Alternate Title: How to Ruin a Trip to the Grocery Store for Everyone Else

1 10 2011

­ How to Leave the Grocery Store

            Proceeding through a grocery checkout line reveals no more about our character than any other of our society’s frequent and mundane actions; which is to say that it reveals quite a lot.  In this labyrinth of suburban sustenance, your mettle is tried and your hidden frailties brought to light[1].

The nub of the issue is which line to choose.  Like all patriotic Americans, we look at the signage in order to understand the benefits and downsides of each path, then decide that we know better and proceed oppositely.  Next, we evaluate the checkers based on brief first impressions and instantly determine their individual aptitudes.  At this point, a sly patron will have whittled the choices down to one of the following:

First, the Express Line.  Consistently and ungrammatically restricting its passengers to those holding ‘fifteen items or less’, the express line is a supermarket’s way of helping busy (read: impatient) people to get on their way quickly and without hassle.  If you are such a person, here’s a handy tip about express lines: Do not take the express line.  While the concept may seem sound, these rather less-than-eponymous lanes are notorious for attracting people with two distinct traits: 

1. They cannot count to fifteen

2. They have nowhere else in the world to be for the next hour.

On the plus side, the express lane is a great way to go if you enjoying hearing stories about ‘the time I found this nickel in Chatsworth’ or if you enjoy the age-old tradition of Waiting To Fill Out Any Part Of Your Check Until Every Item Has Been Scanned.  The latter of these entertainments gives great consternation to my father, the grocery guru if ever there were one.   Dad faithfully fills out every possible field on his check while waiting in line, then plugs in the amount as soon as it is given to him by the cashier.  It is unfortunate that those in a hurry will never benefit from this consideration, because my father does not take the express line.

Additionally, you should be aware that the Express Line is more or less the equivalent of solitary confinement for checkers.  Because the line is theoretically filled with customers holding only a few items, a courtesy clerk (also known as “box boy” or “bagger” or “helper” depending on which group you would prefer to offend) is rarely allotted to the express line.  This means that when the inevitable cart with 36 various and unlabeled vegetables pushed by the oblivious guy that everyone scowls at but will never say anything to arrives in line, the cashier is effectively in no-man’s land.  They can either infuriate the other customers by not mentioning the oblivious fellow’s faux pas, or they can mortify the offending customer who, by the way, happens to be giving the store more business than all the other people combined.  (This is colloquially known as a Hobson’s Choice, a phrase that originates from a guy named Mr. Hobson who probably got a job as a grocery checker and asked all the customers too many questions and got fired.)  Bottom line: the checker in the express line is never going to be as personable as Tammi[2] in line six who always asks how your kids are doing.

Your second choice is the Shortest-Looking Line.  This is the line that, based on all discernable factors, should prove to have the shortest wait time.  Once you get into this line, you will develop a strange symptom that medical terminology calls “that sinking feeling.”  You look at your checker and see that his nametag reads Murphy.  You see that the guy in front of you is holding four lottery tickets, which will have to be run through the ostensibly steam-powered lottery ticket scanning machine.  You see a perturbed customer holding a leaky bottle of milk standing at the end of the check stand, and you realize that she will be requiring full compensation by making the unfortunate clerk run to the back of the store to get a fresh gallon that – unlike the previous gallon – will be impervious to the laws of gravity.  Now you know, dear friend, why this line looked so short.  That’s okay.  Rookie mistake.  Hey, maybe you should try the…

Longest Line.  This is nothing more or less than a calculated risk.  One the one hand, you may make your way to the third or fourth spot in line just as the backup cashier arrives to start a New Line and be promptly summoned to your destiny as the Lucky First Customer of said line.  Everyone else will stare enviously as you walk to the front of the unblemished queue, victorious.  It’s a glorious achievement, but a rare one indeed.  There’s also the risk that you will not be summoned at all, or worse: you will be too deep into your current line to be summoned to the New Line when it appears, and you will have to watch as the undeserving scumbag behind you is welcomed into the promised line.  This is agonizing, but you will have the inestimable self-satisfaction of having served your time honorably.  This is also known as “immediately deciding what you disliked about that person anyway.”

There is another circumstance that pops up every now and then.  Scenario:  You have just arrived at the back of the Longest Line when the Grand Welcoming to the New Line is taking place ahead of you.  Once this oasis has appeared you have the option, if you dare, of following the just-summoned customer into the New Line.  Yes – you can do this.  But you’d best not look behind you while you take your wonderful new spot, or you’ll be facing the visual daggers, lances, broadswords, javelins and trebuchets of those too slow or too honorable to make the same maneuver.  This is truly one of the biggest struggles in navigating all checkout lines, because like many of the most advantageous moves in life, jumping into a new line requires complete forfeiture of one’s grocery dignity and the presumption that you are more deserving than The Other People.  This tactic is commonly referred to as “Pulling a J. Edgar Hoover”[3] by seasoned checkout veterans.

The final step in whatever line you have chosen is always the same:  Greeting the checker[4] as you pay.  An ancient tradition that traces its roots back to general store gossip and telegraph office makebates, this ritual is generally the most odious task of the entire process, primarily because it requires you to acknowledge the humanity of someone else in the store.  After all, you are here to get groceries for you and your family.  That is all.  You are well-aware of the weather conditions outside, and you need no cursory analysis of your buying habits espoused from the glazed eyes and slack jaw of whatever Local 36 member you find in front of you.  In this situation, there is but one semi-humane way to head off most banter/chitchat/hobnobbing/canoodling[5] before it has a chance to germinate, and that is by responding to the questions actually being asked rather than the words you hear.  A brief explanation:  If the checker asks, “So did you find everything all right?” you answer, “Fine, thank you.  And yourself?”  This serves the dual purpose of meeting the bare obligations of the query and (more importantly) of putting the inquirer off-guard, which should silence them for the time being.  You hand over your already-completed check and smugly wallow in your vat of cynical bliss while the admiring populace looks on.  If you so choose, you may at this time proclaim something along the lines of the following:  “And this, my mortal companions, THIS is how it is done!”

As you stride through the automatic doors, you are fully aware of the scene you’ve set for those admirably witnessing your exit:  With the setting sun lending an almost reverent glow to your full cart of groceries and your man-about-town gait, you effortlessly propel your cart towards the parking lot, and freedom.[6]



[1] Also, candy!

[2] Tami’s name has been changed from “Tami Aanerud” to “Tammi” to protect her privacy

[3] Not the one played by Matt Damon.

[4] Some foolish shoppers will also attempt to greet the courtesy clerk, but don’t waste your time.  They can’t accept tips, and they’re paying dues out of each paycheck to a union that barely gets them one paid holiday a year.  Your cheerful hello will ring hollow in their cold, dead ears.  Save your breath.

[5] Anyone whose fingers have been involuntarily brushed when receiving their receipt can attest to this odious potentiality.

[6] And more importantly, candy!