My husband, Tom Robinson, and I live in a wonderful neighborhood with a variety of shops that carry a variety of specialized items we like. So when I go shopping, I often visit three or four grocery stores, plus a pharmacy. Over the years, I’ve made friends with several check-out clerks who have stayed at their jobs.

Check-out clerks don’t stay long at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, but they do at Piedmont Grocery and the Grand Avenue Safeway. I make a point of learning their names, they recognize me (though they surely see hundreds of people every week), they learn and remember my name. Often I learn a bit about them and their families. It makes the shopping-for-groceries experience a little more personal. For me and hopefully for them. Over the years, I’ve befriended several grocery checkers until they’ve retired.

I know very well that grocery check-out clerks have an unglamorous, mind-numbing, boring job. Most shoppers treat them like automatons. They have to touch lots of stuff. They have to touch paper money, which is very dirty and can cause a skin irritation or an eye infection. A clerk whom I knew (a Filipina who went from black hair to white) usually wore plastic gloves and often a brace on her wrist for carpal tunnel syndrome.

A new late twentyish early thirtyish clerk showed up at Safeway about a year-and-a-half ago. She’s still there, which is a record for check-out clerks these days. I did my usual—catching her eye, smiling a friendly smile, saying hi, asking how she was. She’s Hispanic with long dark brown hair she sometimes wears up in a bun. She wears eyeliner on her brown eyes and sometimes a gold-tone necklace of praying hands on a chain.

And, to all appearances, she HATES her job. Always in a bad mood. Always a scowl, always bored out of her mind, never responding in any way to my friendly overtures (or anyone else’s). If she doesn’t have a bagger helping her out, never bagging the groceries.

Which, technically, check-out clerks are supposed to do. I mean, I don’t work for Safeway or Whole Foods. I’m there to spend high prices for food and goods and, yes, I expect service from their paid staff. (I sent an email to Whole Foods about an especially hostile and abusive check-out clerk; WF acknowledged that was part of the job of the check-out clerk, to bag the groceries if a staff-paid bagger wasn’t at hand; WF sent me a twenty-five dollar gift coupon after my complaint. But that’s another story.)

One time—and this was a slow day, there weren’t scores of customers to deal with—the scowling Safeway check-out clerk literally threw a package of toilet tissue at me across the card-swiping stand. I’d just spent over a hundred dollars, I was in a bad mood, and I threw the toilet tissue into my shopping cart. The store manager hurried over and asked, “Is something wrong?” I said, “You better improve your customer service or I won’t spend money here anymore.”

After that, I avoided her check-out stand. I’d rather wait in a longer line than deal with a hostile clerk. I maintained that policy until the last time I shopped at Safeway when everything changed.

Now. A few years ago, I developed a skin irritation on my back. Neither witch hazel nor calamine lotion helped. What did help was medicated talcum powder, which healed me right up. Then I saw the Internet news that a woman was suing the talcum powder company because she had ovarian cancer and she claimed the talcum powder was to blame. It turns out that talcum powder may contain traces of asbestos, an extremely carcinogenic substance.

There had been a decades-long class-action lawsuit by war workers who had worked in the World War II shipyards, installing asbestos in the warships as anti-fire protection (it’s very good for that), and who had contracted lung cancer. The big law firms representing the war industries (I worked at one of those firms as an associate attorney, so I saw some of the documentation) sought to prove the war workers had gotten lung cancer because they smoked tobacco. Not because they’d breathed, without face masks, dust from the panels of asbestos they’d installed in the warships.

The talcum powder plaintiff won her lawsuit for millions of dollars. The talcum powder company appealed; the appellate court overturned the verdict. The plaintiff’s attorneys have appealed that decision but, in the meantime, the plaintiff had died of her ovarian cancer.

I stopped using the medicated talcum powder at once, even though I loved it, and switched to what is a new product offered by the talcum powder company in the wake of the much publicized court case (which is still undecided as far as I know). Pure cornstarch baby powder, with Vitamin E and aloe. This is a truly wonderful product, so silky and fragrant. I love powdering my back, feet, and other body parts after a shower, which dries any residual moisture and thus prevents skin irritations.

I usually buy baby powder at my local pharmacy but that day—the day everything changed—I found this product at the Safeway. (Since the stiff competition from Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Sprouts in my neighborhood, the Grand Avenue Safeway has just gotten better and better.)

I bought the baby powder. I also bought two packages of cuetips, since they were on sale, two for one, and I go through a lot of cuetips. I bought our usual Safeway groceries—vegetarian meat substitutes that are totally delicious, low-fat yogurt salad dressings, three-color coleslaw, a package of toilet tissue—and went to the check-out counters to spend another hundred bucks.

There were only two fifteen-items-only counters open and the hostile clerk’s.

So, okay. One more time. I was not going to let this ruin my day. I caught her eye, I smiled, I said hi. I handed her my two L.L. Bean canvas shopping bags and she swiped my purchases through. Then she got to the baby powder and, after that, the two packages of cuetips.

Suddenly, her eyes flew up at me and she said, “Why don’t they want you to use cuetips?”

It took me a second or two to process that and then I said, “You mean for cleaning ears?”

She said, “Yes!”

I said, “Well, some people jam them too far into the ear canal. That could potentially damage your eardrum.”

She nodded gravely, still fixing her eyes on mine. “I just took my daughter to the doctor. She’s got a lot of gunk in there. It’s ugly, I don’t like it. But the doctor told me, ‘Don’t use cuetips.’”

I said, “Hmm! I guess the doctor doesn’t trust you to clean your daughter’s ears carefully. Just be careful, don’t jam the cuetip in too far, clean the gunk out, and you and she should be fine.”

Relief flooded her face and she said, “Thank you.” I reached for the package of toilet tissue to pack it in one of my bags and she said, “No, no. I’ll service this for you.” She carefully packed my groceries in my two bags and carried them around the end of the check-out counter (they were heavy!) to my shopping cart.

I thanked her, she earnestly thanked me, and I pushed the cart out to my car, marveling over the miraculous transformation of Sandra (Safeway printed out her name on my receipt. I will remember it).

What had happened to change this woman’s behavior toward me, her perception of me?

The baby powder said I was helping a woman take care of a baby and the two packages of cuetips completed the image of a care-giver. I obviously don’t have a baby of my own, so I was helping my daughter, who had a boring, mind-numbing job and a baby who needed her ears cleaned.

Inside of two seconds, Sandra imagined this new story about me, this new image of me, and created her new attitude toward me. She imagined who I was and that image made her suddenly connect with me in a way she hadn’t done before. There she was, earnestly asking my advice about taking care of her baby daughter across a grocery store conveyor belt.

I hadn’t sought out this connection. It had happened randomly, fortuitously. I couldn’t have made that happen if I’d tried. Because I didn’t know the facts of the situation. What would change Sandra’s mind about me. And usually in marketing, in trying to connect with customers, with readers, you don’t know who they are. What pushes their friendly button. Their buy-button. Their loyalty button.

This is from an article in the AdWeek of April 30, 2018, “Smart brands will think about ways to capitalize on the relationship opportunity to drive loyalty.”

WTF does that mean? you and I are saying. That’s ad-speak for all I’ve described to you above. Ad-people make a full-time living—and movie marketers and book marketers—trying to figure out how to connect with people, to lure them into buying products, movies, books. By connecting with the baby-powder effect.

Here’s the problem! No one really knows—I didn’t know—what the effect is until you stumble upon it. Publishers exhort writers to connect with their audience, with their readers. To identify what your audience wants and write for them. If you’re a woman writing formula romance or a man writing space-opera science fiction, I suppose that task—identifying your audience and writing to their expectations—is fairly easy.

But I’m a woman writing idiosyncratic, character-driven speculative fiction, both of the science-fictional variety, fantasy, and urban fantasy. I’m an old-school feminist, which basically means I believe in equal pay for equal work. That women should be respected, their thoughts and opinions should be given equal consideration as men’s. I’ve written elaborate time-travels that mash-up far-future projections with exhaustively researched historical periods. I usually have Something To Say—not preachy, I hope—but observational. Insightful. Sometimes political. But don’t be too sure you know what the politics are. I’m an independent thinker, going way back. I don’t march to any party’s orders. I like to challenge conventional thought.

How do you or I utilize the baby-powder effect? It was random, accidental, coincidental. A minor miracle but, in the end, I just don’t know. I’ll tell you this, though. When I go shopping at Safeway again? I’ll seek out Sandra’s counter, I’ll catch her eye, smile, and call her by her name, and I’ll ask if she tried using a cuetip to carefully clean out her daughter’s ears. I’m looking forward to her answer.

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