Rediscovering life's beer necessities

Gene Weingarten on

WASHINGTON -- I went into a local liquor store to buy some beer. It's one of those inner-city places -- clean and well-lit, but the staff works behind bulletproof glass and everyone seems a bit wary of everyone else.

As I was paying for the beer, I remembered that when I got home from my previous trip to that store and checked my receipt, I discovered they had undercharged me by about $6. So I mentioned that to the cashier and asked him to add six bucks to my bill.

This seemed to confuse him. Behind the counter, there was much conversation, some of it in broken English. They checked my credit number, checked their records. Blinks. Finally, a triumphant cry. Aha!

Yes, they informed me solemnly, there had indeed been an error. Their tone was ... apologetic. "This has never happened before," a guy assured me.

No, I said, you undercharged me. I am not angry or complaining.

But it turns out I had misunderstood what they were telling me. What they were telling me was that no one had ever come back to correct an undercharge. This was apparently unprecedented!

Everyone was grinning now.

The owner, a pleasant, middle-aged Asian woman -- an immigrant -- pointed theatrically toward an Asian man beside her. "It his fault," she tattled.

"Well, then you'll just have to fire him," I deadpanned.

"I can't," she said, with a tragic frown. "HE MY HUSBAND."


Now everyone was laughing. Even other customers.

I am not a goody two-shoes. If I got home and realized I had been undercharged by $6 in, say, Whole Foods, I suspect I would not bother to correct it, for two reasons: (1) It's an overpriced luxury store that can well absorb the paltry loss, and (2) in all likelihood, chain retail establishments overcharge us more than they undercharge us, and keeping the bucks this time would be a small adjustment of justice. (I may well be rationalizing dishonesty, but it's how I feel.)

This, however, was a small, friendly family-run business, a neighbor of mine, and to me that changed the moral calculus completely.

Anyhow, the festivities behind the counter were continuing. The owner disappeared into the back and came out with a beautiful etched-glass whiskey tumbler, a promotional item from Knob Creek rye. It had to be worth considerably more than the $6 in question. She pressed it into my hands. I must accept it, she said, to commemorate this moment.

It had been quite a moment, actually. I left with my glass, grinning. Mutual civility delivers a tangible, visceral joy. I've been missing that feeling for the longest time.


Gene Weingarten can be reached at Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at

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