Saturday, June 24, 2006


Working at a small store in a smallish town, I have the opportunity to see customers on a weekly basis. And being the sort of closet analyist that I am, I like to try my hand at learning something about who these people are. There are some things you can learn from a person's reading preferences. One guy who mainly buys Civil War histories is a reenactor, who's actually an extra on more than one History Channel documentary. Another, who buys mainly Boy Scout manuals, is predictably a Troop Leader. One guy managed to confuse me for over a year. He'd show up like clockwork each week wearing the exact same low-key outfit; his hair was always cut very very close to his head and never seemed to vary in length, and he'd always spend right at 50.00. He never spoke during that year and the books he bought were all over the place. I imagined him a monkish type with a passion for knowledge and a deliberately simple lifestyle. Once we got him talking though, he blew all my assumptions. He was a pastry chef, was trying to teach himself German, and had a really unexpected annoying laugh.

One thing for which I seem to tune into though is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It's not hard to spot when you know what you're looking for, although the people who have it are quite adept at trying to hide their quirks. They'll usually distract you with corny jokes, an overabundance of small talk, or normal sounding excuses. After having dated a guy with an extreme case of OCD, as well as overcoming some mild symptoms of my own, I feel I'm more attuned to the signs.

There are three main forms that OCD takes, the checkers, the ritualists, and the germophobes. I was a ritualist. My rituals, while annoying, were mainly centered around putting things back in the right place (or bad things would happen). I'd also assign bad luck or good luck to pieces of jewelry or clothing based on my experiences while wearing them. A bad pair of earrings might never again see the light of day.
A checker, on the other hand, can never truly be confident that on is on and off is off. They are compelled to keep flipping switches, setting alarm clocks, and the oil level in their car until some illogical sense of completion or assurance is achieved.

One of my customers falls into the third category; that of the germophobe. Think of the character on Monk. He comes into the store and heads straight for the bathroom to wash his hands. Once he brings the books to the counter, he likes to make sure that I touch them minimally to get the price, and then wraps each book in two plastic bags sealed with tape. This went on for some time under the guise of "humidity and moisture damage", but one night, sensing I was a bit exasperated, he confessed that he had a problem with OCD. My exasperation hadn't been so much with the corrective procedures, but with the farce that he had been keeping up. We now have a good open understanding and I think he feels more comfortable asking for what he needs.

Another customer has trouble leaving the store. I'm not sure how much his movement through the store is dictated by OCD, but it's pretty obvious when he tries to leave.
He goes through a long drawn-out verbal interaction with both our store cats; has to track them both down and talk with and pet them. Then he goes out the door. Only to return and pretend he forgot to check on something. Then he leaves again empty handed. Then he comes back in. Sometimes he lingers just outside the door and fingers the handle for a moment. He usually gets it right after no more than three re-entrys. Once he's set, he's off like a shot to his car. I like to imagine he's trying to escape the evil pull of the store door.

I had one guy go into a hissy tirade when I put a bookmark inside his book and another eccentric always arrives wearing headphones and keeps them on during his entire visit. Yet another customer keeps ten check-books and ten pens under his sweater and chooses which ones to use based on a system only he understands.

So it makes me wonder sometimes; is the person that I just think of as an extensive browser instead actually "trapped" in the store? Did the person who bought a particular book buy it because they wanted it or because they were compelled to buy it? Is the person who's been browsing the outside books for over an hour in 90 degree heat doing so because they love a bargain or because the conditions haven't yet been met under which they can enter the store?


jon said...

wow. That's a really cool story. I didn't realize there were that many truly ocd people around.

When I was in college, I remember having a few symptoms - checking and rechecking the alarm clock or coffee pot or whatever, but they were really mild & went away at some point (now I think it'd be nice if I forgot to set the alarm, and I don't drink coffee).

The guy having trouble leaving? Unbelievable.

mohney said...

i once had a customer who was functional, but had obvious problems.

we keep promotional posters on the walls, and terribly bored, i had taken pains to color coordinate one entire wall--it was my blue period.

my customer walked in, saw the wall, and immediately judged it a horrible idea. insects--spiders, mostly--like blue, lord, that particular shade, especially. they're drawn to it, you know, and they (presumably great hordes of them) will set up residence behind the posters. and what was i thinking doing that, anyway? didn't i know?

poor guy, he seemed genuinely panicked. he'd edge up to the wall like a child mustering the courage to face the monster in his closet. there were never any spiders, but he was always sure there soon would be. i changed the displays as soon as i could.

perhaps at home he has tremendous stacks of books about every imaginable type of insect and how to exterminate them.