Hell Is Other Patrons

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.

* * *

55 comments.

  1. Great story!….but the part editor/part Asshole Grown-Up part of me did get a bit distracted by the use of “weather” where you meant “whether.” Now excuse me while I go out to buy tampons and 3 other unnecessary items at the CVS….

  2. Self checkout for the win.

    Too bad only a few select stores support it.

  3. Self checkouts are alright, but there’s usually some dweefus overseeing the whole thing who has to call on a manager when you want to buy a six-pack of beer.

  4. bravo! i would have totally succumbed to the urge to explain it to the girls — “uh, hello? clearly, i only stepped out of the line to get my kid…” but, you, you resisted!! well done!

  5. that was the most rediculously, overly over told story i have heard whats the point of having a blog or whatever this is if you dont come up with some origional material—-ie the look who cant spell remark from you is expected—-but i may be trying to shake stars from an orange tree…

    xs

  6. What a surreal comment from xs. I had to come out of lurking to note: if you don’t like the story, why don’t you just leave the page?

    I loved the story. And I’m a comic who has to listen to the most trite jokes and concepts every day.

    I tell ya though, that stars from an orange tree line is original. ‘Cause I have no idea what in the heck that is supposed to mean.

  7. For the record:

    “hemorrhoid”

    Just FYI. ;)

    cl

  8. Well, I think it was a great story. I love hearing persons confronting people. I wish you did go off on them, though. Sometimes people need that. Especially teenage girls.

  9. Funny story. I once had a similar experience at Walgreens, except I was the one holding up the line–me and my Astroglide purchase. Good times.

  10. I didn’t nickname it Stallgreen’s fer nuthin’.

  11. Spelling Nazis are funny.

  12. Matthew – You shake the stars from my orange tree. I mean that, man.

  13. Geez, Do teenagers not think these days?!?…..wait…don’t answerthat. Still, they practically said, “no cuts” to a parent with a kid that had wandered off. Excuse me while I hunch over, grab a cane and start mumbling about ill-spent youth and proper parenting back in my day.

    I’m too young to gripe about “kids these days”!

    Great story!

  14. Your story made me smile… Job done.

  15. Yeah, you totally missed the opportunity to tell off those snotty kids: “You don’t KNOW ME, a-right?” or “Talk to the hand” would have been cool.

    Or are those phrases, so, like Jerry Springer out-of-date already? They probably are.

    I guess old guys with kids should probable just lean on the “I’m not going to argue about this” tactic. Nice work!

  16. Stand Back – English BA comin’ through to debunk an idiotic comment –

    Clearly xs, you missed the point. I wouldn’t say that the story is overtold, but as literary theory has taught me, there is room for all interpretations (Yay postmodernism!) so I will say this:

    If you thought the story was “overly over told”, then I’d say the author hit you on an artistic level you weren’t expecting (let alone smart enough to realize). Some of the comedy was derived from the fact that a patron clearly beyond the societally imposed age for playing with children’s toys, or perhaps collecting them, or buying for a child (which was easily a possibility in this case, I might add Matt), but I think the point of the story was to point out the clearly self-imposed societal ideals, which we are all subjected to, and subject others to, ironically portraying a situation where the protagonist both applies and suffers from those ideals.

    If the story seemed “overly over told”, as you so eloquently put it Captain Redundancy, then you experienced exactly what the author experienced – a long wait for a somewhat unfulfilling resolution.

    Although I would argue that this was pretty funny, and the resolution was not the point.

  17. I, myself, am a teenage girl. I would *never* have taken the spot. You should have said “Hey bitches, get yo punk asses outta my grill/spot in line.” I don’t actually know anyone who would say that but they totally would have gotten it. And possibly responded with “Sorry, sir.” After they hit you with their huge pocketbooks with the oversized sequins. Haha.

    And your story was very funny. I love things that are mundane and random and hilarious at the same time.

  18. I don’t know what Mike means, but “Darth Obstructus” was like a star from an orange tree in my book.

  19. Right-on Mike (I like Mike). It’s exactly the kind of meta-text-which-just-goes-over-xs’-head every-time-but-makes-those-of-us-with-a-sense-of-irony-laugh-in-thier-cubicle.

  20. I was just in the Central District Walgreens myself this week to buy absurd little Valentine’s Day cards for my son to distribute at his daycare (he picked Spider Man – that’s m’boy). Anyway, during my tenure there, the photo counter clerk fainted/collapsed behind the counter, and it took one of the other clerks something like 10 minutes of microphone shouting to get the lame-o manager up to the front. In the mean time, no one called 911, and another clerk dutifully STEPPED OVER her fallen comrade to continue to serve customers. Once the paramedics arrived from a block away, the manager explained to a customer “she must have been de-hydrated.” Ya think?

  21. Who buys their porn in a shop? Have you not heard of the internet?

  22. Ah, that was a nice story!
    I’m a sucker for “cut in line” stories.
    That is actually the number six cause of death in Sacramento County.

  23. That was an awesome story. I loved it! I chuckled through the story, and then through the comments, too.

    Can we commandeer the shaking the stars from an orange tree thing? Make it a DY inside joke? Because that would rock.

  24. One simply must respond to the mysterious “xs”…

    Clearly, since there is no URL associated with this person, they have no idea what it’s like to come up with something to write about on a daily basis. Poor xs to be so disappointed by your blog today, Matt. However will he/she go on?

    And Matt, it was clear that the high school girls wanted you. It’s all just foreplay at that age.

  25. One simply must respond to the mysterious “xs”…

    Clearly, since there is no URL associated with this person, they have no idea what it’s like to come up with something to write about on a daily basis. Poor xs to be so disappointed by your blog today, Matt. However will he/she go on?

    And Matt, it was clear that the high school girls wanted you. It’s all just foreplay at that age.

  26. My original comment was so good, I felt the need to say it twice.

    Mea culpa.

  27. You shoulda laid a little Napolean Dynamite on ‘em: “Back off, you bodaggits!” “Wanna see my nunchuk skills?” “Get out of my face, you fat lards!”

  28. Fell out of my chair laughing at the Tink’L Trapp’R brand adult undergarments.

  29. True comedic genius: Tink’L Trapp’R brand adult undergarments.

    Yeah, that shook the stars out of my orange tree.

  30. No Exit From Walgreens. I saw that one off-off Broadway. Hell IS other patrons.

  31. You people obviously don’t know what it’s like; to be reaching for the stars, searching, yearning. You find a tree, a beautiful tree that seems to be glowing, seems to hold those stars so softly nestled in its branches, gleaming from buds. You shake the tree, waiting for the star to beam down on your upturned face, only to be smacked in the kisser by an orange. Oh you poor heathens, keeping your eyes on the ground and your arms resolutely by your side.

  32. Damnit, I knew I shoulda gotten an orange tree at Trees ‘R’ Us. Does anyone know if you can shake stars out of a potted begonia?

  33. You shoulda gone “Vice-Presidential” on their asses.

    (don’t steal that – I’m totally copyrighting that phrase)

  34. There is no record of anyone on the Internet ever using the phrase “shake stars from an orange tree” before. And as we all know, if Google can’t find it, it doesn’t exist. We are privileged to be present at the birth of a new figure of speech.
    Presumably the idea is that there aren’t any stars in an orange tree, so however much you shake it you won’t get any out. Like “getting blood from a stone” but rather more poetic.
    I feel humbled.

  35. I was in Walgreens last year, trying to inconspicuously buy a pregnency test. The woman in front of me was buying the same test. When i got to the front of the line and handed it over, the large indian woman cashier bellowed, “Everyone is buying pregnancy tests today!”
    Good thing i didn’t know anyone in there.
    “Must be the season.” I said.

  36. My favourite thing ever: Matthew’s posts, whatever they contain

    My second favourite thing: the nice people who leave funny comments after Matthew’s posts

    My plans for the rest of today: find opportunities to fit ‘shaking stars out of orange trees’ into everyday conversation, delight in ensuing bafflement.

  37. You know, if xs’ comment had been any better worded, I might think he actually posted the absurd yet strangely memorable “stars from an orange tree” line just for the purposes of creating a new phrase and getting it spread. Too bad that clearly wasn’t the case.

    However, I’m quite sure that if some of us use it on Fark, we’ll be able to find it in a dictionary in 10-20 years.

  38. We once had a big dog who was a little incontinent. We bought him a “doggie diaper” which used adult incontinence pads. So… on several occasions I was that guy in line buying adult diaper pads and five other unnecessary items dreading that I’d need a price check. I could just imagine the looks when I told the people behind me, “They’re for my dog.”

    Great story, BTW.

  39. Nothing earthshaking (or I guess star-shaking, as it may be) to say. Just this: “Darth Obstructus.” Hee.

  40. xs=kisses?

  41. With them standing as close to your back as possible without actually touching you, in my opinion it would have been time to throw all societal taboos to the wind and launch a crunchy, aromatic fart.

  42. Waiting in the so-called Express Line at Wal-Mart one day, I noticed the man behind me had his arms stacked high with home enema kits, and nothing else. Two to a pack, twelve packs – and he looked mighty fidgety…

    I let him go first.

  43. …annnnnd cut!

  44. I often find it funny to buy odd birthday gifts for my friends, and let me tell you walgreens is the place to go. I purposely return to the same walgreens everytime too. Either the cashier knows that it’s a gag gift or he thinks that I really like to douche!

    No need to make multiple stores aware of my joke.

  45. Is it really possible to fart on command?

  46. But Matt, isn’t this whole story just a smoke screen to distract us from whatever unsavory (and conspicuosly unmentioned) item you were waiting in line to purchase? Don’t bother replying because I know I’m right.

  47. You are so JJ Rousseau.

    What’s up with all the spelling and grammar police frequenting your site?

    Isabel

  48. I didn’t notice anyone harping on Mr. Baldwin’s grammar or punctuation.

  49. I don’t think my readship has an abnormal amount of spelling and grammar police; I think I am such a sloppy proofreader that many people feel obligated to make citizen arrests.

  50. Great story. Misspelled words or not. I truly believe that an overlooked result of higher education is a degradation of spelling. Unless the are an English or Literary major that is.
    I am 34 years old also and have two teenage daughters. That by no means makes me an expert but had you tried to explain to them the general rules and social construct of standing in line they would have answered you with a blank look, called you an idiot and then ask each other what you where talking about. Giving them the short, sweet and authoritative “Get the hell out of my way” was your best route.
    And before I forget, the simpltons who did not like the story. They obviously missed the irony or felt waaaaay to connected to the 14 year old girls who had to give up their wrongfully annexed place inline.

  51. “You know what? I’m not going to argue about this.”

    See. I can never think that quick. I either fume up or back down. Words never come easy when they should.

  52. 3 a.m.
    Wal-Mart.
    Interesting condoms.
    Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream.
    A paperback novel.

    Yup. You get some weird looks. hehe

  53. Has anyone else got the horrible image of President Bush trying to use “shake stars from an orange tree” in refference to something terror related? I mean, is this just another white crayon or something? And yes, the best part of fatherhood is getting to be the Asshole Grown-Up. Ah, the sweet taste of lording power over the young/helpless/stupid.
    But to speak for the people on the other side of the register, the “Bunch Of Strangers Standing Around In Close Proximity To Each Other For No Apparent Reason” applies to them too. “You’re total will be $38.53.” “$38.53, sir.” “Oh, you’re talking to me.” At what point can I enforece the You’re Too Stupid To Purchase This Act of 1978 and refuse to help the moron in my line?

  54. The first hit when I google “shake stars from an orange tree” is Hell Is Other Patrons.