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Don't expect to find civility at the mall these days

Civility is going the way of circle pins and knickers. A civil exchange in public is so uncommon these days that when one occurs, it becomes an event worthy of dinner conversation. It's not clear when civilized behavior began its sad stumble into extinction, but anyone who ventures into a store risks becoming the target for some clerk's personal angst.

Forget politeness. According to my dictionary, polite is several notches above civil and suggests "polish of speech and manners." We'd welcome good manners even if they came with barely literate speech. As to courteous: Dream on. Once we get to the realm of courtesy, we are talking an active attempt at considerate politeness. It may be that the only people left in the United States capable of courteous behavior are Southerners older than a certain age.

Short of relocating to the Deep South, or employers requiring an immersion course in courtesy for anyone who works with the public, we'll have to brace ourselves whenever we cross the threshold of one of those cavernous shopping emporiums largely filled with items no one really needs.

Buying stuff is hard enough for those of us who hate to shop, but returning something is almost certain to be a nightmare. Pillows are not among the things one expects to return, but after waking up each morning for a month with a painful neck, it seemed pretty obvious I'd either have to take them back or get used to ibuprofen as a breakfast food.

Anyone who knows anything about shopping knows you don't buy pillows at Macy's. The pillows are overpriced, and there are better selections at other stores. But stupid actions bring annoying consequences, I was reminded.

I try to return the pillows, and the clerk--oops, sales associate--asks me if I have a receipt.

Well, no, but I paid with a Macy's credit card, so you have a record of it, I tell her in the naïve belief this will settle the matter. That's when she gets all, "I have to find my manager" huffy and stalks off. She returns with a young woman who asks me if I'm sure I got them at Macy's. Neither she nor her underling had made any move to actually swipe my card and find the answer to that question. But they did suggest that either a) I could not distinguish between Macy's and some "lesser" store, or b) I was so addle-brained I had no idea where I was, or c) I thought buying pillows at, say, Target and returning them to Macy's was the height of petty-scam sophistication.

Despite my tear-out-someone's-throat inclinations, I resist the uncivil urgings stemming from my now-awakened reptilian brain and remain calm, even when the underling scolds me for not having the original wrapping, thus making it more difficult to sell the pillows again. Since used pillows provide the bonus of mysterious cooties and microscopic dead skin (and God knows what else) at no additional charge, either the clerk was wrong, or Macy's is peddling second-hand pillows as new.

Eventually, I get credit for the returns, but not before repeatedly asking them to simply swipe my card to get all the information they need. By the time I leave the store, I'm thinking the day can only get better. Which proves, for the gazillionth time, one should never assume anything.

Though I'd rather buy food from a street vendor in a country with no sewage system than from a mall food court, I meet my husband at Barf Place, excuse me, Park Place, and order Greek food and a cola. I take a sip of the soda and gag: It's diet. I avoid diet everything. Low fat, no fat and "lite" rank only a notch below bubonic plague on the scale of things I choose to avoid.

I politely inquire if the soda is diet, and the young woman behind the counter confirms it is. But I didn't order diet, I say, and attempt to hand her the cup. At this point, she looks at me as if I were green slime oozing my way out from under a rock. She replaces the drink, but not before a few tense seconds while she looks at the cup and, from the look on her face, tries to make up her mind if she should replace it or throw it at me.

Everyone I know has shopping horror stories. I worked in retail several lifetimes ago, and I understand it is not the greatest, but if that's where circumstances lead you, make the best of it. If working conditions suck, take it up with your boss, or the corporate office, or start a union or picket line. But leave your attitude and personal dramas at the door, and at least pretend to be civil.

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