"May I help you?"
"Yes, thank you. Could I please have a Klondike bar, and bottle of water and ... let me see ... two packets of Goldfish?"
The teenage boy behind the counter of the poolside snack bar saw me standing in line behind the customer and briefly widened his eyes.
"Here you go," he said to the man.
"Thanks very much," the man replied pleasantly. He gathered his purchases and moved away.
I approached the counter, from behind which my son and his friend have been selling ice cream and snacks this summer.
"Did you hear that guy?" my son said, shaking his head.
"Sure, but --"
"I can't even remember the last time I had a customer who was so well-mannered!"
"Oh! Oh ... what a drag."
"You have no idea!" the boy went on. "If you work behind a counter, people seem to think you're an idiot, or a robot. Forget 'please' and 'thank you,' half the time they don't even look at your face --"
His eyes flicked behind me. "Wait, can you stand aside for a second? I've got more customers."
I moved to the right to make way for a trio of preteen girls.
"Um ... ice cream sandwich?" said the first.
"Yeah, ice cream sandwich," said the second.
"Popsicle," said the third. "An orange one."
My son gave me a see-what-I-mean look and handed the girls their goodies. They scampered off. There had been no malice in the exchange, no deliberate rudeness; they had simply wished to extract frozen desserts from the guy behind the counter, and had done so with a minimum of syllables.
"That was nice," I said wryly, sliding over again.
"Oh, that was nothing," he said. "The worst ones come up to the window and don't even look at me. They just throw down a dollar or something and say 'Coke.' "
Serving the public can be, as anyone who has served the public knows, a mixed experience. By some depressingly constant marvel of disassociation, the minute you step behind a counter, you cease to exist as a person in the eyes of far too many. You become a kind of object rather than an individual deserving of basic courtesies. Yet if you prick us, do we not bleed?
When I worked as a waitress during college, I had plenty of delightful, respectful exchanges but there were always customers who looked upon me not as a young woman but as a kind of unfeeling, unthinking food delivery system. One of my oldest friends began her career at Continental Airlines and found the experience of serving at the check-in desk so draining and dehumanizing that she eventually fled to the farthest recesses of the back office. This put her behind a computer in an underground, fluorescent-lit tomb. It was, she said, "Vastly better than having to deal with The Public."
Another friend, who temped as a secretary at a paralegal agency during law school, was able to get a measure of revenge against the rudesters who swaggered in. When an applicant treated her badly, she'd quietly mention it to her employers. And they would quietly throw out the person's resume.
Still, you'd think the public -- we, the public -- could do better.
"I'm thinking of putting up a sign," my son's business partner said recently. She had just finished her shift at the snack bar during which she had the following exchange:
Customer: "Gimme popsicle."
Girl behind counter: "I'm sorry, we're out of popsicles. Is there something else I can get you?"
Customer (with exaggerated enunciation, to get it into girl's thick head): "Pop ... si ... cle?"
"My sign will read: No Manners, No Service," she said. "If I decide to put it up."
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.