At one of my previous retail jobs, I was the plant guy. Which was great. No cash register, minimal customers, just pop in the headphones and water plants for a few hours.
I should also mention that this store, for being in a boring little suburb, had a surprisingly international clientelle. Which was great. So many amazing restaurants. We were right across the street from the local Sikh temple, and there was a steady flow of saris and turbans through the store.
One fine spring day, there I was, lost in the music and watering a flat of impatiens, when this old Indian guy rode up on an equally old, Schwinn-style single-speed bicycle. He had a scraggly white beard and wore a blue turban and a simple white cotton kurta. He parked his bike and started browsing the vegetable section. I smiled and nodded. He smiled and nodded. no problem.
Then he came up to me, with a glare like Victor Wong in Big Trouble in Little China, holding two six-packs of tomato plants in his hand. With his other hand, he held up two fingers. He said something that sounded like, “Twah.”
The plants were more than two dollars. One thing you’ll quickly learn in retail is that explaining complex pricing concepts like, “Two for five dollars when you have a membership card” is nearly impossible with a certain segment of the senior citizen population, even when those senior citizens speak fluent English, which this one absolutely did not. Still, I tried. After a few unsuccessful attempts, I helpfully pointed to the sign which said the same thing.
Again, immigrants, I love ’em. They’re good people. They add flavor to my bland suburban existence. They make great food and great neighbors. They brightened up the place with colorful turbans and saris, and made me feel like I was somewhere more exciting than the electronics aisle of a corporate retail pharmacy. But stubborn old men who don’t understand that haggling isn’t done in the US represent a special kind of hell for retail employees.
My Indian friend, he just thought I was driving a hard bargain. He thrust the plants towards me, forcefully, and shook those two fingers in my face. “Twah. Twah.”
I rounded down for the sake of simplicity. I shook my head and held up three fingers. “Three,” I said.
Three was lower than the advertised regular price. He was making progress and he knew it. “Twah.”
This went on for quite some time. Inside the store, my coworkers watched the show with great amusement.
I realized that I don’t get paid enough for this shit. So I relented. I nodded and said, “Okay, two.” I held up two fingers. He was very happy about this and quickly became my best friend. I brought him inside and rang up his purchases at his discounted, hard-bargained price.
But I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d shown weakness. Now he knew. He knew he could break me.
Just a few days later, up he came again, weaving along the side of the road on his rickety old bike. I was inside the store at the time. My coworkers saw the old Indian man and vanished like smoke, leaving me alone with him. He waved and smiled at me. I waved back. He said something in his language that I didn’t understand. I said something in my language that he didn’t understand. We were great friends.
Once more he approached me with tomato plants. He fixed me with his cataract-clouded gaze, held up two fingers, and said, “Twah. Twah.”
He got his damned tomato plants.
“How’s your bestie today?” said my coworkers, after he left.
This went on for some time. He’d come in, and I’d risk my job by discounting his plants. Once I helped him find a new tube for his bicycle tire. He got to like the place so much that sometimes he’d just hang out and eat lunch while I watered my plants.
One of those days, he was eating his lunch, food in a white styrofoam takeout container from a local Indian restaurant. I recognized his food. In the name of international relations, and because ninety percent of the foreign words I know have to do with food, I said, “Pakora.”
This made my Indian friend very excited. He pointed to his food. “Pakora!”
I nodded and smiled. “Pakora!”
He said, “Something something something pakora something something!”
I smiled and nodded and eventually went back to watering the plants. He went on about his day, and I went on about mine.
And he showed up again the very next day. “Matt,” said my helpful coworkers, “Your bestie is here!”
He gestured me over. When I arrived, the old Indian man dug deep into the pocket of his shirt. He fishing around for a moment and came out with a handful of, I don’t even know what they were. Some kind of baked dough-ball bread things.
These he held in his bare hands. No packaging. No wrapper. Just five dough balls that had been floating around loose in his pocket while he rode his bike over, that he now held out to me, cupped in his sweaty hands, with an expectant smile on his face.
I smiled back, bravely. “…Thank you!” I said. I held out my cupped hands and he released the dough balls to me.
Behind him, my coworkers bit their lips.
He smiled wider and nodded expectantly. “For lunch,” I said. I doubt he understood. Still holding his gift of food in my hands, I walked towards the back of the store.
Snickering, my coworker followed behind me. “Well, are you going to eat them?” she said.
“Do you want them?” I replied.
“Oh, come on,” she continued. “I dare you to eat one.”
Eh. It wasn’t half-bad.