I watched a man rob himself once.
It was as weird as it sounds. During lunch rush I manned the register, taking orders and giving change. At one point I rang a twenty as a ten, and the customer pointed it out to me. He was polite about it, and I thanked him for it. It was my error at that point.
The mistake was noticed because I recited his change as $6.41. He pointed out that he’d given me a twenty. He was right, and I also noticed that I read the total as his change. I corrected myself, and he acknowledged he’d just thought about it too. I’d goofed, but it was an honest mistake and we both knew it. We’d worked through it and it was done.
At least…I thought it was. The guy leaned over the counter and stared directly into the cash drawer. This made me nervous, but customers do weird things all the time, everywhere, so I just let it go, and kept an eye out in case he tried to reach inside.
“Now you’re giving me too much,” he stated. I wasn’t. I had a five tucked between my pinkie and ring finger. It had been put with the tens and I was holding it separately until I gave the man his change.
“No sir, I got it. $13.59 is your change…”
“That’s $18.59.” He enunciated like school was in session. Polite in a condescending way. I kept my tone even and simply said: “Yes sir, it is. Your change is $13.59.”
I tucked the five in its proper compartment, handed him his change, and watched as confusion scrunched his face. “Wait, that’s not right either. You said my change was $6.41.”
“No, listen, I saw the change on your screen…”
“That was the total, actually. The total was $6.41. And from twenty the change…”
“That was the change.” He wasn’t rude, but he was insistent. There wasn’t any stopping him now. He wouldn’t hear me. He counted out six dollars and thrust it at me. He then, carefully, counted forty-one cents, and dropped it directly into the drawer.
“I mean, it’s no big deal,” he reassured me. “Mistakes happen. It’s alright.”
Now, I admit, I could have pressed the issue. I could have made another, clearer attempt at explaining the problem.
But my temper was threatening to flare. When people who are in the wrong condescend to me, I instantly write them off as less than whatever I’d considered them before. You can assume me wrong. That’s no problem. I often am wrong. I was wrong not thirty seconds before. But do not assume I remain wrong.
I watched this guy walk downstairs to meet his law professor and fellow grad students. He was self-confident in a way that seemed to make him believe in everything he did, mistakes included. He was content and overcharged for a sandwich by double.
I sat the mistaken change aside and worked through the orders. I wondered how much more the man would lose to himself. Who could he call if he finally caught his hands in his own wallet?
I delivered his order, and then ignored him. I put the extra change in a paper bag and taped it closed. In marker I wrote: “TIPS FOR WHOEVER WANTS THEM.” I left the bag on the counter.
The money was still there when I clocked out. Maybe, in small streams of pennies and dimes, it’ll find its way home to its absent master. Or maybe its current will slip between his fingers, and spill upon thirstier folk.