UNITED STATES—There I was a few weeks ago in my hometown, up north, trying to get waited on in a doughnut shop. A man is in there in athletic clothes of the casual kind worn by those who are seldom athletic. He is passionate, he is overwrought; he is passionately overwrought, barely kept in check by a forced calmness that could go to heck at any time.
“I gave you a twenty dollar bill yesterday,” he’s saying to the doughnut lady. “I know because later I got milk at the store and I didn’t have any change. I wouldn’t be wasting my time and yours if I didn’t know it was so.”
“We have the picture, and in the picture I can clearly see that it’s a ten dollar bill. Look!”
She shows him the image on her phone. He takes one short look and turns away.
“Well, I’m waiting around for him,” says the aggrieved man.
“He’ll be coming in a few minutes,” the lady points. “Wait here so the other customers can be waited on.”
The man in sweat clothes goes to one side, remains standing. Blown dry hair, graying moustache, sweatpants with racing stripes. What kind of man is he? An immigrant, not one who worked in the fields. Service industry, real estate. Does he have children? Would you want to be one of his children, the offspring of a man so overwrought about a twenty-dollar bill? That alone rules out real estate as a profession, but he still has a clerical vibe.
I have a point of empathy because a couple days prior, in the big bad city, I had exactly this situation. Walking home from the market I checked my pockets, no change. I expected to find a ten and a five after giving the checker a twenty. As I was leaving Yucca Market, a significant line had formed and one Russian lady was very vocal in wanting to hurry up. I told the cashier, as I grabbed my receipt:
“That’s the problem. Rushin’ around too much, Hey, what’s the hurry.”
We had a good laugh and, I felt momentarily superior to the rat race. Anything for a laugh, but that was when my attention derailed. I paid for that gag. I walked as far as the corner, when I reached down into my pocket to verify the change. There were no loose bills totaling fifteen dollars from the twenty I had given the cashier. So I walked back. I didn’t really want to go back. But I had to. I had to go back because of the doubt.
When the checker did a drawer count, much to the chagrin of the Russian lady, no extra $15 turned up. I confess that I accused them of thievery, as my face grew hot and red. Finally I just sputtered out, wanting the get in one last word, but each additional utterance was lamer than the last . . .
Meanwhile, at the doughnut shop in my hometown I read the comics and the news. I look up from my coffee and the sweatshirt guy is still waiting. He’s still there. It’s been a good 40 minutes waiting for the owner, I assume.
Meanwhile he and the doughnut lady have chatted away about a co-worker she had who always found money, bills stuck together, bills strewn on the floor. “She was lucky.”
The man smiles, he’s in a good mood, but that can go at any time. He had been waiting now for the better part of an hour.
From his conversation I glean that for a living he puts up with tantrums and changes the diapers of an elderly person. No wonder he obsesses over a $20 bill when you know how it was earned.
Out the corner of my eye I see a police officer stride up. He goes back to his squad car to examine the image on the doughnut lady’s phone. I don’t know what the officer does. Maybe he has a magnifying glass. Or maybe he’s timing a few minutes, just to give the impression of doing something.
Inside the doughnut shop the $20 man paces pensively.
Then the police officer finally comes back.
“You paid with a $10 bill,” he says with authority.
The man takes it circumspect. He takes it like a man. He orders a pink box of doughnuts, no doubt for the kids. You know, it’s good to watch out for what you have. But after having met the other $20 man I may I not be such a nincompoop about it the next time.
Grady Miller is a humorist. He lives in Hollywood.