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facts & arguments

Bureaucracy trumps common decency when Karen Jones takes her dad shopping on Remembrance Day

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I've started shopping with my 90-year-old father at the big box store he likes. My dad, a Second World War veteran, still drives, lives alone and prizes his independence. I can't suggest he might need help shopping, even though I know he finds it difficult to navigate the store, let alone the parking lot. He's too proud for that. But I can tell him that I'd like to pick some things up and maybe I could drive us. He will agree to go together, if it's to help me.

On Remembrance Day last year, we arrived at 10 a.m. with a plan to be home by 11 to watch the services being broadcast from Ottawa.

As we enter the store, we make our way through the electronics section first. He nudges me and pulls a piece of folded white paper out of his pocket. At the bottom of his neatly written list it says "67 cents each."

"That's the price per unit of my supplement. I brought my calculator," he tells me, patting his coat pocket and smiling. "I'm going to figure out if it's a better deal."

I leave him with his cart to gather the other three items on his list. Having lived through the Depression, his "stocking up" mentality remains intact and he loves adding to his stash of toilet paper, Bran Flakes cereal and Irish Spring soap.

I get a few items too in the 30 minutes we have until his ankles bother him and standing becomes difficult. We meet at the pharmacy, where he's adding his supplements to the cart, having calculated that they are, in fact, a better deal.

At the cash, my dad gets his membership card out and I insert my debit card to pay. We've agreed to pay this way and settle up at home.

"Why are you paying?" the cashier asks. "You're not the member. Do you have a membership?"

"Ah, no. My dad is the member but we're shopping together. These are both our items and I'm paying for all of it."

"You can't do that. You're not the member. We can't do debit from non-members. If you have cash you can pay."

I feel flustered and turn to my dad, "Do you have cash?"

He searches through his small black wallet, his hands a bit shaky. He always carries cash and only one or two cards. He hands me the cash to count. I thumb through it, shake my head. Not enough to cover the more than $200 bill.

"Here, I think this is my debit card," he says, handing her a card.

"No, that's a Visa card. We don't take Visa. It has to have the interact symbol on it, not a Visa," she says to me, instead of speaking directly to him.

"Yes, I know," I say. "I get it. He doesn't have one. Can't I just pay please?"

"We don't pay for the Interac fees for non-members. We get charged when you use the debit machine and you're not a member."

"Look, I understand the policy. In the future we'll bring more cash. Right now though, I have a debit card and can pay." I try and stay calm.

She stands there glaring. "We can't cover the Interac fees for a non-member."

She waves a manager over who tells me the policy again. I calmly acknowledge that I understand and explain our situation, pointing out my elderly father to the manager, who at this point is getting tired standing.

"You can only pay if you are a member, so you can get a membership now."

"Okay, fine," I say, just wanting it resolved before the pained look on my dad's face gets worse.

"What's happening? What's wrong?" my dad asks, looking confused as we are escorted to the membership desk like criminals. I'm fuming. Do they not see my 90-year-old dad – the one wearing the hearing aids, wool flat cap and sporting a bright red poppy on his blue golf jacket? Do they not realize it's Remembrance Day?

"I'm just going to get my own card dad, it's okay. It'll just take a sec."

I robotically go to the counter as an announcement comes over the loud speaker, something about an upcoming minute of silence.

"You can come around and do your picture," the membership person says.

"Fine." And I walk behind the desk.

"Smile!" she says.

And then I lose it.

"I'm not smiling. I don't even want this #@%#s* card. I bring my dad here to shop. You're ready to give your store's minute of silence to remember the veterans. Well, there's a veteran that you've just been treating like crap for the last 15 minutes. Is this how you treat people?"

"I'm so sorry," the woman behind the counter says, "Look, let me go get the manager."

"No, don't bother," I say, walking away from the counter now, "the manager is the one who had us escorted over here."

I head toward my dad who sees I'm upset.

"What's wrong?" he asks.

"Oh, I just don't like how they handled this," I tell him. I'm ready to cry or swear more, I don't know which and try and keep it together.

He waves his hand, "Ah, they're a big American company – no compassion. Don't let them bother you," and he turns to push his cart toward the exit. I'm surprised and somewhat relieved by his response. With age has come an ability to let things go that used to upset him, especially things he doesn't have control over. I find myself calming down a bit and then I hear the loudspeaker announcing the moment of silence. Suddenly, everyone is standing still.

"What's happening? Why is everyone just standing here now?"

"It's a moment of silence," I say, "for Remembrance Day."

"Oh? We've missed the program then." He reaches up to take off his flat cap, holding it to his chest.

"Yeah," I say and stand there quietly next to him, putting my hand on his arm.

Karen Jones lives in Toronto.