A man walks up to a cashier. He wants to purchase something embarrassing: porn, say, or hemorrhoid medication. He has a few other items, too, but it’s unclear as to whether he really wants to buy them or if they are just a beard for the shameful merchandise. He has a plan: when the cashier picks up the copy of “Car & Driver” to reveal the three-pack of “mango flavored” condoms, he will feign surprise and say “whoa, how did those get there? Well, I don’t feel like returning them, so go ahead and charge me — I guess I’ll buy them …” But then, as the teller rings up the items, disaster strikes. For some reason the bar code on the product fails to scan correctly. The teller gets on the intercom system and says, “I’m going to need a price check for the jumbo pack of Tink’L Trapp’R brand adult undergarments …”
This scene is such a staple of comic strips and lazy sit-coms that when I actually saw it happen last weekend my first reaction was not to laugh, but to think “Jesus: what hack wrote this scene …”
I was in Walgreens with The Squirrelly, behind three other people at the checkout line. The guy in front looked to be about 35, maybe 37 — stubbly beard, glasses, a little paunchy. Everything was going fine until multiple swipes of some item over the scanner failed to elicit a response.
“That’s okay,” the guy said hastily. “I don’t really …”
But the teen behind the counter had already commandeered the microphone, and his voice boomed through the store as he haltingly read off the information from the package. “Claire, can I get a price check for a Super … Star Wars Clone … Super Clone Trooper Star Wars Action Figure?”
The guy flushed, turned to the next people in line, and said “I didn’t really need …” before trailing off. He told the cashier to go ahead and help the next people in line, but, no, the kid behind the counter was committed to his course of inaction. Finally the guy resigned himself to his fate. He gave the rest of us a “what can I do?” shrug, jammed his hands into his pockets, and turned to look out the glass automatic doors.
I wanted to take him aside and say. “Look, dude: I think buying Star Wars action figures at your age is a little silly. But if you enjoy it, at least enjoy it proudly. If the rest of us were stuck here waiting for you to buy something that you were unabashedly enthusiastic about, we probably wouldn’t care.” But of course I didn’t take him aside to soothe his tortured soul, because he was making me stay in a Walgreens for a few extra moments and so I wanted him to suffer.
A few moments went by. Suddenly the whole scene turned into a play by Jean Paul Sartre — “No Exit From Walgreens” or something. With no discernable activity from the back of the store (Claire? Are you back there?) we abruptly transformed from a line at a drugstore register to A Bunch Of Strangers Standing Around In Close Proximity To Each Other For No Apparent Reason.
The Squirrelly got bored, started looking around, and saw a display of enormous Valentines Day teddy bears on a nearby shelf. “Teddy bear!” he cried. The two girls behind me, both maybe 14, squealed with delight and said, “awwwwww!” in unison. Taking this as his cue, The Squirrelly charged over to the shelf and grabbed one of the stuffed animals, which was almost as big as he. “Teddy bear!!” he shouted. “That is so cute!” one of the girls behind me said.
I took a few steps over to reclaim my son; as I did so I heard one of the girls say excitedly, “oh cool, he stepped out of line.”
After separating my toddler from his ursine pal, I turned around to discover that the girls had rushed forward to fill my spot. The line at Walgreens abhors a vacuum.
“We were here,” I said when we got back, and indicating the place in line in front of the girls. “I just had to grab my kid.”
“But … you got out of line,” said one of the girls. Not defiantly. She seemed genuinely perplexed.
“Look,” I replied. “The convention of queuing up at a cash register is not a federal law, and my leaving the line for a moment is not some loopholes you can exploit without fear of reprisal. Queuing is merely a custom that we as a society collectively adhere to, because, in doing so, we make life easier for everyone. There’s no rule that states that, in momentarily leaving the queue, I have waived my right to return to my original spot, because no such rights exists. The line itself is nothing but a social construct. There’s nothing preventing me from simply going to the front of the line and ignoring everyone else. We do these things — queing up, allowing people who have momentarily left the line to return — not out of obligation, but because we are a civilized people. So with that in mind I am going to ask you, citizen to citizen, to allow me to resume my place in line.”
Hah hah! No, I’m just kidding. I’m 34 years old now and have a kid, which, by my reckoning, means I’m entitled to be an Asshole Grown-Up once in a while. So what I really said was: “You know what? I’m not going to argue about this.” The two girls scowled and resentfully moved backwards about seven inches, allowing me to wedge myself and my son into the vacated space like half a bagel being crammed into a regular-sized toaster slot. Thereafter they made a point of standing as close to my back as they could without actually touching me, to best express their sense of injustice at my unlawful usurpation of their spot, I guess.
Claire finally materialized and completed the price check. Once Darth Obstructus was out the door, things picked up a bit, though there was some doubt as to whether the cashier had ever used a register before in his life. By the time we got to the front of the line, we’d spent about 15 minutes in Walgreens for what should have been a 30-second purchase.
“Do you want your receipt in the bag,” the cashier asked when he had finally finished bagging my items, holding up the piece of paper as if it were a winning lottery ticket.
I figured that operation would take another half an hour, based on what I’d seen so far. I snatched the receipt from his hand, grabbed my bag, and made a break for the door.