Leave the Empty Cash Drawer Open

Today I came out to my car to find the center armrest cubby open. The glovebox was open too. My roll of gaffer’s tape and an opened package of light bulbs I keep in the compartment were sitting on the passenger seat. There wasn’t a sound as I surveyed the scene. Somebody had rummaged through the car, looking for anything valuable, and didn’t take time to tidy up. Good thing I don’t keep anything more valuable than an old roll of tape in my car. I learned a lot about security; keeping important things safe and unimportant things easily accessible, at North Hill Foods when I was growing up.

Dad taught me about security when he trained me in on closing duties. I was nine years old when he taught me how to close the store and shut down the cash registers. It was late one Sunday evening. Sunday was the busiest day of the week for us; we were all tired and relieved to make it to the end of the day. Only a few customers were still shopping, and I could hear the store music playing when dad started my training.

First, he showed me how to lock the doors. He took out a big yellow key, the biggest one I’d ever seen. It jingled against the many other keys on the ring. He slotted it into the lock and gave it two great big turns. The bolt made a deep double clunking sound as it slid into place. He then unlocked it, which was just as noisy, and had me give it a try. The bolt action was much too heavy for my nine-year-old hands. I realized closing the store took a lot of strength.

We locked the doors fifteen minutes before closing time. “We’re closing early” I asked? That hardly seemed fair; there were still customers in the place. Dad explained that we’d stop letting customers in before the actual closing time but still give the customers already in the store time to finish their shopping and check out. “We’ll still be working even after closing time” dad said, “but this way it won’t be too late.” I marveled at the idea that closing time didn’t mean we were done working when we locked the doors.

Dad then began showing me how to shut down the cash registers. We had three check-stands plus one quick-check; something modern grocery stores would call a Customer Service counter. He started with till number three, which was sort of my till. It was the register I ran when the store became busy during the after-church lunch rush on Sunday mornings. Otherwise, it wasn’t needed and had sat there silently the rest of the day. I wonder now if he didn’t leave it running ‘till closing time on purpose. He must’ve been planning to train me in on the process all day.

He walked up to the register and I jumped up on the counter to watch. He took out another key, the tiniest little silver key I’d ever seen. He clicked it into place, pressed buttons in a certain combination. The register surprised me by springing it’s drawer open  with a ring of it’s bell and starting the loudest chattering I’d ever heard. It was so loud and went on so long, I was sure the machine had lost control of itself. I wanted to put my hands over my ears, but dad acted as if the noise was perfectly normal. On and on it chattered, making the longest receipt I’d ever seen. Closing the till didn’t sound normal at all.

I struggled to make myself heard; “what’s happening?” Dad explained over the noise that the till was giving him a record of the day’s transactions. Even while the report printed, buzzing and clicking the whole time, he continued working. He pulled out the money tray and picked up the coupons from the bottom of the drawer. Carefully he placed them on top of the cash and secured them in place with the spring-loaded clip in the ten’s compartment.

I was relieved when the printing finally finished. He reached up and gave the ribbon a quick tug with a twist of his wrist. It cam loose with a tiny little ripping sound; the little metal teeth cutting easily through the paper. He then rolled the long ribbon loosely onto itself a couple times and put it in with the cash and coupons. Finally, he turned the till completely off with a twist of the little silver key and pulled it out. The register just sat there, dark and silent, not to be used until next week. He then led me up to the office. But I‘d noticed he forgot something. Surprisingly, he hadn’t closed the cash drawer.

I gazed at the till over my shoulder as we walked away. The empty cash drawer sat open, even lazily sliding a bit further open as we crossed the floor and went upstairs to the little loft-like office. Why did he leave it open? Did he forget? I thought about the open drawer all the while we were putting the money away.

Dad led me up to the office and crouched down to the surprisingly small black safe, which rested on the floor. It was just big enough inside for the four cash trays to rest on top of each other, the reserve change, and a small stack of fives and ones. The safe sat there silently, hidden in the back of the office. Despite its size, the door was heavy as he swung it wide open. He had to tip the tray precariously to fit it into the darkness and the coins slid noisily as they shifted position, threatening to spill. But all I could think about was the open cash drawer on till number three downstairs.

Even at nine years old, I was already cashiering. Leaving the till drawer open was against all the rules. Never leave the drawer open; never turn your back on an open till; make sure it is closed all the way before starting the next transaction. Don’t let anyone reach into the drawer; maintain security at all times. I was surprised by dad’s lapse, even if there wasn’t money inside anymore. I noted to myself that I wouldn’t make that mistake when it was my turn.

Dad swung the safe door closed and locked it. The heavy door gave a dull squeak and a low thud as it shut. The bolts gave a snick-clunk as they slid into place. After we’d secured the money, we went back down to close till number two. This time, I’d watch more closely and do some of the work. I would also have a chance to correct his mistake, I thought.

Dad had me stand on an empty milk crate. I got a closer look at the little silver key this time and marveled that something so small controlled something so important. He showed me the combination of keystrokes to start the report. Again, the loud chattering started. Even though I knew it was coming, the noise startled me. I imagined that it made so much noise because it was printing such big numbers. Dad left me in charge and he crossed over to check stand one and started to close it too. Soon both machines were chattering, and the noise doubled, but I too acted as if it were normal. I was getting ready to make my move.

All alone at register two, I repeated the steps just as I had been shown, keeping in mind the moment I was going to do my own thing. Even while the chattering and clattering continued, I pulled out the cash tray. I found the tray was much heavier than it looked as I lifted it from the frame. As I tipped the tray up to pull it out, the coins made that now familiar sliding noise as they all shifted position. I was terrified they’d all spill out, but the tray was deep, and I was careful.

Dad was busy with his own till as I completed the process. Carefully I put the tray on the counter and collected the coupons from underneath. I even tore and rolled the ribbon of paper just like I’d been shown, careful not to fold it, but just give it a couple of loops, and put it with the cash. I clicked the key to the off position and pulled it out. The till was silent. This was my moment. I triumphantly slid the drawer closed, relishing the sound of the little wheels turning, anticipating the triumphant crash it usually made when closed after each transaction.

I was disappointed because closing it now didn’t sound right. The till had always crashed closed because the change inside gave a collective jump from the inertia when it locked into place. But this time it was empty. I was expecting the usual sound but was disappointed when it didn’t happen. It was such a different sound without the coins, an empty and sad click and lock. I stood there on the milk crate, looking at the closed and silent till in puzzlement.

“Don’t close it,” dad said from across the counter. Too late now, I thought; it was locked and off until tomorrow. “Why not” I asked? I couldn’t imagine he really wanted it left open. I was also a little worried. It was off, and in my child’s mind, couldn’t be turned back on until the next day. How would we get it open again?

“Because, if a burglar makes it into the store at night,” dad said, “he won’t break the till open only to find no money in it.” He said it matter-of-factly, as if he were talking about the weather instead of a burglary. “Then I’d have a broken door and a broken cash register, all for no reason.” The money was so important to my child’s mind, I didn’t even think of all the groceries that could be stolen. “So we leave it open” he continued, “to tell him its empty. I only lock what I need to,” he finished.

I struggled to understand a hypothetical conversation with no words between dad and a would-be burglar. As a child, I didn’t have any of that vocabulary, wouldn’t understand any of those terms, but slowly came to understand the concept anyway. After a bit of thinking, I got the point. Following his chain of thought, I asked “but he’ll just go and get the money out of the office, won’t he?”

“He doesn’t know where the safe is,” dad said confidently. “Even if he finds it, he can’t get it open.” This was a new kind of thinking. Of course, it was all new to me: opening and running the store, cleaning and stocking the aisles, closing and securing the doors. Being prepared for a possible burglary with layers and layers of security never entered my mind.

Lock only what you needed is an idea and a principle I carried forward from that day. If there’s no money in it, don’t lock it. You don’t want a thief to have to break into your stuff only to find nothing of value. Keep important things secure from casual thievery. Of course, because of the lesson of the till drawer, I don’t keep anything valuable in my car, other than a few pens, a roll of tape, and one or two trinkets; nothing I’d miss, anyway. Well, I’d miss the gaffer’s tape.

Scot Sorrells, October, 2020

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