It was during the summer of that year, 1982, while I was busy peeling labels that the New York legislators were busy enacting a bottle-redemption law. All of a sudden, overnight (at least it seemed that way to the harried management at Waldbaum's Store #101) our supermarket was forced to act as a bottle-redemption center and, as a result, overnight, I was forced by the aforementioned, harried management to become the store's Bottle Girl.
As Bottle Girl, it was my job - in between the inexplicable label peeling - to receive "empties." For every "empty" a customer handed me, I handed them a nickel.
I could see them, the store's customers, before they could see me. I'd stand at the dutch door separating the back office from the main market, my box of nickels in a cardboard box, and I would know instantly who was going to veer left to shop and who was going to veer right with their empties.
For the most part it was not a wholly disagreeable job. I liked the people, helping them and chatting with them, and before long I had a series of "regulars". These regulars - usually older couples who found my high, bleached hair and enthusiasm for bottle-collecting endearing - would bring me just-because presents and souvenirs from their Caribbean vacations. "To the Bottle Girl" cards would read on top of carefully-wrapped Bruce Springsteen records and Abalone-shell bracelets.
Life as the Bottle Girl went on like this until one day, toward the end of one of my shifts, a man I had never seen before walked through the automated doors. I watched him, confused, unable to figure out which way he should go.
He stared ahead, then made his way to my door, his expression icy cold. One by one, he put his empties on my small counter, hitting it harder each time, staring ahead, a face of stone.
(Even as I smiled and kibbitzed with all my customers, somewhere in me I always knew how my job as Bottle Girl could be perceived: a lower-middle class teenager with a schizophrenic mother accepting people's dirty bottles. But none of my interactions had ever roused this bear of insecurity, not until this man walked in and woke it up ferociously.)
I smiled at the man, but got nothing in return. I tried saying "thank you" with each bottle he banged down, the glass vibrating from the pounding against the counter. No response. When he had no more bottles, he barked at me for his money, and something in me just broke.
"Why are you being so mean to me?" I asked, a mixture of fear and shame and sadness choking my words.
He shook his head, staring, never really looking at me. "I'm a police officer. I'm a police officer, and I shot someone today. I think I killed them. I came here... I just wanted to do something normal, to feel normal."
It wasn't me after all. It wasn't my schizophrenic mother or the fact that I lived in an apartment. It wasn't that I redeemed dirty bottles. I wasn't even there.
One by one I handed him his nickels, softly laying them in his hand. "I'm sorry," I said.
"I'm sorry," he said in reply, to me, to the man he shot, to the Universe, before walking out the automated doors, unsure which way to go.