The Tao of the Cash Register

I’m not a spiritual guy, but now and then something happens to make me reconsider my cynicism. In particular, an experience late last year made me wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of karma (in the informal sense), or kismet, or whatever you want to call accidents of fate that don’t feel so accidental. Hear me out.

When my daughter Mattie was six or seven, my wife and I bought her a cash register for Christmas—a Sharp XE-A505, to be precise. This machine was a legit, retail-ready, beige metal, electronic cash register with keys for VOID, RFND, RCPT/PO, and other obscure functions. When choosing the register, my wife and I went all in, opting for the barcode scanner and even a credit card swiper. 

That bad boy was state-of-the-art back in 2005. 

A tricked-out cash register may sound like an odd gift for a little girl, but Mattie loved imaginative play, and her XE-A505 provided countless hours of entertainment in her pre-tween years. On any given afternoon, you could find her in her bedroom, swiping expired credit cards or organizing stacks of printed receipts on which she scribbled odd, hieroglyphic notations. She particularly loved entering imaginary “purchases” on the keyboard, punching the buttons forcefully enough to squash bugs, the way a harassed cashier might do at A. C. Moore. I remember having a cocktail downstairs with Barbara and hearing Mattie upstairs, pecking purposefully on that keyboard.

The years marched on, and Mattie graduated from playing “store” to riding horses, from middle school to high school and then college. Now she’s a first-year law student as passionate about her criminal law class as she once was about torturing her keyboard. More than a decade ago, we moved the cash register to the basement to accommodate a new bookshelf in Mattie’s bedroom. There, the Sharp XE-A505 occupied a table near my work bench, gathering dust and looking forlorn.


Last winter, in an effort to reduce clutter in our lives (not quite Marie Kondo, but a solid effort), Barbara and I decided to sell some things we’d been hanging on to for no rational reason. Because these large items were unsuitable for eBay, we set ourselves up on Facebook Marketplace, hoping to attract local buyers who could pick up their purchases. The holidays were approaching as well, and we figured some of these items might make good gifts. At one point, feeling flush from the sale of a side table, Barbara pointed at the cash register and asked, “Would that sell, do you think?”

Drawing on my infinite knowledge of online selling, I told her it seemed unlikely an old cash register would attract buyers.

We decided to list the Sharp for an affordable $50. Then I schlepped it upstairs, dusted it off, removed some equestrian stickers from the side, and emptied the cash drawer of maybe 70,000 paper receipts. I’ll admit here, in the privacy of the Internet, that I got a little misty-eyed when I found those receipts, each inscribed with Mattie’s faux cursive. As the standard parental question goes, where did the time go?

To my astonishment, a man contacted me on Facebook Messenger a few days later, expressing interest in the Sharp and asking if we’d take $25 for it. Barbara and I assessed the odds of anyone else showing interest and accepted the fellow’s offer outright, inviting him to pick up the machine the following day. We assumed he owned a small retail store in the area and needed a cheap back-up register. Or something like that.

Cash Register, Chapter Two

The next day was one of those upstate New York days between autumn and winter when the trees are naked and miserable-looking but no snow has fallen. Around 11 that rather bleak morning, a man pulled up outside our house in a 1970s-style minivan. I watched from the living room as he entered our gate and mounted the stairs to our porch. He was a stocky, serious-looking fellow in his late 40s or early 50s, wearing blue work pants and a Carhartt jacket. I’d already set the cash register outside on the porch and, when I came out to greet the man, found him bending over to inspect his purchase.

“I’m really glad you can use this,” I told him after introducing myself.

“Well,” he said, “I’m glad I found it in time for Christmas.”

“Oh, it’s a gift?” I asked.

“For my son,” he replied. “He’s developmentally challenged and has the intelligence of a 10 year-old at 25. He’s always wanted a cash register to play with.”

I remember feeling my throat tighten when he said that. By my calculation, his son was Mattie’s age.

“Oh, wow,” I said and explained how we’d bought the register for our own daughter nearly 20 years earlier.

I asked if he’d like to plug it in—just to check it out—but he said that wasn’t necessary. He handed me $25 in cash, which I almost declined, but decided doing so might come across as patronizing. The truth is, I was so overwhelmed by this fellow’s story and a sense of kismet (or whatever), that I got a bit emotional. So I accepted the cash and offered to carry the card reader and barcode scanner to his van for him. He declined this as well, gathering up the register and its accessories in his arms and carefully descending our porch steps. Once again inside, I watched him load the items in his minivan and drive away. 

As I said, I tend not to read too much into coincidences like this—even if it did feel like a scene from a Dickens novel. But sometimes I indulge myself by imagining the man’s son, living in a sort of perpetual youth, unwrapping his pre-owned, lovingly restored, fully functional Sharp XE-A505. Then I think of Mattie’s childhood, now just a mosaic of tiny photos on my iPhone screen, and how those two utterly dissimilar lives are connected by an old, off-white cash register. And, yeah, I get a little verklempt all over again.

Who knew you could find deals like that on Facebook Marketplace?

4 thoughts on “The Tao of the Cash Register

  1. Beautiful post, Jim. The older I get, the less I believe in unconnected coincidences. We need only to turn the tumblers the right way to unlock the invisible connections the universe has created for us.

  2. There is certainly magic in the everyday. Your stirring story reminds us to be open to it. Ah, the wonder in a “retired” and forlorn possession in storage…

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