The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

From a childhood replica to the real thing, Bill Richardson now has a cash register to ring

Never in living memory has the grocery store cashier had more attention, more praise, more love. And never has the work been deemed essential. Bill Richardson deems it to be something quite other than that. But he is reveling in one aspect of his new job, or at least the memory it conjures. Here's his essay, Ding. Ding. Ding.

'I want the thing that goes ding, ding, ding!'

A vintage cash register from Addison's, Inc., a plumbing and salvage warehouse in Toronto. (Courtesy of Cora Addison)
Bill Richardson is the author of The First Little Bastard to Call Me Gramps: Poems of the Late Middle Ages. (Submitted by Bill Richardson)

"The corner" — that's what we called it, our neighbourhood's commercial hub. At the corner was the bank, the barber. There was the drugstore and a small medical arts building with an archery range in the basement: an eccentric arrangement of which nothing original remains to be said. 

Also at the corner was Serv-Well, an independent grocery store. I loved Serv-Well, loved our family's Friday night excursions there. Going to Serv-Well was more than a practical necessity, more than an outing. It was formative. Scanning the shelves from the shopping cart kiddy seat I learned my numbers and cultivated my oratorical skills, calling out the prices, announcing them loudly, for the benefit of whom I can't say. Even as a child I adored the sound of my own voice, spouting nonsense.

"I want the thing that goes ding-ding-ding!" I crowed to Santa, astride his knee in the Bay, circa 1959. 

"A fire truck?" Santa prodded.

"No, ding, ding, ding, like at Serv-Well!" I replied.

Santa, perhaps not from Silver Heights, was flummoxed, but my parents, bearing witness to my histrionics, understood. While they might have preferred that I'd made a more laddish request — a hockey stick, Lincoln logs, Meccano — they came through. On Christmas morning there it was, beneath the tree, the toy cash register. It was perfect. It had responsive keys and a drawer that opened when you hit No Sale, and it did indeed go ding-ding-ding, just like the real thing-thing-thing at Serv-Well. 

This was posted at España, one of Bill Richardson's local takeout counters in Vancouver, a sign that others share his sense of whimsy. (Bill Richardson)

Then life happened. I rarely thought of the Christmas cash register, or Serv-Well. I do now, however, every morning, when I turn up for my job at a neighbourhood grocery store. As required, I line up, take my temperature and report it, then don a mask and gloves. A few months ago, this is what I might have expected had I gone on a coach tour to Chernobyl. But now, this is how we're learning to live.

In the store, I'm a free-floating particle, stocking shelves, piling produce, checking best-before dates. Sometimes, I get to be a cashier, on a real cash register, like a big boy. This is the stuff of my once-upon-a-time dreams. As it turns out, it's a task for which I'm supremely ill-suited. 

"I can help you at 7!" I'll trill from the till. Then, once the victim has entered the zone of entrapment, I'll say, "I'm new at this and won't be as quick as you're used to." 

"I'm not in a hurry," is how most customers respond. And since I've confessed my incompetence, we'll share a merry chuckle when I punch in a code that suggests the price of a bunch of quite banal bananas is about what you'd have paid for a Vancouver condo, pre-crash. 

Sometimes, as I struggle to scan their shampoo, chicken breasts and deli pasta salads, I'll ask one of those shopper satisfaction questions like, "Did you find everything you were looking for?" 

"No," the customer typically says, "there was no flour, no yeast, no dried kidney beans." 

And we cluck and shake our heads at what, until seven or eight weeks ago, we would have thought impossible. Disruption. Inconvenience. Scarcity. We ain't seen nothin' yet is my suspicion, which, at work, I keep confidential. 

"Thank you for your patience," I'll say, when everything is rung through.

An original analogue cash register remains in daily use at Adam and Even Hairstyling in Saint John, N.B. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"Thank you for your frontline service," the customer often answers, a commendation which makes me blush. I'm not working to be noble, I'm working because I need to work. I do this with a clear conscience, since I take every recommended precaution for my safety and the protection of those around me. Making a nice-looking avocado mountain or front-facing the tahini is not exactly hooking someone up to a ventilator. I'm not in any doubt about the essentialness of my frontline service, so-called. When I'm making change I'm just making change, not, you know, making change.

Waiting for the gods of credit to beam their approval, I remember Serv-Well. I remember the career-gal cashiers, their competence, nonchalance and ease. And I think of the surely tens of thousands of transactions I've enacted with just as many cashiers, women in the main, unfazed and unfudging, in all manner of emporia. Places where money needed to pass from hand to unsanitized hand; where cashiers who calculated the total, took my dough, and returned to me what I was owed as though it were the easiest thing in the world which, I am here to tell you, it decidedly is not. I took them for granted, just as I did such now-shattered certainties as abundance, as social order. Ladies of the till, I'm sorry. I feel you gathered around me. I sense your scorn at my halting, stumbling ways. I am not worthy to be in your company. 

The printer spits out the receipt, the drawer slides wide, needing to be fed. The attentive customer might detect a subtle herniation of my mask as I exhale the word the cash register ought to sing. But sadly — who knows why — these days, it no longer does. Ding, is what I say, for what is a till if it does not toll? No need to ask for whom, for what.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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