Fiction / Issue 4

Fiction by Lauren Hohle

Two Kinds of People

She pities me. I can tell by how her lips press around her teeth, how she tilts her chin to the side.

“How are you today?” she asks. “How’s your day going?” I feel my jaw muscles involuntarily stiffen. It’s not just a casual remark. The pitch of her voice is too high, like she’s talking to a toddler. She wants me to put in extra effort for her, muster up a glassy response so that she can feel good, not me, even if she thinks I’m pathetic enough that it will make my day, that I am empty enough to feel gratified by her self-effacing droop to my level.

“Fine,” I tell her. I’m busy printing the tickets, but I can tell she’s attempting to force eye contact.

She thinks she’s being nice.

Here’s a lesson in etiquette: Let me do my job. Then let me be. Consider the book splayed on the counter. It’s the only thing that makes this job bearable.

I pass her the tickets through the tiny slot in the window. “Enjoy,” I say. But I’m unable to truly fake the enthusiasm. I hate this woman, and my voice betrays me. The word comes out flat and sardonic—my voice just called her stupid.

You see, there’s a difference between being nice and feeling nice.

When I eat out, I model my ordering method off of my favorite customers. The precious few who are prepared, polite, and direct. If I have questions, I ask them. I don’t pussyfoot around, hum-haw my indecision. That’s nice.

I read once that pedestrians are thirty percent more likely to be hit by a car in a natural-foods parking lot. Psychologists figured out that once you got that feeling of satisfaction, that you did your part, helped Mother Earth, you stopped giving a shit altogether. Ran people down.

Who knows what this lady does in her professional life? Is capable of doing? Maybe she works for a company that exploits the sweat of tiny brown children, or is a government interrogator. But it was likely she was simply a rich Christian who complained about how much she owed in taxes.

It all comes down to humility. No, it all comes down to class. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have worked customer service, and those who haven’t. Those who serve, and those who are served. Those who have been yelled at for a side of pickles, or for a policy they didn’t create, and those who have done the yelling. Those who suffer, those who cause suffering.

I’ve suffered at Cineplex for two years now. Four days a week, for eight hours straight, I sit in the box office. Each day I’m allowed three bathroom breaks. Policy requires that when I step out I place a laminated sign in the window that says, “Please wait! A customer service representative will be with you shortly.” But people are bad at reading signs. Often they’ll shake all of the outside doors, desperate to get in, or I’ll come back to find them pounding on the glass, waving to get the chair’s attention.

I still make my starting wage because the bosses don’t notice good work around here. There are more shift managers than shifts, and each one an absent minded crony with nothing to occupy their time. They pace around the multiplex “checking in on things,” the hapless quest of ghosts. They don’t notice good work because, really, there’s no good work to be done. Each moment is outlined, every word scripted, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster knows my heart is not in it.

Still, it’d be nice to feel appreciated.

I only took the job to pay rent while I worked on my thesis for my PhD in Theoretical Cognitive Robotics. It was supposed to be my ticket out of here, but I haven’t finished.

I won’t have “here” for much longer. Today Cineplex is installing ticket-sale machines. There will be five of them, and there’s now an app for easy, on-the-go purchases. The bosses are keeping me around for a few more months, so that patrons can get used to the new technology. I won’t be in my office anymore, but standing off to the side, ready to assist.

When the bosses called me in to tell me the news, they handed me the technical manual.

“There’s going to be a few changes around here,” Boss 1 said.

“We’re going to switch up the protocol,” said Boss 2.

“How so?” I asked.

“We’re getting rid of the box office all together. And the sales department. You’ll have a temporary new job title,” Boss 1 explained.

“Temporary?” I asked.

Then they told me I was being phased out. That my new title would be, “Customer-to-Ticket-Machine Liaison.”

I suspect my bosses are what theorists call “philosophical zombies.” They act and talk like people but don’t experience subjectively. It’s the only way I can explain their pernicious devotion to company protocol.

I can’t prove this, of course, but I have observed some troubling behavior. Boss 1 only eats dry cereal. But it’s the way he eats it, the way he grinds up the wheat into chalk with his back teeth. He can’t possibly taste.

According to the employee handbook, cashiers may wear accessories in company colors: red and blue. I tested this once by wearing a pink headband. When Boss 2 brought in the cash drawer that morning I asked him if it was all right.

“It’s by the book!” he said, with his regulation smile.

Pink is light red, so pink is red. It did not matter that it didn’t match. That it clashed. “Redness” as a variable degree of perception didn’t register. But, I reasoned, he could also be color-blind.

So I made another test. I added sugar packets to Boss 1’s Wheat Cubes. When he counted out my cash drawer at the end of my shift he was gnawing on them, popping them in his mouth without a second glance. He didn’t seem to notice the difference, or enjoy them more or less. He seemed incapable of preference.

An older woman taps her credit card against the glass. I tuck my foot under the cabinets and propel my chair forward. I hate it when they surprise me like this instead of using their words. She pushes her card through the slot. I’m supposed to say, “How can I help you?” but it feels weird to say it when I’m already gripping her plastic. I know she intends to buy, but she’s put me in the position to read her mind. “What show did you want to see today?” I ask.

Wings of Tears,” she blurts back. Her face is powdered, and the make-up clings to the small hairs on her chin. She’s wearing coral lipstick, a bright floral blouse, and light yellow pants but has anything but a sunny disposition.

“One ticket?” I ask, and she nods like she is the sole humanoid creature in the universe, like an obvious loner disgusted by the sheer prospect of friends, or as if buying two tickets was impossible and I was morally corrupt for asking.

I type her selection into our POS system, and out of the corner of my eye I notice “C.I.D.” scratched in the signature box in black ballpoint pen. I used to always ask these people for their IDs, because it was an easy way to make them happy. But after a while I got sick of them acting surprised about it, complaining when they didn’t have it on them, had left it in the car. And then it occurred to me that writing “C.I.D.” was some sort of citizen militia brigade, like the Hell’s Angels, but not nearly as cool, and with no real legal basis, and besides that fact, without the bikes it was impossible to enforce. Out of her jurisdiction, I opted out. Now I just ignore it.

I hand the card back to her while the ticket prints, and I can tell by her shoulder slump that she’s disappointed.

But that’s just a minor pet peeve. The worst thing about this, living in my box office void, is feeling invisible. Time after time people will stalk past me in a big hurry and have to double back. Or they’ll push their faces into the glass, hand shading their eyes, and look up at the ceiling or down at the floor, and when I say “Hi” they’ll jump out of their skin and say, “Didn’t see you there!” Even though there’s no way that’s where my head could have been.

A man in a work uniform with a dolly waves to me through the window. He pushes a bubble-wrapped block. I slide open the door-release and jam the latch with a golf pencil. The man rolls the first machine inside.

Thus begins the end.

I don’t know what I’ll do for money when they finally “release me,” as the bosses say in their slimy, weak, angler language. This world doesn’t seem to want me. I’m too weird for this world.

I leaf through my textbook then close it. I’m allowed to have Items of Enjoyment and Approved Snacks with me in The Box—Approved Snacks being nothing soupy or difficult to chew. That way I’m always ready if a customer needs me. For enjoyment I bring my research: textbooks, index cards, my notes, and laptop.

It has been hard to focus lately. I can’t seem to write in this vacuum. I get bogged down in my ideas, have doubts. My thesis outlines new pathways for cognitive development through pattern recognition and the mathematization of verbal nuance and human unpredictability (it’s a lot more concrete than it sounds). But I don’t know how I will enable androids to function in the real world when I fail to. How do I translate the cultural nonsense? What can I possibly teach them?

The workman wheels out the empty dolly, and I watch him load the next machine from the back of the truck and roll it toward the doors.

I push my book to the side and study the ticket machine specs.

It’s the basic design of the self-checkout stations at the grocery store. There are three ticket icons that say, “Buy Tickets, Pick Up Tickets, Other Options.” On the Buy Tickets link, today’s showings are listed by movie, and then there’s a calendar page on the bottom if you want to buy way in advance. It’s straightforward. I think moviegoers will adapt, but many will miss the ability to ask questions.

Every day customers read the show times on the LCD screen behind me, and their bodies drift. Then, they’ll see me and their feet will bring them forward and they’ll ask me, “Revengedemption at eight?” and I’ll nod and smile and they will leave, but assured this time, confident in each step.

And the jerks will truly miss me. How my cheeks flush even though deep down I don’t care whether or not their MovieBux have expired. With the sales department gone, who will field the complaints? Who will be the punching bag? How will a jerk ruin a machine’s day? That is what they want. Jerks want results, they want to evoke some emotion. Regret or agitation, some form of unhappiness. A machine won’t get rattled. Machines can’t feel—at least not yet.

That’s what separates us. Feelings. Subjectivity. Taking things personally, or what philosophers in their exploration of consciousness have named “qualia.” Perception. The way things seem. The blueness of the sky, the taste of wine, the magnitude and variety of pain. People don’t experience these sensations the same way.

The successful ticket machine would reply cheerfully to each order, and with bellyaching become sorry like a child who got caught snitching cookies. This machine would provide enough agitation and compliance to let someone yell at it, let them explode while it sits silently. Maybe the yelling could even charge its fuel cells, make it eco-sustainable. But all of these actions would be purely surface level. Inside, the machine won’t ache for a better life, for fulfillment. The best android won’t long to be human.

For the purpose of servitude, successful cognitive robotics will lead us back where we started—with adept but hollow machines.

Maybe my programming dilemma lies in memory, personal history. In addition to creating robots with the ability to learn, I should let them feel shame. Give them first the joy of a grade-three blue ribbon at the all-school science fair, the grandeur of a FIRST Robotics Competition Regional Championship, the flush of relief and pride at an MIT acceptance, the relish of realizing a dream. Then plop them in the lobby next to the self-serve butter. Create them this way, because there is a difference between a person who has access to a particular quale and a person who does not. They see the world in different ways, have different realities.

My reality: the physical sensations, the smoothness of the counter, the elastic support bands of the chair, the sound of the garbled microphone, the fuzz of interference, the beep and hiss of the city bus, the growl of construction, the smell of stale perfume and cigarette smoke. Like Steinbeck’s quality of light—the stink of his Cannery Row—there’s the dull slate blue wallpaper, the grime on the windows, the cold air from the money slit, the stickiness of crisp ones—all of these combine and yet are only some of the sum. There’s the crude edge on the voices that talk down to me, my uniform shirt that pulls too tightly across my breasts, the acrid taste in my throat, the crackle of caffeine in my jaw bones, the shake of flab when I lift my arms, the death of promise, the rot of boredom, the ache behind my eyes, the hang of my parents’ disappointment, my own disappointment that instead sags heavy in my stomach like a balloon filled with sand. These things. The hospitality quale.

Which brings me back to two kinds of people: those behind the counter, and those in front.

The door of the box office bangs open.

Before I can turn around I feel the barrel of a gun on my neck. The metal is warm.

“This is a stick-up,” the man says. “Please put your hands on your head.”

I raise my hands from the manual deliberately and at a consistent speed so he doesn’t think I’m trying something. Across the street the workman rests his elbow on the dolly, studies something on his clipboard, totally oblivious. I eye the panic button.

“If you hand me the money, you won’t get hurt,” he assures me. “It’ll be okay,” he adds, voice soft.

I can see our reflection distorted in the glass, my hair and face blurred with his black pants and jacket, the hand that holds the weapon. On this side of the window we are one and the same, a swirled, soft-serve human. Trapped and scared and equal. He tosses an unzipped duffel on the counter.

“Open the drawer now,” he says, “Drop the cash into the bag.”

I remove one hand and relocate it to the touch screen, press the auto-unlock. The drawer pops open and I move my second hand to lift the insert, pull out two hundred-dollar bills in good faith. Then I load the stacks of twenties, tens, fives, and ones. Zip the bag when I’m finished.

“You’re all set,” I say, placing my hands back where they belong. “Anything else I can help you with?”

He removes the gun from my neck, motions to the floor. I lay down. The coarse carpet tickles my cheek.

“When I leave,” he says, “I want you to count backwards from three hundred. Don’t move until you’re done.”

“Will do,” I say, and he turns to the door.

“Thanks,” he says and runs.

“Enjoy!” I call after him.

Then I begin to count.


Lauren Hohle earned an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts from the University of Redlands in “Framing and Narrative: Creative Writing, Film, and Social Justice.” She currently writes and teaches in Los Angeles, but will be attending Eastern Washington University’s MFA program this fall. More of her work can be found in The Dos Passos Review. Selected by Kamala Puligandla.

Image © Dean Hochman via Flickr Creative Commons.