Exit Music (For a Customer)

30 July 2007

As the evening dragged on, several of us wondered aloud over our headsets once again why we were open so late on a Sunday night. Almost all of the paying customers had wandered off by nine, two hours before closing. The remaining swarm consisted mostly of jet-lagged European tourists who would tend to wander about and not buy things, and of our regular denizens. Most of those were draped over our most comfortable chairs, either sleeping, staring belligerently at any who dared to approach them, or nattering to people we couldn’t see.

Our supervisors gave the ritual announcements, starting an hour before closing, to make sure that people had time to pull their stuff together and leave on time. They even made more announcements than usual, since some of the people seemed especially resistant to leaving.

Right after the ten minute warning, just as I thought I had cleared the floor for the night, a woman came up the escalator, dressed in a sharp business suit and carrying a briefcase. She stopped after walking ahead by a few steps, and went into the usual bird-like head bobbing of someone trying to figure out quickly where we’ve put things.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“I need the Paul McCartney,” she said. “The new one. The latest one.”

“That’ll be over here,” I said, walking over to a display. It wasn’t there. “Or definitely over here,” I continued, heading back to the McCartney bin in the Pop/Rock section. I pulled it from the bin, handed it to her, and began to walk back with her to the escalators.

“Is it good?” she asked. “Is it a good one? It’s not for me. It’s for my dad. Will he like it?”

“It’s good,” I said. “It’s a good Paul McCartney album. No one’s going to go ‘Oh, wow, I never expected Paul McCartney to do this! ‘, but if you liked the last one — and I liked the last one a lot — you’ll like this one.”

“OK,” she said, then slowed and turned to face me. “Um, would you have . . . ” she paused. “What music do you have for someone who’s dying? I mean, he’s dying right now, and I want to have music for him. . . to have. . . when he goes.”

“What does he like to listen to?” I asked.

“Classical. Jazz. Choral. Instruments. World. Chants. You know. . . ” she replied.

“Well, I can think of one thing right off,” I said. “I read an article in the New Yorker a while back about music playing in hospices. It said that this piece— ” I pulled a CD of Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa” from the composer’s rack “—was the favorite music for people who. . . were there.”

“For dying people? Can I listen to it?”

I took her over to a listening station and showed her how to scan a disc and listen to excerpts. She listened to the snippet that we could play of “Tabula Rasa,” nodded, and took off the headphones.

“This is good. What else would you suggest?”

I got her the Trio Mediaeval’s Soir, Dit Elle. “This is a favorite of mine. Three soprano voices, very spare, drifting and winding around each other in the silence.”

“I like that,” she said. “I’ll give it a listen. Do you have any chants that would be good, Tibetan or Hindu or something like that?”

I went over to the world music bins as she listened to the Trio Mediaeval and pulled out some suggestions. She listened to several. She immediately liked Lama Gyurme’s Rain of Blessings: Varja Chants, and turned down Nawang Khechog’s Tibetan Meditation Music since it had flutes instead of chanting. I stepped away while she was listening to those and pulled out Pat Metheny’s One Quiet Night, Deva Premal’s The Essence, and Sacred Tibetan Chant by the Monks of Sherab Ling Monastery (though I ended up not suggesting it to her as I remembered that it gets kind of raucous toward the end).

When I got back to her, our manager was announcing over the loudspeakers that we were closed. The customer appeared to be talking to herself, but I realized, as I returned to her, that what I had thought was an earring was a Bluetooth earpiece for her phone. “OK. . . OK. . . I’ll be there. . . So he’s. . . OK. . . So I’ll be there soon. . . Bye.”

Our manager was now asking the employees to clear the floors.

“I’m going to be a moment,” I said over the headset. “I’m still with a customer.” I decided that I was going to give this customer as much time as she needed.

She decided to get the Metheny and the Deva Premal. “Thanks,” she said. “This is. . . we didn’t expect this. He just. . . and I had to find the music, and I. . . ”

“I understand,” I said. “I lost my father about a year ago, and I can feel where you are.”

“Well, thanks so much for. . . for this,” she said.

I nodded. “It’s an honor to be able to help you.”

She headed down the escalator. I got on the loudspeaker, announced that the fourth floor was clear, and listened as each of the remaining floors were declared clear as she descended.

I moved around the floor, putting away the CDs that she didn’t get, and found myself shaky and tearing up. This had been more difficult than I had thought as I was doing it, and I felt like I had been involved in a kind of sacred responsibility.

On my way down, I told a coworker about the customer’s search.

“Wouldn’t you just want to play whatever music the person liked most?” she asked.

“From what I’ve learned,” I said, “that’s not quite it. Sometime you don’t want anything with too strong a hook or a rhythm. If a person is in the process of going, music like that can get in the way, and can block some of the emotions.” (I recall that there’s a story in the Talmud about just such a thing.)

“Hmm,” she said. “Not something I would have imagined.”

I got down to the basement and finally clocked out. My manager was down there, waiting to close the building. I told him what had happened. “What an end to the day,” I said.

“And what a night,” he replied.

I leaned against the wall, regaining my balance, as I waited for the elevator. Thinking back on all the annoyances of the day, I returned to the image and emotions of that final customer. And I realized that, after all the problems, this is why we are here.

Return to Black Angel Press home page.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. billd41
    Jun 14, 2011 @ 13:25:49

    Nice story, Joe. Thanks.


  2. Chris Kelly
    Jun 16, 2011 @ 16:18:14

    Hello Joe–

    This is brilliant, as I’ve always experienced from you, and therefore wonderful. And what’s more, it feels like a bridge across. Not just the subject matter, but you in your flesh and soul spanning the gap between this world and the one we can’t see. I miss you. I feel more alive when I read what you write. Yet more when we spend time together. This work is brilliant. Mmm.



  3. Joseph Zitt
    Jun 21, 2011 @ 05:29:48

    Thank you both!


  4. Aura
    Jun 21, 2011 @ 06:05:26

    I remember reading this before. I find myself again moved by your account. I also work for your employer, and people in need seek me out. I’m not religious or spiritual but there’s something that draws the very sick and recently bereaved to me. I am loking forward to reading your book.


  5. Ruth L. Greenberg
    Jun 22, 2011 @ 16:18:03

    A good, interesting story.
    Ruth G.


  6. Jane Redmont
    Jun 24, 2011 @ 01:24:56

    I remember reading this soon after you wrote it. It’s still my favorite of your retail stories, except for the “hella chill” comment from the guy who had never heard Miles Davis before — was it Miles Davis? It was jazz.


  7. Joseph Zitt
    Jul 03, 2011 @ 02:34:56

    “Dude, that jam is hella chill!” The most compactly Californian sentence I’d ever heard.

    Yup, it’s in the book.


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