The other day I stood in a Las Vegas Walmart Customer Service line to return the wrong size of batteries. As I waited, I overheard a remarkable conversation, one that filled me with wonder and, later, gratitude.
A clerk behind the counter, a beautiful mixed race woman, declared, “My feet ache. You have no idea how sore my legs get standing here all day.”
I silently sympathized. I had worked as a cashier at a discount store for years, standing on one spot for eight hours a day.
The clerk at the next cash register, a middle-aged woman in her fifties, gave her an incredulous look, “You’re so young. You have no idea what aching means until you’re my age. I’m fifty-two,” she said emphatically, as if that settled it.
But the younger woman persevered, “Well, I’m thirty-one, and aching is worse when you’re young.”
I couldn’t imagine how she would win that argument. And perhaps she couldn’t either because she deftly spun the conversation in another direction.
“And I don’t see how I’m ever going to afford to get off my feet with these low wages. “It’s eight hours a day for me, forever.”
This seemed to strike a chord with the elder lady. “Me either. I can’t go anywhere, just work and more work. I’ve never been outside Nevada in my whole life.”
My jaw dropped. From where we stood in central Las Vegas, a car could take us to Arizona in twenty-five minutes, to California in one hour and to Utah in one and one-half hours. The fifty-two-year-old had black hair, brown eyes and a healthy-looking bronzed skin. She seemed to have all her faculties, so it seemed she could at least go to Arizona, the closest border; it took the same amount of time as driving across town. But when she continued, my mouth fell farther toward the floor.
“I can’t go out of state because I’ve never had a man take me. I can’t afford a trip, so I have to wait for a man to pay for it. I was married once, but he drank up all the money. But as soon as I meet someone else, I’ll get him to take me outside Nevada for the first time.”
Much to my surprise, the younger clerk concurred, “Yeah, same here. I’ve never been out of the state. I’m trying to get my guy to take me somewhere.”
Were two generations of women trapped in the Snow White story? Did they really believe they were stuck in Nevada until a Prince Charming took them across state lines?
I knew women’s lives could get complicated, some having children at a young age, others caretaking a needy husband or parent. Two incomes were more likely to make travel affordable, so these women’s thoughts linking travel to men made some degree of sense.
I also understood making ends meet in a woman’s blue collar job. But if I wanted to travel or pay college tuition, I worked a second job, sometimes a third one. When I’d saved enough, I did whatever I wanted to do. It had never occurred to me to feel confined. It made me sad that they seemed stuck. Under my breath, I softly murmured, “Glory Hallelujah” that I hadn’t thought like them, no matter how poor I’d been. And it never occurred to me that I needed to wait for a man before I could take off. I felt a new and deep appreciation that I’d had the moxie to claim freedom.
All at once, in a moment of humility, I realized the clerks’ lucidity. At eighteen, much to my surprise, I inherited a lump sum of $1800 from my father who had died when I was a small child. Knowing nothing about the wisdom of investing when young, I caught a cheap flight to Europe. Staying at Youth Hostels and hitchhiking between taking courses at several universities, I made the money last for over a year, until I had only pennies left. Time for another job and a new life plan. I couldn’t have had such a rich experience without funds from a man, my Prince Charming, Dad.
In early middle age, I married and traveled more than when single. Being with a guy raised my standard of living. The Walmart clerks were right, but I’m grateful I didn’t realize it when I was young and running with my full independence. These ladies, speaking truth from behind their counter, gave me pause to feel gratitude for the men who had helped me. The clerks also made me value the fierce self-determination I’d used to follow my dreams regardless of how thin my wallet.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.