the last time i called someone "sir"
My first job as an adult was at a local chain gas station in a podunk town with a 4-digit population. It was right off an exit ramp of a busy interstate, so things could get very hectic, particularly on heavy travel days, right before or after holidays, etc.
Sometimes, even with both cash registers crewed, there would still be two lines back to the cooler display. Sometimes that's just the way it was. There usually wasn't a third person present to take over, so sometimes I didn't get to take breaks. I wish I knew then what I know now about labor laws. I wish I knew a lot of things. I wish I knew just how much they robbed me in the form of stolen breaks and unpaid overtime.
When you have to stand at a cash register for hours, you dissociate. I didn't know that word at the time, but that's what it was. You have to. That's the only way you can do a job like that and retain your humanity. I went into a fugue state, my mind left my body, I operated on pure muscle memory.
A short bald person with big thick glasses stepped up to the counter. An image of Mr. Magoo involuntarily popped into my head. The person dropped a few snacks and drinks on the counter. "Will that be all, sir?"
I was just following the script. That's never all. They always need to pay for gas, or want to buy cigarettes, or snuff, or lottery tickets. Unless it's a kid, of course.
The person was silent. I thought that was peculiar. They're supposed to say something. Going off-script brought me out of my fugue. I actually looked at the person. It was a teenage girl, probably only a few years younger than I was at the time. Her gaze was downcast.
She nodded, not making eye contact. I finished ringing her up. I told her the total. She handed me the money. I wordlessly finished the transaction and bagged up her items. I didn't know what I could possibly say.
What I did say was "I'm really sorry."
She was crying. "It's okay," she sobbed, quickly turning and heading out of my life forever. I wanted to run after her, I wanted to try to offer some sort of explanation, say anything to try to make her feel better, but I couldn't. She probably wouldn't have cared about my explanation. She probably didn't want me to bother her anymore. And I couldn't leave if I wanted to, I still had a line of customers going back to the coolers.
That was the last time I ever called anyone "sir". It's no big loss. I never liked calling people sir anyway. No one who would be offended by not being called "sir" is someone who deserves my respect. I do still call people "ma'am" from time to time, because when you grow up in appalachia (and probably the south) there's a certain type of old lady it's almost impossible not to address as ma'am. They were destined to eventually someday become ma'ams. If I tried to get their attention with "hey", like I do with people I perceive to be men, they'd probably faint gently to the ground like a leaf in the breeze.
But in general, I try not to address anyone with any gendered honorifics or pronouns unless I'm 100% sure that's what they want. It's just not fucking worth it if you guess and get it wrong. I learned that lesson the second-hardest way. In hindsight, I'm glad it's a lesson I learned early, but I'll always bear the shame of causing more pain to someone who was already hurting. I can never fix it, I can only try to do better next time 🦝