Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My Karmic Debit Card (In the Category of Be Where You Are.)

I believe in karma, the cosmic principle wherein each person is rewarded or punished in one incarnation based on that person's deeds in the previous incarnation. So when annoying things happen to me consistently, I assume that the Universe is exacting some sort of payment toward my karmic debt, whether it was accrued in this lifetime, or perhaps, the last one. If I’m right, then I cannot help but wonder what I did to deserve my checkout lane karma.

Picture this: It’s Sunday morning. Churchgoers are in church; I’m feeling smug about rousing myself early to go to the grocery store for the weekly shopping. My timing is good. I’m late enough to miss the good folks shopping for doughnuts and creamer to contribute to the church’s after Mass coffee service (two dozen glazed once a month...not too much to give in the coffee service of the Lord). I’m early enough to miss the rush of post-church shoppers. (“Oh, crap, Jeb, I forgot to get your Mucinex at the store yesterday…swing by and I’ll run in.”… “Dammit, Trixie, the race is about to start!”)

The grocer has recently rearranged all the shelves again, but I manage to find everything. (The pretzels are now next to bleach? Really?) I find, finally, the mascarpone cheese, the cat food (in gravy), the dish detergent, veggies, fruits, ground beef, goldfish food…I make my way to the checkout lane feeling pleased at having finished shopping so quickly. At this point, any number of things might happen, but they will all yield the same end result: the checkout lane in which I stand will stall.

The Universe enthralls me with the variety of ways I can “break” a checkout lane simply by standing in it. On a good day, it manifests as a simple outage of receipt tape that must be corrected before my transaction can take place. On a really good day, as I step up to the transaction area, the cashier will give me a meaningful look, flip open the cover, and swap the plastic spindle for a full roll of paper in less than four moves. On a typical day, at least one manager must get involved. Sometimes the register hasn’t been stocked with a spare roll of receipt tape, which requires the bagger to run to the customer service desk. It gets more involved if the ink ribbon needs to be replaced. Much more involved.

This also happens often: I get in a lane (any type of store) behind a person who is halfway through their checkout process. Invariably, the next item scanned returns an “item not found” error, leading to a price check. On a good day, a manager with a scanner resolves this in just a few swipes. On a typical day, a second manager is required to come up with a price and override the Point Of Sale system to allow the cashier to ring in a “general merchandise” charge.

I get the classic coupon stall pretty regularly. I’ll get in a checkout lane just in time to watch the person in front of me begin to argue with the cashier over a $1.00 coupon that the cash register refused to credit. Look, I clip coupons myself, and in defense of the woman, the cashier involved on that particular day is a total bitch about coupons that don’t just ring in. Should the cash register give the slightest sign of impropriety, she will launch a full investigation. (Are you sure you bought three cans? It says you need to buy three. I only see two.) I mean, she’s a real stickler, and she’ll stand her ground, even on a Saturday morning, and let the line back up while she argues with her customer about whether or not the $1.00 coupon is valid. When she does it to me, I let it go – I just want to get out of there. On that day, I came very close to giving the woman with the errant coupon a dollar just to get the line moving again. But I couldn’t blame her. Her coupon would have scanned just fine if I hadn’t chosen to stand in that lane.

I have had people ahead of me in line turn and apologize to me when the item they are trying to buy is missing a price tag. I get funny looks from them when I shake my head and say demurely, “it’s not you, it’s me.” My husband thought I was kidding when I told him about my checkout lane karma. He’s a believer now. His moment of conversion came when I…

I took down an entire K Mart – every register in the store.

It was December. The holiday shopping season was on. My husband and I went in for one item, one $350.00 dollar item (a digital camera, and I know that seems like too much to spend now, but that was low end in 2003). It took 15 minutes to get a sales associate to come to the electronics counter. Whatever. When the guy could finally be bothered long enough to pull the camera out of the display case, it was only a few minutes more before we knew we wanted to buy it.

As soon as he scanned the UPC, the display on his register flickered. He frowned, cleared the display and tried again. Nothing. Shrugging, he said, “Sorry. You’ll have to checkout up front.” I looked at my husband apologetically. He rolled his eyes and tried not to laugh. I knew he was thinking, “Crap, she’s broken the cash register again.”

The lines at the front of the store were three deep at each register, but they were still moving. We surveyed our options and selected Checkout # 7 behind three women completing their Christmas shopping – the cashier seemed to be making good progress on their order. As we took our place, the cashier suddenly scowled at the register, started punching buttons and muttering. Moments later, cashiers up and down the store checkout area began to do the same, as well as consulting with each other and looking frantic. At register # 5, an infant began to cry; its older brother (a toddler himself) comforted his sibling by patting its head, doing so with increasing vigor as the volume of the infant's cries increased.

As the line behind us lengthened, I looked helplessly at my husband. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed. He just shook his head; his unexpressed mirth was beginning to make his sides shake. Without speaking, we agreed on the course of action, removed ourselves from the line, dropped the camera off at the customer service desk and turned to leave. We overhead a harried-looking manager exclaim to one of his co-workers, “the whole system is down; it just crashed for no reason. It’ll take 15 minutes to reboot.”

“That’s enough shopping for today,” my husband said in his best Air Force Sergeant voice. “Let’s get a beer.” (Interestingly, I have never “broken” the cash register in a bar, not even when I tended one and spilled a glass of water all over the keyboard. It is always better to go drinking with me than shopping.)

Checkout Lane karmic force was strong with me this past Saturday. My husband and I encountered the run of the mill receipt-tape-replacement mojo in the grocery store, but Ethel knows her shit, and she had that swapped out in no time. By all accounts, I was having a good day. Things didn’t start to go really bad until we got to the gas station, our next errand (we meet there with both cars, pull into a single lane and take full advantage of the gas points). I pulled in behind a young man who was taking the time, while the gas dispensed, to scrub down his entire BMW 3 Series sedan with the squeegee provided to clean windshields. The gas pump stopped, and by now the line was two deep behind me (including my husband). The man replaced the pump handle and closed his gas cap, then he continued scrubbing his car all over with the squeegee. I watched this for three minutes (it felt like ten) and then couldn’t restrain myself. I rolled down my car window.

“There’s a car wash right behind us if you want to clean your car,” I offered, pointing to the drive-thru car wash and trying to sound helpful.

“I know. I’m getting a car wash. I just want to prep my car first.” He continued to scrub. Two more cars joined the queue.

“You’re really holding up the line.”

“Hey, fuck you. I had to wait too.”

I hope you wreck your car before the day ends, I thought to myself. (I rarely wish this sort of instant karma on another; it cuts both ways.)

My last errand was a quick stop in the drug store for a new pair of cheap sunglasses and a powder compact. The compact took no time, but I may have overlingered at the two racks of Foster Grants. After making a selection, I headed to the one open cash register only steps behind a lady who pushed a basket overflowing with cleaning supplies and all manner of healthcare products. She presented the cashier with a six-inch-high stack of manufacturer’s coupons, which she had pulled from the three-ring coupon organizer that perched across the child’s seat in the shopping cart.

Clearly, I was in the presence of a Super Couponer, and I say, good on her! She paid cash, less than $40 for two jugs of laundry detergent, a jug of fabric softener, one shampoo, two bottles of mouthwash, two boxes of hair color, three greeting cards, a bag of potato chips, and two two-liter bottles of Sprite. She then turned in another two-inch stack of in-store coupons and scored two candy bars, a pack of gum, and a lip balm for — best I could tell — free.

As I mentioned, I have no problem with couponers. I am one. I was actually impressed with how she worked the clipped coupons in with the store issue, most of which were merely receipts from previous visits. Had any other person gotten in that checkout lane behind her, she most likely would have stood quietly, watching to make sure each item rang in at the correct, advertised price (she had that week’s circular at the ready). But I got in the line, my karma kicked in, and she began to chat. Incessantly.

The cashier, bless him, did not demonstrate any knowledge of multitasking. As she jabbered away, he would only scan one coupon, look up and listen to her for a few moments, scan another coupon, look up politely once more. I’m not exaggerating when I say she had a six-inch stack of coupons, and I confess. I began to feel impatient. (To the Universe’s credit, it eschewed pulling the old coupon stall karma this time...not sure why, as that opportunity was low hanging fruit.)

Based on the body language, the same could be said for the man with two 16oz. Mountain Dews, the lady with the wrapping paper and the suited businessman with toothpaste. I think we all had the same thought at that moment: “Call for another cashier, you twit.” But they didn’t know what I knew — as long as I stood in the line, this was going to take awhile.

When I finally got home, I told my husband, “That’s it! No more retail checkout lanes for me today!”

I told him the story about the super couponer, yet another transaction on my karmic debit card. He had seen the guy at the gas station, too. He understood. In his best Air Force Sergeant voice he said, “Let’s get a beer.” 

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