“Thank you for coming,” he said, in a heartbreakingly sincere way. I immediately knew what he meant. I knew beyond what he meant. For a moment, I hurt with him.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I managed to fumble out, too uncomfortable to verbally acknowledge the worries and concerns that I knew the ice cream shop owner was experiencing. “Ha, yeah, umm, I want to, you know, umm, support businesses. Plus, ha ha, yeah, I’m lactose intolerant, but I do love ice cream so much.”
He smiled and his eyes seemed to look like how I bet they look when things are less grim and business is less slow. He smiled like it was a few weeks ago, before the dreaded COVID-19 had turned all of our lives into worrisome messes. He looked at me, really, really, looked at me, and smiled. It’s the first time that someone has smiled at me like that in several weeks. Most days, I am home, alone. On the times when I go to the store, people are avoiding eye contact. Or, when I do manage to make eye contact with someone, I only see fear. I no longer actively try to smile at people or make eye contact because seeing fear in so many people’s eyes creates a sadness that I tend to carry with me for the rest of the day.
“Hmm…,” I say, mulling over each ice cream label, carefully reading each one. I already knew what I was going to get. I always get only one of two flavors: Swiss Chocolate or Amaretto. He didn’t have Amaretto; I of course was going to get the Swiss Chocolate. But I stood there, allowing myself to just exist in the shop, and in the moment, and in the presence of this business owner who has perhaps only seen a few customers all day. I am silent. I almost wish he would chat a little bit. No, I absolutely wished he would chat a little bit. He seemed kind and open, but he’s probably scared, too.
“I think I’ll have the Swiss Chocolate. A kid’s sized cup, please,” I finally said, trying to seem like I had given the choice much consideration.
“Yes, sure, of course!” he responded enthusiastically.
I looked at the restroom door. There was a sign on it that said, “Temporarily out of order.” I desperately wanted to wash my hands.
“May I use your restroom?” I asked anyway, hoping he’d let me slide. He didn’t. I respectfully understood.
He finished ringing up my small ice cream: over $5 for the ice cream and two scoops of walnuts. I handed him a $10, asking him if it was ok that I paid with cash.
“Sure!” he said, still gushing with enthusiasm. He slid a little white tray towards me for me to put the money inside of and push back to him. I’ve never in my adult life wanted to hand my card to someone or put a bill into someone’s hands so badly. A little tinge of sadness poked at my gut.
“Are you the owner?” I asked. He smiled and told me he was. I made the presumption based on his age and the somewhat slow and unsure way in which he mixed in the walnuts. His button up, unbranded golf shirt and genuine glee to have a customer also seemed to give away his status as owner.
He finished counting the change and put it back in the basket. As he counted, I thought about all of the times that I have struggled financially as a business owner. The worry, panic, anxiety, and sadness of being an entrepreneur is just a part of the freedom that comes with entrepreneurship. You lose a boss, but you gain even more perceived uncertainty. My heart went out to this man, who has likely had to take to tending his own shop because he can no longer afford to pay the youthful high school kids to come in and serve the customers.
“Please, keep the change,” I told him and smiled. He smiled again. I turned away, clutching my somewhat poorly mixed ice cream, heading towards the door before the tears could escape my eyes.
“God bless you!” he called after me.
“Bless you, too, sir,” I said, turning back and smiling before using my elbow to push open the door.
I drove down the street to an empty parking lot to cry and enjoy my ice cream. Even though it was poorly mixed, it was still so good. I love Swiss Chocolate.