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Guest column: Now more than ever, we need a benediction at the checkout counter

Guest column: Now more than ever, we need a benediction at the checkout counter

My touchstone these days is a small woman who works one of the checkout lines where I grocery shop. I will stand in her line rather than jump to a shorter line or check myself out. Self-checkout is often not an option, anyway, for every other shopping trip involves the purchase of wine, and you can’t pay for wine in self-checkout.

When the virus put ankle bracelets on retired people, we all decided it was time to replace our dilapidated wooden fences, rip out decks that had seen better days and, you know, do something about the yard.

My wife and I had the backyard deck ripped out and thought to return the yawning space to lawn. I started calling sod people. They either didn’t call back or weren’t interested. They had more big jobs than they could shake a stick at, as one sod man put it.

Little by little, I started prepping the soil to take sod. My son had made a drainage swale with a diesel-powered digging machine. I found a sod company that delivered. I did the rest of the job alone. The job came out well. I hope never to lay sod, again.

That’s the way these days go, now. I try to fill the time with useful work or riding bicycles with friends, tending a vegetable garden, thinking about the fence I want done. I’m not waiting for the other shoe to drop anymore. Like the combat infantryman who declares himself dead so that he may live day to day without waiting for the sniper’s bullet, I work at something from first light to fading light, sleep well and awake refreshed.

I watch what in other times would be an embarrassing amount of television on my tablet. Well-written, edgy comedies like “Fleabag” and “Patriot” have replaced my light reading. I cannot read more than a few pages at a time. I’m reading Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz.” I expect to finish before the vaccination for Covid-19 passes final tests.

John Bel Edwards, the governor of Louisiana, is another constant by which I set my daily compass. Like the checkout woman who calls her customers “Baby,” and offers her benediction with each bag of groceries, Edwards is consistent. He offers the people who narrowly reelected him hope. A Democrat who acts the way Republicans are supposed to act, Edwards has the respect, begrudged or willing, of Louisianians in this trial by virus.

The first rule of being a good leader is consistency and honesty. Churchill was honest with the people of Great Britain. He could but offer them, he said in a speech to the House of Commons carried by radio, nothing but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” A good leader lets people know where they stand, gives them the facts, admonishes them to do better when they don’t wear masks at the grocery store.

If some of us are making political statements by not wearing masks, please stop. Most of us wear cheap masks that offer no protection from the virus. The masks do, however, protect others from our lethal viral droplets. We wear masks to protect each other.

What I want in a checkout person is speed, efficiency and a big smile. The small woman almost lost behind her cash register greets customers with, “How you doing, Baby?” We might be a middle-aged man, white, black, woman, college kid. We’re all “baby” in that first checkout line.

Calling people “baby” is a Southern thing that women of a certain age do. It’s warmer and more sincere than “dahlin,’” “sweetie” or “honey.’”

My friend in checkout likes to work in a mini-sermon between the first item on the conveyor belt and the last. This morning, just before 8 a.m., I was the only person in line and we talked.

“How you doing?”

“I’m OK.”

“This is a good time to shop.”

“It is.”

Then, she climbed into her pulpit, clad in her minister’s raiment, a grocery store uniform.

“God, will get us through this, Baby.”

“I hope so,” I said, “but, you know, going to church may not keep you well.”

“Baby, God isn’t church. God is in your heart.”

I love this woman. I don’t know her name, but I can talk to her as I can few people. Her sermons aren’t long or preachy. If you’re picking up just wine and toilet paper, her message isn’t long at all.

Ed Cullen, a former Advocate columnist, is author of “Letter in a Woodpile,” a collection of his commentaries for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”