Revisited: Waiting in line

I’m writing today from our local EarthFare grocery store, which has kindly set aside – whether they know it or not — a table and a wi-fi connection for my almost daily use. For those of you not familiar with the chain, it’s in the organic/health/inedible food segment, featuring high-end gourmet offerings along side free-range sticks and locally grown chaff. How it ended up in my rather working-class neighborhood is beyond me.

Since I’m using their space and their power and their Internet waves, I’m careful to patronize them on each visit with at least the purchase of a bottled tea (today I’m sampling the “fair trade” flavor). When I approached the checkout, there were two lines open, each of which had a single customer with a significant basket-load of merchandise. I lingered back briefly because I hate being reluctantly waved ahead when the large purchaser feels obliged to let me and my single item go through. Once each of them had committed to their position by partially unloading their basket, I picked the guy on the left to get behind.

Usually, I’ll do some profiling of the people ahead of me before I commit to a line. It’s a sexist, ageist, racist, classist habit I have that you’d think would get me to the cashier faster. Obviously, I look at the quantity of items being purchased but that’s actually a very small factor in my assessment. The ideal people to get behind are young professionals who have that urgent on-the-go air about them. They’ll typically be paying with a debit card, usually swiping it crisply before the purchase is even completed, and the next thing you know they’re motoring out the door. At the other end of the spectrum is the harried working mom herding her kids while talking on her cell phone, the college student who’ll be digging through the 12 pockets in his cargo pants trying to scare up enough coin to pay, and the elderly couple fumbling through their belongings looking for the check book.

Today, I waited patiently as Guy on the Left fell slightly behind Guy on the Right in their unloading. Switching lines at this point is usually not a wise option, as inevitably that speeds up the line you left and slows down your new choice. Besides, you can’t switch more than once without looking like you’re planning an armed robbery. You need to commit to your choice and stay with it unless some serious misfortune befalls the line, like a price check, a register running out of receipt tape, or (God forbid) some once-in-a-lifetime calamity like a travelers cheque.

The line I didn’t choose is now wide open while in my line, the unloading has just finished and the customer is ready to step forward and acknowledge the cashier. I momentarily consider switching before two more carts pull in the temporarily cleared line and eliminate that option. That’s okay, though; I’m thinking my patience has paid off and I’ll be plunking my tea on the conveyor belt shortly. Suddenly, I’m horrified by a completely unexpected development: the customer in front of me knows the cashier’s mother! Soon there is chitting and chatting and reminiscing and banter, and I’m starting to wish my tea had a little more preservatives and a little less organic brown rice syrup, because it looks like I could be standing here a while.

While the grocery checkout system we have in America has its flaws, I still think it’s better than the foreign alternatives I’ve seen in some of my travels overseas. In Manila, where retail seemed to be on steroids with the humongous Mega Mall just a few train stops down from the even larger Mall of Asia, I was in a grocery store that had no fewer than 35 checkout lines, and each of them was staffed on the busy afternoon I visited. In addition to designating several lanes as eight items or less (I think they’re on the octal system there rather than the metric), they also had two lanes marked “elderly only”. I would’ve thought this was a great idea if they hadn’t defined “elderly” as 50 and over, so I decided to be offended instead.

In London, where I believe food stores are called apothecaries or chemists or something like that, I was too intimidated by biscuits that looked like cookies and cashiers that looked like earls to buy anything. In Bombay, the huge population apparently necessitates a whole different system that involves massing around the checkout and jostling for recognition like you were in some sort of commodities trading pit. Where there were lines, they didn’t seem to exist for any reason, as I had people literally step in front of me to make their purchase. In Sri Lanka, a rebel insurgency requires you to stand in line to go through security before you can stand in another line to do something else, so you’ve kind of lost interest by then and decide to order room service instead.

Then there are the lines to get out of these countries and back into the U.S. Unlike retail lines, where annoyance and a waste of time are the biggest risk, the immigration and customs lines feel like actual life-or-death scenarios. When I tried to get out of Hong Kong, I had to pass through a scanner that detected my body temperature to make sure I didn’t have SARs, bird flu or other forms of excessive hotness. After it was determined that I was cool, I was challenged again at the ticket counter to prove that I was eventually going back to the States instead of staying indefinitely at my interim destination in the Philippines. My pasty features and American passport apparently weren’t proof enough that I wasn’t Filipino; I had to go through back flips to produce documentation that I had an airline ticket back home.

Once I got to my final stop in Charlotte a few days later, my joy at being home after five weeks abroad was quickly dampened by the long, snaking line leading up to the immigration desks. About a half-dozen officers were on hand to service two jumbo jets that landed simultaneously for what must’ve been the first time in North Carolina history. Two subsections separately serviced American citizens and foreign nationals, though a third one for suspiciously dusky people who carried all their luggage on the plane with them would’ve been helpful. The perfunctory inspection that resulted in every one of the hundreds who were waiting being waved through eventually got me to my baggage and the customs officials. As soon as the official saw that I had visited something called Sri Lanka, I was ordered aside for a thorough search. The inspector was very chatty and very friendly, which I suspect was the result of some intense profiling training rather than a desire to be nice. Finally satisfied that my cheap souvenirs and even cheaper wardrobe presented no significant threat to national security, I got to meet my family and head for home.

I suppose it’s only appropriate that the profiling came back to haunt me.

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One Response to “Revisited: Waiting in line”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    Although you didn’t label it as such, I see that you too are into what I refer to as Grocery Voyeurism. I’ve blogged about this on more than one occasion. You do have a slightly different version. In my version, you always get into the 10 items or fewer lane (my grocery is grammatically correct, and thus does not say 10 items or less). Then you try to imagine what the person ahead of you is going to do with 8 cans of lima beans, one bag of celery, and one quart of 10W30 motor oil.

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