My first month at King Kullen, I collected shopping carts from the parking lot. Carts that your average American was too lazy to put back in front of the store after the brutal 20-foot walk to deliver their groceries to their car. Rain, sleet, snow, or hail, I was out there pushing carts. I would collect them in small groups of five and hurl them up the curb and into the neat rows directly next to the front wall of the store.
From my constant time outside against the stone wall watching customers enter and exit the store, you begin to smile at the ones you see most often. Occasionally, I would take their carts from them or go out of my way to get them a cart, merely in an act of friendly interaction. Few would stop to thank you, even fewer would stop to talk to you.
There were regular customers, whose faces became familiar and whose conversations would drag on much longer. They would come in every other day, pick up a few groceries and leave. Mr. Oko was one of them.
He was a small, frail Oriental man. His face was sunken with wrinkles and he always wore a baseball cap with a globe on the front. The globe was always visible because he crouched as he walked, back hunched and knees bent. He wore orthopedic shoes, and one sole was taller than the other. His skin was dark, tanned, and covered in liver spots. His hands were bony, covered in a thin layer of nearly translucent skin. His veins pressed against the skin as he gripped the handle on a shopping cart and pushed it past me.
After he was done shopping, he came over to me and asked if I would help him carry his bags to his car. I loaded my arms with his few bags, to assure he wouldn’t have to carry any at all. We walked to his small, white car. It was covered in a layer of dirt that was lifted with the swipe of a finger. He opened his trunk and allowed me to place his groceries down carefully as he began to introduce himself. He told me his full name, which I wouldn’t be able to pronounce, and he acknowledged this from the blank stare I gave him as I told him my name.
“Call me Mr. Oko,” he said, “That’s what everyone calls me here.” He closed the trunk and placed his hand delicately on the top of the trunk. He looked at me and released a small laugh and continued to say, “You know, I have seen you pushing carts, my boy. You are a very hard worker.” Slightly confused and a little embarrassed, I replied, “Thank you. It’s not the best job, but I get a good paycheck.” He laughed and began to walk the cart back toward the store. I grabbed the handle, assuring him that I would take it for him. He placed the hand covered in the layer of dirt onto my shoulder and said, “Hard work will pay off, my boy. You have success in your blood, I see it in your eyes.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I smiled and walked off with the cart, placing it back into the row and removing the sales circular that was left inside.
The next time I saw Mr. Oko, I was behind the counter of the bakery, putting out a sample for customers to enjoy. He stopped in front of the sample dish and shouted, “My boy, you see what hard work gets you? The rewards are sweet!”
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