By Florence Newman
It had been a mistake to go to the Safeway, even though the snowstorm wasn’t due to arrive for another two days. The aisles were already crowded with shoppers stocking up on bread, milk, and toilet paper–the Holy Trinity of disaster preparation everywhere. The stereotype of Baltimoreans is that they panic and rush out to the stores at the first threat of a snowflake, but this time their anxiety was justified: forecasts called for 18-24” of snow over the course of the weekend, with blizzard conditions possible. Still, you’d think that hitting the grocery mid-day, well in advance of the storm, I wouldn’t have had to contend with frantic survivalists. No such luck. My usual route through the store—a pass around the healthy perimeter, with brief forays into the shelves of preservative- and sugar-laden cereals, crackers, packaged dinners, and canned goods—was now an obstacle course of bodies and shopping carts. I navigated my own cart, part stealth bomber, part battering ram, among the rest, collecting provisions, then headed for the self checkout machines, which I use almost exclusively these days because 1) I usually don’t have to wait in line and 2) I like the autonomy of ringing up my own purchases, being in full control of the process (until, of course, the scanner goes out of whack). It never occurred to me that I might have another reason for preferring the machines to human cashiers.
The throng at the front of the store was so thick that it took me a moment to realize, in astonishment, that the two self-checkout lines snaked as far back as the lines for regular checkout. I almost abandoned my errand right there. But I hadn’t invested all that time and effort just to go home empty-handed. I decided to try the “15 items or fewer” lanes: those lines had to be shorter, or at least moving more quickly. Unfortunately, they were also at the opposite side of the store. “Pardon me.” “Excuse me.” “May I cut through?” Finally I reached the express lanes and positioned myself at the end of one of the lines. A woman nearby tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind her: the line actually ended seven or eight carts back, midway down the aisle. One look at the impenetrable mass of folks waiting single file and folks milling around the aisle shopping and I resigned myself to wheeling my way down the next aisle over, rounding the bend, and joining the queue from behind.
I didn’t remain the last in line for long: a grandmotherly type looking particularly glum took the spot at my back. For a while, we made small talk about the weather. Then she mentioned that her bank had closed early because it had been robbed, leaving her without cash for groceries. The conversation sort of trailed off after that. I turned to face forward again. The young man immediately in front of me had his foot propped on the base of his cart and his head bent over the glowing screen of a smart phone. Every so often, without taking his gaze off the screen, he would give the cart a shove with his forearms, and grandmother and I would shuffle forward a few inches.
Suddenly I noticed a burst of color. It was a bouquet of bright flowers wrapped in cellophane in the child’s seat portion of the cart two spots ahead. The possessor of the cart was a tall woman with a dancer’s posture, graceful and erect, and gold-silver hair that swept up to show a bit of neck above her scarf. (I only saw her from the back, so I can’t describe her face—though I’ll bet it was beautiful.) She wore a dark wool coat, which stood out among the puffy jackets that made the rest of us look like a flock of Pillsbury Dough Boys. Still, I could hardly take my eyes off the bouquet. There’s a blizzard coming, for God’s sake, and this lady is buying flowers! I took in the other contents of her cart—two small whole chickens (or perhaps they were guinea hens), a bag of brown rice, some fresh vegetables. Then I looked down into my own cart: a four-pack of vanilla Frappucinos, two Fuji apples, a box of low fat Triscuits, a jumbo chocolate chunk cookie, and a packet of sugar-free gum (tropical fruit flavor). The necessities of life.
In my imagination, the tall woman sits at a linen-covered table, the flowers tastefully arranged in a vase at its center. Candlelight flickers over the silverware flanking a china plate full of fragrant slices of fowl, steaming brown rice, and roasted vegetables, as outside the frosted window the winter storm rages.
I glanced again at my own cart: what a pathetic scenario it brought to mind. I realized at that moment that the self checkout lane appealed to me not just because it improved my efficiency, not just because it enhanced my autonomy, but also because it shrouded my purchases in privacy. Ahead, the colorful bouquet drifted down the conveyer belt and disappeared into a bag. The clerk rang up the rest of the elegant lady’s elegant items, and soon she too had vanished. The young man in front of me, having pocketed his cell phone, began placing his stuff on the counter. Before long, it would be my turn. I had waited impatiently for a good half hour to reach the head of the line, and now I dreaded the prospect. There was nothing for it but to follow through. The gum, the jumbo cookie, the vanilla Frappucinos went up on the belt to be lifted and swiped over the scanner by the clerk’s beefy hands. “Busy day, huh?” I said. “Everybody’s getting ready for the snow,” I said. I was babbling, trying to distract the clerk from the hodgepodge of barely-comestibles I’d offered up for inspection. It turned out that my subterfuge was unnecessary: the clerk hardly glanced at what he was ringing up. Although his apron-clad torso remained turned toward me, he was looking over his shoulder at the other lanes teaming with other customers. I decided to take a risk: “Funny the kinds of things people buy during an emergency.” For a few seconds, the clerk faced my way, then his attention was again elsewhere. “We see it all,” he murmured. “Believe me, we see it all.”
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.