Successful navigation of life requires one to execute as a participating party in various well-defined social contracts.
Unfortunately, as a person who can be rather scatterbrained at times – more than one person has asked me, “What color is the sky in your world?” – I sometimes inadvertantly find myself in breach of one of these contracts.
Imagine, for example, the contract of the grocery store checkout line.
You put your things on the conveyor. In response, the clerk pushes a button which causes the conveyor to move forward. Depending on the caliber of the store, the clerk may ask you if you’ve found everything you were looking for. The correct answer is “yes”.
One by one, he or she picks up an item, and either a) runs it through the path of the laser beam of a scanner, and upon hearing a positive, happy-sounding beep, puts the item down on a conveyor on the other side of the scanner, or b) if it has no UPC code, visually determines what the item is, punches in a code for the item, and then sets it down on the conveyor.
(For simplicity, assume that the scanner always finds the UPC code on the item, the clerk can distinguish a rutabaga from a turnip, none of the items are dropped into the conveyor rollers, jamming it up, and under no circumstances do you try to use expired coupons from competing stores that are for products that are completely different from the ones you are trying to buy)
During this activity on the part of the clerk, you shuffle forward a few feet to a small check-writing platform, which, if you were born after 1945, is really only useful as a place for the marketing scumbags to show ads to a captive audience.
After all of your items have been checked out, the clerk pushes another button, which this time produces a sum of all of the items’ prices. The clerk will speak this number out loud, and that’s your cue to hand over an appropriate amount of cash, or, possibly, swipe a credit card.
Depending again on the quality of the store, you now either bag the items, or, stand around while someone else bags the items.
In the latter case, you might be asked to make a spot judgement call on the kind of bag you prefer be used, but that’s usually not a very tough decision, since there are only two kinds of bags available. You could try to invent a comedic third option, but nobody likes a smartass.
Once the bagging is complete, you go on your merry way, crumpling the receipt that the clerk handed you into a tiny ball – because it, too, is covered in advertising – making for easy tossing into a strategically placed garbage can.
On the whole, this is a simple contract that doesn’t require very much thought from any of the involved parties.
It gets slightly more complicated when there are multiple people in line at the same time. How do we handle cases where items belonging to more than one person are on the conveyor at the same time? What if two orders were to get mixed together? There would be chaos!
This was a problem in urgent need of a fix, since “Americans on the Go” frequently exhibit the curious belief that if they are in a line, whether it be at the grocery or in car traffic, smaller gaps between people always shorten the total length of time required to get through the line.
In response, some clever person invented the checkout divider, which is nothing more than a plastic cuboid, either hollow or solid, whose long edge is roughly as wide as the conveyor belt, the idea being that each customer would grab one and place it between their items and the items ahead, giving a much clearer visual indication of the boundary between two sets of items than an ever-shrinking amount of empty space ever could.
Never again would we suffer the indignity of someone’s pile of Lean Cuisine intermingling with someone else’s pile of Hot Pockets.
Over the years, other clever people have evolved these dividers into yet another vector of assault for the marketing scumbags, and so, as someone who is allergic to marketing, I never use them.
And that’s what got me into trouble the other night.
I had gone into a smallish natural foods store to get a couple of things. Items found, I selected a lane in which there was a single cart, that, although containing a large number of items, seemed to be well along in its transaction. The owners of the cart were two men, one older, one younger. I stepped into the lane, and put my items on the end of the conveyor, at least two feet behind the nearest items belonging to the people ahead.
While waiting, as I scanned the covers of various tabloids – sadly, my only source of the kind of crass and schadenfreudic information they provide – (and by “sadly”, I mean that I’m sad that I have any source at all!) a young woman burst past me and put a few more things on the conveyor, between my things and the things of the people ahead of me.
The shock of this seeming violation of protocol quickly wore off when it became clear that she was somehow connected to the two men; I wasn’t sure how they were all related, but there was some vibe that the older man was a parent of one or both of the younger people. They were busily bagging things up, since, in this establishment, the clerk and the bagger are the same person, and the clerk was still ringing up their items.
I then turned to glance at a middle-aged woman who had entered the lane behind me with a cart filled to the brim with items. When I glanced back, I found that the conveyor had moved forward and my items had been scanned!
Believing that the clerk had performed the totalling phase of the transaction ahead of me while my attention was elsewhere, and had decided to scan my items while the other people finished bagging, I did nothing, choosing instead to bide my time until the people ahead cleared out, making room for me to move forward and pay for my own items.
Then the clerk said, “$345.57”, and not a nanosecond later, the older man swiped a credit card and scrawled a signature on the pad, thus immediately concluding his transaction, _ including my items, which were now being scooped up into one of his bags!_
I had completely missed the window of time where I could have indignantly, but without causing consternation, said to the clerk, “I say, my dear fellow! Those items belong to me!” The transaction had been concluded; a large sum of money had changed hands. As the seconds thundered on, I became acutely aware that I was operating without a contract. I was standing in the middle of a checkout lane with no items to check out.
To make it even more interesting, none of the other five people had even gestured or made an utterance of any kind to show that they had seen or understood what had happened, or, for that matter, to acknowledge that I was even there at all, or indeed, had ever been there.
I had become completely invisible. How exciting! It’s not every day that one becomes completely invisible.
What was my next action? Did I use this newfound power for good, or for evil? You decide.
I turned and walked, quietly and slowly, backward out of the lane, past the middle-aged woman, and then over to the end of the checkout aisles, where I then made my way outside and back to my car.
I chuckled and pictured those people getting home and being deeply puzzled by the half gallon of Original Rice Dream and bag of Mi-Del Lemon Snaps that had been magically inserted into their groceries.
Alas, this small amusement soon gave way to the thought, given the enormity of their purchase, that it was probable that each of the three people got plenty of items that the other two did not know they were getting, and that the odds were quite small that those extra items would ever be noticed by anyone.
The whole episode spurs the question, “If a tree falls in a forest, does anyone laugh?”