There is a Murphy’s Law that applies to me every time I go to the grocery store. I will always queue up in what turns out to be the longest checkout line.
Which doesn’t really bother me anymore. I accept my fate, for better or for worse. It’s not a matter of picking the line with the fewest number of people, either. That’s where it gets tricky. There could be ten people in one line and two in another, and I will be duped into getting on the shorter one; only to find that the person in front of me is the immovable oak tree, hellbent on winning the great price debate. “That’s not on sale? It’s advertised as on sale. I wouldn’t have gotten it if it wasn’t on sale. $1.29 for stewed tomatoes? What are they made of, fucking gold? Check it again!” Or the dissatisfied shopper who drones on at great length about the state of decay in the vegetable section. “They got more bruises than a battered housewives shelter.” Or the unlucky customer whose every item is somehow missing its bar code, resulting in the aloof bag boy being sent to retrieve a scannable version, only to return hours later, haggard, with a shadow of stubble on his face, and the wrong box of toaster strudels.
There I stood, ready to checkout, pausing to survey my options. There were two checkout lanes available to me. All the other registers were closed, maybe because ex-New Jersey governor Chris Christie was now the general manager of our local supermarket, or something. I could get behind a withered old grandmother with a mountain of purchases towering high above her in her cart, or a well-dressed, refined fellow, a noble Castilian perhaps, with a cart that held twenty bottles of Palmolive dish soap. Nothing else. Just the soap.
Basic math dictated I maneuver myself in line behind the Castilian, even though every instinct in my head cried out, “It’s a trap! Don’t do it! Roll the dice with the blue-haired lady that has somehow put one of every store item in her packed cart.”
Too late, as a few people lined up behind me. We’re all in this together now, I thought. The Castilian fellow seemed like a man on the move, a man with places to go, places where they took the cleanliness of their dishes VERY seriously.
I counted the beeps as the bottles of dish soap swept across the scanner. Exactly twenty. I was expecting the cashier to remark on the peculiarity of the purchase, but she kept her cool, kinda like the cashier who’s seen it all. I was filling in my own storyline, anyway. I imagined this fellow had already been to the store, picking up all the normal items for the week, and when he returned to his house and unloaded his bags, his overbearing wife had ripped into him about forgetting the dish soap.
“You can’t do anything right!” I heard her shout, in my mind.
And so here he was, ready to drop twenty bottles of the degreaser on the kitchen table when he returned to his house, in a blue ribbon example of the most passive-aggressive response in the history of marital discord. I almost wanted to follow him home to see how the whole thing played out.
After the twenty bottles were rung up the cashier announced the price. Not so fast, indicated the man with a drop of his head, as he fished around in his jacket to produce a pack of coupons. Damn, I thought. Here we go.
There were twenty coupons offering a fifty-cent rebate for each bottle of dish soap. The cashier set about scanning each coupon, one by one. Everybody in line shifted their weight and exhaled, trying to ignore the fact that, due to the coupons being old, or creased, or smudged, it took the cashier between ten and twenty waves of the small bits of paper for the computer to actually read the bar code. The Castilian’s face was a mask of unaffected resolve. The rest of us began to wither. The woman who was at the back of the line rushed off to either try her luck at the customer service counter or simply make a break for the front door.
The cashier, with beads of perspiration across her forehead, made it to the last coupon. She waved it across the code-reader about a dozen times before it beeped, scanning successfully…for a five-cent discount. This sent the Castilian into a fit of apoplexy. It was supposed to be fifty cents off, not five. The cashier was stumped. She switched the coupon to her other hand to scrutinize it, as her scanning arm was exhausted and useless from all the waving. I watched as the little grandmother with her hundred bags of groceries walked out of the store, all done with her shopping for the week.
The cashier excused herself to consult the manager about the last coupon. I could feel the silent rage building up behind me as customers began muttering underneath their breath and collapsing on themselves. I leaned on my cart and browsed the tabloids. Jennifer Aniston was pregnant with three different babies from three different fathers, and addicted to cocaine and diet pills, and suicidal and bankrupt. At least she didn’t have to stand on this line.
By the time the cashier returned to tell the man he had hit some kind of weird limit contained in the small print of the tiny coupon, everybody was ready for blood. The Castilian, unfazed, insisted the coupon be honored, not even blinking an eye as a quarter, two nickels and a dime went bouncing across the conveyor belt, a donation from the guy behind me to subsidize the price difference.
With the account squared up, the Castilian exited the store, while the rest of us stretched to work some of the blood back into our legs, quickly guiding ourselves through our own reasonable purchases.
I walked outside, happy to breathe in the fresh air. I had to stop short, though, as I was almost struck down by a glossy Porsche Carrera driven by the same Castilian who had been in front of me at the checkout line.
I’ll never understand finance.
More Alembics to come…