Central Square Walgreens is a city drugstore. As you walk up the stairs coming off the outbound redline you will see it directly to your right. It’s always busy, ever crowded and not particularly clean. The staff are as iconic as the customers with diverse cultures, ages, clothing and personalities the norm.
It is the great equalizer. At Walgreens in Central Square people do not care if you’re a famous Harvard or MIT professor or a homeless person. You could be a doctor that discovered a treatment for a rare cancer or a stay-at-home mom; a barista or a post doc; a nurse or a tatoo artist; no one cares. You are served the same, wait in the same line, and try and get your pictures printed from the same computer. This is one of the reasons I love the city.
While living in the suburbs it mattered to people that our banged up Toyota Camry sat next to their Lexus. It mattered that Aeropostale and Banana Republic were not in our closets and it mattered that we didn’t care. At Walgreens an equalization takes place – a leveling of the playing field. People may try to assume airs and superiority but these are forced to the surface and squashed as quickly as they are assumed.
It was at Walgreens that I made the acquaintance of a Jordanian woman who knew no English. She walked in the store passionately requesting information in Arabic. Blank faces looked her way, and then everyone went back to doing what they had been doing. So the voice got louder. And the staff? They had no time for this woman who was speaking rapid-fire Arabic. Walgreens may be the great equalizer – but only if you know English.
At this point, I, standing at least three aisles away from her and knowing I could understand at least the basics of what she was saying, moved in a bit closer. It was one of those times where in a flash I had to weigh my decision to get involved against the urgency with which I had originally entered the store – in other words, I didn’t want any obstacles in my way between checkout and walking home. And the woman (dare I say it?) was an obstacle. But obstacles that are human have this way of getting into your brain and reminding you that getting involved is sometimes a mandate, not a suggestion.
Her name was Laila and she was frantically asking where the mosque was. Good. I knew and could tell her. But there was more. She wanted a cart to carry her groceries on city streets. She was older and carrying bags was too much for her. In the space of a few minutes I had heard about her daughter and no-good son-in-law; her grandchildren; and the mosque down the street – it’s amazing what you can learn about another person in a short interaction.
We found the cart in the front aisle but when I told her the price she looked dismayed. She took out a ten-dollar bill, held it out to me and began bargaining with me on the price. My Arabic is basic at best and she was persuasive. She kept pushing the ten-dollar bill into my hands, explaining that this was all she had. But there was a problem – I hadn’t set the price, Walgreen’s had. And if we know one thing in America – we don’t bargain. While an art form in some countries, it is simply not done in American retail. I laughed and told her that this would not happen, she would have to pay full price. So she argued some more. I responded that if she was in Jordan, this would work, but in America she would have to pay full price. And she argued more. I had met my match.
It was about this point that it dawned on me that I would be the one paying for the cart; her bargaining had worked, thought not in the way either of us intended. So we moved up toward the check out.
This is where something interesting happened: the staff previously uninterested and annoyed began treating the woman with kindness and respect. I watched in amazement. As I pulled out my debit card to pay for the cart, the staff were no longer annoyed or dismissive, but engaged and attentive. Through one interaction a domino effect began and she was suddenly worth while. She had been humanized, deemed worthy of having someone get involved, someone pay, and in the humanization the attitudes of all observing her changed.
It was a strong lesson to me in the power of actions. Very rarely do I feel like my actions to either get involved, or not get involved, matter. But to the person who needs us, it makes all the difference in the world.
We hugged goodbye, Laila and me, and she walked off with her cart to the mosque. I have never seen her again and my guess is she may not even remember me, but I am reminded of the lesson every time I go to Walgreens.