Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Bag Lady

© Linda Goodman, August 2013

 I was not doing what I wanted to be doing on July 4, 1975. I wanted to be sipping wine at the cookout that my boyfriend had invited me to attend.  Instead, I was working. 

July 4th is a big sales day for retail establishments, and the Portsmouth, Virginia furniture store that employed me, was no exception.  At 9:00 a.m., I and five of my co-workers stood at the front of the store, waiting to service the hoard of furniture shoppers who were sure to be coming through our doors soon.  We worked on the “up” system. Before the store had opened, we had drawn numbers from a basket. The sales person who drew number 1 would attend to the first customer who came through the door; the one who drew number 2 would attend to the second, and so on.  I drew number 4.

Sales persons one and two greeted customers almost immediately.  About ten minutes elapsed before customer number 3, a tired looking woman, walked through the door. This woman looked like someone who had been hit by hard times. She was wearing a ratty winter coat (even though the temperature was in the nineties), flip-flops, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. In her right hand she held a large brown paper grocery bag.

“Do I have to help her?” asked the salesman who had drawn number 3. “She’s a bag lady, for Christ’s sake!”

The store owner, Mr. S, scrutinized the woman before replying, “She’s probably come in to take advantage of our air conditioning.  Just ignore her. She’ll leave soon enough.”

She did not leave, and while I waited for customer number 4, she looked back at us repeatedly.

“Don’t you think someone should at least say hello?” I inquired.

“If you talk to her, she’ll never leave,”  Mr. S answered. “She’ll monopolize your time and you won’t make any sales.”

I knew he was probably right, but I looked back and her, and she was staring at me. The puzzled look in her eyes was clearly saying ‘why won’t you help me?’

She reminded me of my mother. Even after my father had gotten a job that paid well, my mother refused to buy new clothes.  “We never know how long the job will last,” she reasoned. “I aim to save as much money as I can for that rainy day that’s sure to come.” I used to wonder why the clerks in the stores where we shopped sometimes ignored her. Now I knew the reason.

I could not look away from this bag lady’s eyes. “I’m going to go speak to her,” I told Mr. S.

“Go ahead,” he sighed. “but don’t blame me when everyone else racks up big sales today and you end up with nothing.”

I nodded and walked over to the woman. “Hi,” I greeted her. “How can I help you today?”

“I’m looking for a new living room suite, a new dining room suite, and a new bedroom suite.” She asserted. “I just got a new apartment.”

“Very well,” I responded, “come with me and I will show you what we have.”

After walking through the living room section three times she finally stopped to ask questions about a royal blue velvet sectional that cost $999.99. She wanted to know what made that sofa worth that much money. I was well-versed on the strengths of that particular suite, so I quickly explained them to her.  She nodded, accepting my explanation.

“And those tables,” she asked, pointing to the set of 3 chrome and glass tables that accessorized the suite, “what makes them worth $300.00?

“They’re tempered glass,” I enlightened her. “They’re four to six times the strength of regular glass, and If the glass breaks it shatters into round pieces that can’t cut anyone. “ She did not seem impressed, so I added, “These tables are so strong you can stand on them.”

“I’m looking for tables that lamps can stand on; not people,” she informed me. She pointed to a set of wooden tables across the room. “I’ll take those,” she said.

By this time, I had been with the woman for forty-five minutes.  Meanwhile, sales persons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 were closing multiple sales. I silently berated myself to not listening to Mr. S. He had been in this business a lot longer than me.  His was the wise voice of experience.

After similarly scrutinizing the dining room furniture, she selected a chrome and glass dining room table (“I might actually want to stand on that sometime,” she shared with me.) with 6 leather chairs. She took over two hours to select a bedroom suite, a French provincial set made of fruitwood. At $1,549.99, it was the most expensive suite we carried. I invited her to join me at my desk, but she insisted she needed to choose lamps for her new living room and bedroom suites first.

After another hour had passed, she was satisfied that she had everything she wanted. As I pulled a chair up to my desk for her, I glanced at Mr. S. He was shaking his head.  I knew exactly what he was thinking, “I told you so!” I did not relish the thought of the scorching lecture that would soon be coming my way; not to mention the beating I would be giving myself for offering to help this woman.

I took a blank contract from my desk drawer and began to fill it out. She supplied me with her name, address, and phone number (clearly, she was making this stuff up!), but hesitated when I asked for her Social Security number. “What do you need that for,” she wanted to know.

“I need your Social Security number to get your credit approved,” I insisted (like I actually thought she could get approved).

“I’m not buying this on credit!” she thundered. “I’m paying cash.”

Mr. S, standing behind me, actually giggled, prompting snickers from the rest of the sales staff.

I ignored them.  They could be dealt with later. I needed to get rid of this woman before she ruined my sales for the rest of the day.

“Very well,” I said in my most business-like voice, “your total with sales tax comes to $3,795.96. Since you are paying cash, I won’t charge you for delivery. I’ll write up your receipt while you go get the money.”

“I don’t need to go get the money,” she smiled. “I got it with me.”

She proceeded to open up that brown paper grocery bag that was in her right hand. After removing several layers of newspaper, she started lifting banded packs of one-hundred dollar bills and placing them on my desk. “There’s $3,800. You owe me $4.04 change,” she announced.

I wrote up a delivery slip and sent it back to our warehouse. Mr. S. was speechless, as the sales staff gasped in disbelief. I could hardly believe it myself. This had to be a dream!

But it was not a dream. I escorted her to the front door, and as I opened the door for her, I advised, “You ought to put that money in a bank account. It’s not safe to walk around this city with that kind of cash in a paper grocery bag.”

A sly smile spread across her face. “Don’t you worry about me,” she reassured me. “Everybody thinks I’m a bag lady.”

Author’s Note:  A year later, when I was promoted sales manager of the store, I used this story to train my sales staff not to judge customers by their appearance.  The really cool thing about this is that there were still sales staff members who had been present and witnessed my experience with this woman. When doubters scoffed, these staff members verified the truth of the story. “We know it’s true,” they insisted. “We were there!”


  1. I totally believe it. Several years ago when I bought my old car there was a guy there in old jeans a T-shirt with paint splatters all over it, he paid cash for a brand new car, had the money in a beat up duffel bag.

  2. Terri, My husband just got us a great deal on a new car doing that exact same thing.

  3. Great story, as always, Linda. Funny, touching, satisfying!

  4. Thanks for reading, Lynn. I am trying to write down all the stories that have been in my head for years - before I forget them.

  5. Great story and a lesson we all need - many times over in many different situations! Thanks

  6. Thanks for reading, Martha. Hope school goes well for you this year.

  7. I assume your boss Mr S later moved on to Switzerland where he successfully trained the woman who served Oprah recently...?

  8. Roger, after I got married and moved to Michigan, Mr. S sold his store and became a financial planner. Don't know if he was successful or not.

  9. "Mr.S.was speechless."

    But for how long?

    What did MrS. finally say to you?

    1. Actually, Mr. S made himself scarce for the rest of the day. He did not like being wrong. He never brought the subject up, and neither did I.

  10. wonderful, satisfying, loved it! Thank You!

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed it, Carolyn. Thanks for reading.