June 3, 2003

Checkout

- I'm in the process of reorganizing this blog and moving it to a new location. The reorganization needs to happen because I note that blog entries are somewhat uneven. Some are just quick links, some are more like journal entries. I'd like to expand into some other areas, too, so a whole new website is in order, complete with domain name. I'm hoping that these changes will, among other things, speed the site up. This comment system is killing my access time.

But that has little to do with this particular entry.

There are a number of places where we have regular, slightly anonymous social interaction. Driving on the highway is one such place. Buying fast food at the drive-through window is another. And so is the supermarket checkout line.

The checkout line entails a bit of drama. Think of all the possibilities. There are the impulse-buy items that surround you. Candy, self-help pamphlets and tabloid papers beckon to you. There are posted (if grammatically incorrect) rules, such as in the "12 Items or Less" express queue. How many people have written about the excitement and frustration of having someone with greater than their allotted number of items reach the checkout just before they do with their one item? Many, I'm sure.

My story is a little more subtle. Just a little.

Yesterday, I rushed into the supermarket to pick up some milk for my breakfast. My office boasts a healthy (so to speak) compliment of cold cereals of the saturday-morning-cartoon-advertisement variety. Comfort food.

I strode to the checkout with my carton of milk, my one item. Someone was ahead of me, but no matter. I gave him plenty of room, placing my carton of milk nearly all the way back on the conveyor belt, and then flanking it with 2 plastic dividers to "mark its territory."

Plastic checkout dividers are another source of drama. I always try to place dividers around my items, so that the person behind me needn't reach over and grab the divider himself. Usually, I consider this a slightly polite gesture on my part, but nothing worthy of any note.

As the checkout operator did not have the conveyor belt set to automatically move forward, I was able to keep my hand on my one item, leaning slightly on it.

A young man entered the line behind me. After a moment or two, I sensed he was shifting restlessly. And then he began to place items on the back of the conveyor belt - the very small space left behind the divider. he stacked an item or two on the metal end piece of the conveyor apparatus, off the belt itself to prepare them for loading on the belt. This was fine with me. But as he placed two lemons on the belt, one of which rolled past the divider and into my milk carton's personal space, I began to realize why he was restless. He was envious of the large span of belt in front of my milk carton. Now he was trying to squeeze one more item behind the divider, trying to inch my carton forward.

By this time, the fellow in front of me had completed his purchase and was moving on. As the belt began to move I lifted up my carton and placed it in the hands of the woman working the checkout, rather than just watch the thing take a ride on the belt. At that, the man me clucked his tongue and sighed audibly.

"Tsk!"

All this time I was in the middle of his dramatic attempt to gain more belt space for his items, and he was disgusted that I so cavalierly moved my milk forward. What gall I have.

I decided to engage him in his game directly. As my carton got scanned, I turned to the fellow and made direct eye contact with him, giving him the opportunity to speak if he truly had a comment to make. It was merely a second or so before he averted his gaze downward.

I looked to the matter of running my card through the machine. When I sensed his head had un-bowed itself, I once again faced him with a blank expression, seeking his eyes, which quickly found something very interesting on the floor to examine.

This little scene repeated another 2 times or so while I completed my transaction, each time concluding with him surrendering in the staring match. He forfeited each opportunity to tell me how much gall I had to not anticipate his conveyer belt needs, and then to mock them.

As I left the store, I was forced to wonder - what just happened? Why was I engaging in a staring match with this guy? And, since I could have moved my milk forward as soon as I realized he wanted more belt space, was I guilty of playing some sort of macho personal space game? The slight sense of satisfaction I felt told me that yes, I had been engaged in the drama.

And so, the guilt followed.

Posted by James at June 3, 2003 12:34 PM
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