Pity? Disgust? Mockery? It's one of those ethical gray areas for me.
Today, we waited on the Fishy family. Mrs. Fishy is usually very nice, organized, and would be pleasant to talk to... if it weren't for the stench. She's not our Cat Pee Lady (and every store has at least one, I know). If it were just Cat Pee, I could take it. Nor do I know how her medical conditions may affect her ability to take care of herself. I'm also unsure of her husband's and mother's abilities to address matters of personal hygiene. But what I do know is that the aroma wafting off of these people is entirely unlike anything I've ever smelled from a human body living or dead.
Know that street person we've all seen in some huge city with an almost visible cloud of urine and body odor seeping into the sidewalk on which the unfortunate person sits, the stains of the past 3 month's dumpster-diving adventures adorning an Army surplus coat like morbid medals of horror?
That bum would notice this couple coming from 15' away and pack up and leave before they arrive.
I've finally pinpointed the best comparison to their particular eau de "soap is available in aisle 14, and for the love of God it's on special this week": nam bplah, aka: Thai Fish Sauce, which consists of anchovies or sardines fermented in salt water in the sun for months at a time, then strained, bottled, and sold to the unsuspecting Western public as something yummy for making Curried Chicken and Stir-fried Noodles (until you take a whiff of it and perform olfactory electrolysis on your nose hair).
And it *lingers*. Ten minutes after they'd left the counter today, another customer commented on how horrible the pharmacy smelled and asked if we'd spilled some kind of chemical. I had to tell her no, sorry, it was related to a previous transaction but it should clear out soon. On three separate occasions, I've had to turn away from these people and reach for a HIPPA box, garbage can, or in one case an open prescription drawer, in case the gagging from the odor turned into a public technicolor yawn.
That, of course, makes waiting on this family difficult at the best of times, but topping it is the familial difficulty with cleaning their clothes, washing their hair, or removing built up, caked on body soil from their skin... and wearing sleeveless, strapless, revealing clothing in public.
The kicker? The wife also sports a very impressive growth of beard, I'm assuming as part of some kind of medical condition. Half of the freshmen boys at Local High School are probably jealous... or would be if they stuck around long enough to see it.
I realize, reading through this, that someone has probably chuckled, and more than a few in the medical field are nodding with unpleasant memories, but what made me really start to think about our collective attitude toward this particular family-- and the difficult patients of their type across the board-- was what I saw from another set of customers today. The first is a common reaction that pharmacy staff have laughed about on more than one occasion:
Child sees and smells The Fishys.
Child looks at parent before looking back at The Fishys.
Child asks to be allowed to get something off the grocery list/go play in the toy aisle, go to the bathroom, or just flat out says "Mommy? Why does that lady smell so bad?" or "I thought you said only Men grow beards Dad?"
Children, the prevailing attitude seems to be, can be excused for those types of comments because they, unlike adults, don't always know to bite their tongue for the sake of preserving someone else's feelings or avoiding insult.
But: while The Fishys were talking to their favorite (strong stomached) technician after their transaction was completed today, another customer walked by taking pictures of them on her cell phone. This girl could have been 15, she could have been 25; it was hard to tell. But the behavior reminded me of what people do at a county fair, walking through the barns and realizing that "Those rabbits over there are doing it" or "Hey, that horse has wood!"
What bothers me, I think, is that once I stopped to think about it, The Fishys are treated by everyone I see interact with them in the store like some kind of circus side show act. Google search "The Bearded Lady" and what pops up? Dozens of circus "freak" and side show references. Is that necessary? Is it fair? Is it right?
Part of me says "Of course not. It's degrading and shouldn't be tolerated," just like spitting on customer service workers shouldn't be allowed either.
But then there's the other part of me, who has waited on this woman with a cheerful smile on my face for over a year b/c it's far easier to breathe through my mouth when they're at the counter, that thinks "They have to freakin' know! My god, how could they not?" Small children do not run away gagging from just *anybody* in the grocery store. Teenagers don't usually giggle and whip out their camera phones saying "Holy shit, dude, we need to send this to Tyler!" and "Fuck, man, the smell!" when a regular mom with a full shopping cart rolls by.
Someone somewhere along the way has had to make Mr. and Mrs. Fishy aware that their lack of hygiene has reached an unbearable level for the vast majority of the public. And yet... they do nothing about it. Do they enjoy the notoriety of it? Or do they simply not care that, as nice and kind and helpful as everyone in the store tries to be, they are almost without exception derided and pitied behind their backs after every shopping trip? These kinds of thoughts come from the part of me that would say something about their lack of care for themselves (and the rest of the world around them) if preserving feelings and avoiding insult wasn't often the only way to keep a public service job. Which leads me to think that their doctors probably can't say anything and expect to keep them as patients/not be sued. Their family members who may have tried and probably care might even find it too difficult to bring up.
But is that really something that we, even as awfully as we're treated in the course of a day, should joke about? Or is it part of the fodder for the gallows humor that lets Pharmacist Charming and Mama Bear get back out of bed the next morning and roll into a place they really can't stand to face another day?