Yesterday a woman came into the store to buy equipment for her meth lab.

Meth labs are, I believe, the main source of crime in the area where I live. I tried to check this belief by googling, but was offered “Find [my state] Meth!” as though I were shopping. When I found local crime statistics, I was happy to see that we had had no murders in the past six years (actually, there has been one this year, so the statistics were old), but sorry to see hundreds of meth lab seizures. Stories in the local papers about knife fights, lost children, and robberies also tend to mention meth.

I don’t know how to make the stuff myself, but I know that it involves decongestants (because we now have to prove our innocence in order to buy them) and lab equipment. The local college’s chemistry department has a lot of theft problems (the faculty have been told not to try to stop scary-looking people who come to take away their beakers), but we are the only place in town that still sells lab equipment. The other likely places have quit selling it because, as one of the workers explained to me some years ago, people buy it for their meth labs.

This hadn’t occurred to me before, but once he pointed it out, I began noticing the number of surprising people who came in to get lab equipment, often with way too much explanation. Now, we are the laminator of choice for the local tattoo parlors, so we are not alarmed by heavily-tattooed men with chains and piercings. They are there merely to use the laminator. Men in suits have come in to buy presents for their nephews, or to get their shopping wives to hurry up. Silly overdressed girls are getting paper for their sorority house decorations (I don’t know why they are all so silly; maybe it is a rule, but I figure they will grow out of it, and try to enjoy them). Women in long dresses and prayer caps are getting their homeschool supplies, and will probably want some exotic item like triangular pencils. People clinging to hippy dress are buying toys and books as a result of our ads in the Free Press. Elderly people are grandparents, and they will generally need the same sort of assistance as the guys in suits.

But most of our customers are fairly affluent women between 25 and 55, casually dressed in stuff from the mall, with some men in the same category. Polo shirts abound, and capri pants are as common as blue jeans. They laugh a lot and talk on their cell phones and (the women) say things are “cute.”  There are lots of children, and a high level of ethnic diversity relative to our population’s level of diversity, but we could gather up all the customers in the store and put them down at a nice barbeque without anyone noticing anything odd.

Well, I guess the whole transportation part would be odd, but once they were there, the other guests would find nothing amiss.

The ones who come in dirty, with oversized clothes and baseball caps, are almost always buying test tubes. Sometimes they want larger beakers than we carry. We have to keep ourselves from saying “Oh, yes, you’ll have to steal that from the chemistry department.” They often have stories about their nephews or their swimming pools. Sometimes they claim that they are buying the stuff for their mothers.

So yesterday I was trying to create alluring vistas with a new shipment of magnets, and this woman came in. Oversized clothes, baseball cap, stringy hair, smelly. I offered to help her, because it is always possible that a person with this self-presentation is just planning to brush up her calculus or tutor someone in German, but she refused.

When she came up to the counter with her glassware, I was seized with a desire to refuse to sell the stuff to her. “I know you are planning to use this in your meth lab,” I wanted to say. “Have you considered what you are doing to the lives of the people you sell that to? To the environment? To your children or your neighbor’s children? To yourself?”

Obviously, I didn’t do that. I just sold the stuff to her. I did not even, as I sometimes do, ask what kind of experiment she was working on.

But it stayed in my mind through the rest of the afternoon. Why, I first was asking myself, was I so sure that I could tell at a glance who was cooking meth and who was a bona fide user of scientific equipment? Perhaps I was being unfair to her, and to all the men and women who come in to buy lab equipment and just don’t happen to look like our typical customer. Maybe some of the folks in polo shirts and capri pants have meth labs, and I never suspect them of it. I imagine that I am above judging people by their looks, but that sure is what I was doing.

I also was troubled at the thought that I was supporting the meth trade — on a fairly regular basis, too. Here I am, a woman who won’t buy things from companies whose business practices I disapprove of, and I am actually providing equipment to people who make meth.

It’s a dilemma.