My first job was scooping ice cream. Normally someone would come up to the counter, tell me what they’d want, and then would stay there until we traded money for cone. The system worked fine most of the time. I could keep track of my customers fairly easily because the shop did not have high volumes of traffic, and the narrow store-front meant both limited seating for customers (most of whom promptly left) and that the servers stayed behind the counter.
At the time, I had no idea how much difficulty I really had recognising people. It had never occurred to me that there was a reason why I hardly knew anyone at school besides a few teachers. Because I didn’t really go anywhere around town, I had not really encountered the issues of not recognising familiar people outside of their familiar contexts. The narrowly-defined social worlds of my life was an effect of the faceblindness, and perpetuated my continued unawareness. I’d had inklings on previous occasions when I could not find or identify people, but lacking any way of comparing my inability to others’ abilities, my faux pas were considered to be rudeness or stupidity on my part, rather than an organic problem.
There behind the ice cream counter, I unwittingly kept track of my customers by their position at the counter, and by their shirts or hair style … which if the shop was not crowded, worked pretty well. There would be the tall guy with the crew-cut in a white cowboy shirt, the skinny girl with the afro in a glittery tank top, the big mom in a pink muu-muu with two little kids in tow, and so on. Of course I knew who got which kind of ice cream, no problem.
And then one day a softball team came in, some dozen white girls, all wearing the same jersey, and they all seemed to have their blond hair up in pony-tails. It was the most queasily-disorienting sensation, as though the same person had been multiplied (“cloned” was not yet in the public vernacular). Of course, all the girls were bouncing around changing positions to see the different flavors of ice creams, and going back and forth chattering with each other. They wouldn’t even stay put in the queue for me to keep track of them!
By the third serving, I had absolutely NO idea for whom I had just scooped, and just stood there with the cone held up in my trembling hand, “Who wanted the praline on a sugar-cone?” They all look at me with disdain, and the gal flounced up and grabbed it, and re-joined her giggling mates.
Mortified, I stared down at the lines of ice cream tubs, trying to remember the next flavor and focusing on scooping it out into a perfect ball.
I couldn’t put my finger on why, but I knew that I was uncomfortable with trying to keep track of which customers had which orders. Worse, I couldn’t figure out how everyone else knew the “regulars”, those customers that came by frequently and always got the same thing. I just figured that somehow the other ice cream shop employees knew those people from other parts of their life — that they knew them in other capacities than simply as frequent patrons whom they recognised.
It never occurred to me that it was odd that I never noticed anyone I knew when I was out shopping or running errands. When I couldn’t recognise the neighbors my mom chatted with in local shops or restaurants, I just assumed they were part of the vast horde of adults that my parents knew but I didn’t — I didn’t realise that they were people whom I should have known. I never “ran into” anyone when I was out, partly because I knew so very few people, and partly because I could not recognise them if they were “out of place” from where I was used to seeing them.
It was only a summer job and I didn’t get into social trouble very often by just keeping track of people by their shirts and haircuts. But the experience did serve to keep me away from employment in food service or retail from then on.