a” or “b” option/choice arrangement. I picked that up early in our exchanges. The world for Jimmy is neatly set up in twos: like paper or plastic, carry out or cart out, and so on.

Jimmy has a very good memory. He remembers the last time he saw me. He asks me if it hurts to fly so long from Alaska to Japan. I am guessing he has flown “down south to the 48.” And once or twice he very conspiratorially leaned over to me, with his finger to his lips in the universal symbol of ‘secret,’ saying “there’s going to be a big sale so watch for coupons!”

I feel good that our local supermarket has programs to help integrate a workforce at its various levels of ability.

But I feel better knowing Jimmy is standing somewhere, ready to bag what you need, the way you want it, and offer to help you to the door. I feel safer knowing he is there.

The last time I saw him he asked if I was going back to Japan. I said yes. He wanted to walk me out to my car but we both saw an elderly woman with a heavy bag. “Maybe you should go help her because that bag looks heavy and you are strong?” I said to Jimmy and he looked down at my bags in his hands and faced a decision.

He took a few breaths and made his plan.

“Can you wait here? I will be back in a minute.” It is quite obvious he wanted to help the lady but he couldn’t because he has to serve the person in queue first. My offering to wait gave him enough leeway to flex his superhero muscles.

He carefully set down my bags and raced over to the woman. I stayed where I was for four minutes and Jimmy was back. “They were really heavy”, he commented on the lady’s bags. He pantomimed wiping his brow.

“Where’s your car?” He bent over and scooped up all my bags. I pointed and made the car beep with the lock. “Are you driving or flying back to Japan?”