I shop at Trader Joe's for a zillion good reasons: fair prices, great selection of quality foods and hard-to-find items, efficient organization, and cheerful and knowledgeable staff. All that, and their greeting cards are the best I’ve found.
The incident I describe below, though, surpasses all those reasons and gets to a level of humanity that is often lost in today’s commercialism. So this thank you,* number 13, goes out to Trader Joe's: in a field of massive conglomer-marts, you are the real deal.
I was checking out at Trader Joes, when a young man appeared, took my empty grocery bags from the counter beside the cash register, and began bagging my groceries. He didn’t make eye contact, but I knew he’d meant the question for me.
“I absolutely want to hear a fun math fact,” I told him. He quickly glanced up at me then back down at his work.
“Have you ever heard of the Birthday Paradox?”
It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember what it was, so I said that I had not.
“Let’s say you had 23 people in a room. There’s a 50% chance that two people in that room will have the same birthday.”
I found that hard to believe. He went on to explain it though, and in the moment it made complete sense to me. (I confess I didn’t retain the knowledge, but that’s on me, not my impromptu teacher.) Turns out the Birthday Paradox is a complex and well known statistics phenomenon that apparently has a number of applications. He explained it to me in the time it took him to bag less than $50 worth of groceries.
“That’s so interesting!” I told him.
“I know.” He responded without surprise and headed towards the next customer who could become his student.
Now, as amazing as this interaction was, it was what happened next that was most noteworthy. While all this was going on, the cashier--a taller than average, clean-cut young man in his twenties I’d guess—went about his own work. He’d finished ringing up my groceries, but waited to give me the total until the Birthday Paradox lesson ended.
I looked up at him, expecting one of two reactions: either an eye roll of irritation, or a patronizing gesture of feigned tolerance. Actually, I didn’t know that’s what I expected until I got something else entirely.
“That guy is a genius,” he said, with not a flicker of pity. “I learn something from him every day.”
Now just let that settle in a moment. The cashier is a handsome, competent, socially adept guy who probably has a lifetime seat at the cool kids table. The bagger has none of that intrinsic privilege and is, I’m just positive, on the autistim spectrum. Yet the cashier used his position to elevate the bagger, and effectively squelched any possibility of judgement or discrimination. Extraordinary.
*In a continued celebration of my 50th birthday on 7-22-2015, I'm writing 50 thank you notes in 50 weeks.