01.02
What to do while they pack your groceries

Is that oversized pack of 24 Cottonelle toilet rolls, precariously balanced on the Paul Mitchell Tea Tree Special Shampoo (with its unique combination of tea tree oil, peppermint and lavender for that refreshing fragrance experience), going to get traction? Or will it be left hanging on the hard end of the checkout counter?

A twenty-first century hunter-gatherer surveying his kill. Shopping cart unloaded faster than Checkout Girl is able to process, I pause.

I picture my cubs back home, wild with excitement when they hear how I trapped a carton of Dibbs Caramel Ice Cream in the frozen section. I puff my chest out a little further and smile proudly at Checkout girl.

What to do now?

Back in England there would be no time for reflection. I would have to rush through to the other end of the counter in a hopeless race against Checkout Girl. No contest. Groceries would pile up in a car crash at the end of the conveyor belt, eggs would crack under the weight of a Boddingtons twelve pack, freshly baked loaves of bread become horribly disfigured, grapes pop spectacularly and pots of yoghurts threaten to explode under the concerted pressure of two hundred pounds of Supermarket shop.

Worse, one of those floating assistants with learning difficulties would select me as the shopper who needs help and volunteer to pack my purchases. Frozen pizza wedged up against warm bread and a box of eggs underneath twenty-four cans of Diet Pepsi, they mean well, but have no idea. I used to make sure I looked especially unkempt before embarking on a supermarket shop back home, simply to scare off the well-meaning, but utterly hopeless bag-packers that occupy the lower echelons of the British Supermarket food chain.

In America, of course, it’s very different.

A dedicated professional packer is already waiting to bring order to the chaos of my shop.

“Paper or plastic?”

“You what?”

“Paper or plastic?”

“I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re asking me. Is this some kind of game?”

“Do you want paper or plastic bags, Sir?”

“Oh, sorry, plastic of course.” I’m don’t want a bag that can’t transport the weight of my aerosol cans to my gas-guzzling SUV. Saving the planet not my problem. Leave that to the next generation.

But what now? Cart unloaded, Checkout Girl checking everything out, Packer expertly packing it all at the other end, I’m redundant.

An uncomfortable feeling.

As an Englishman I’m ill at ease with all this service. I feel I should help, but I’m neither needed nor wanted. I have absolutely no idea what to do.

If I were American I would simply start talking.

Instead I just stand there, rocking back on my heels a little and smiling weakly at Checkout Girl. I could talk about the weather. But we haven’t been introduced. She did say “Hi”. Does that constitute a formal introduction? Her name badge tells me she’s called Kristiana. I couldn’t possibly just start talking to her.

How old she is? I’m going to find out in a minute. I’m guessing twenty-two. Exactly half my age. Wish that thought hadn’t happened… I’m about to find out… The wine has made it to the top of the conveyor belt. And, yes, oh… I am surprised, under twenty-one.

In America alcohol is too dangerous for anyone under twenty-one to handle, even in an unopened bottle. An underage checkout girl, or guy for that matter, is not allowed to touch the stuff and so has to call for their Supervisor to process the purchase.

The English equivalent is money. A £50 cash-back at Sainsbury’s requires supervisor authorisation. Our hang-up is money. America’s is alcohol. There’s a law here in Illinois that refuses a drinking license to any restaurant that opens up within two hundred yards of a Day Care Centre. That’s quite some distance for a baby to crawl. Even when chasing a shot of Tequila.

What am I doing here anyway? This is no place for a man. I’ve been conned into doing the Supermarket run. My wife told me that it was manly to go foraging for food, but the only men I can see are in tow. My wife would know what to do while waiting for the shopping to be packed. I guess she would do what she always does. Play Space Invaders on her Blackberry.

I look around a bit.

Men think about sex every three seconds. Not here they don’t.

I think about not thinking about sex and wonder if it counts as thinking about sex

‘Dum di dum di dum dum. When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench I can always here them talk. Me I’m just a lawnmower you can tall me by the way I walk’. Where did that come from? A nonsensical 1973 rock lyric. One of my favourites. Whatever happens in my life I will always remember these words. ‘There’s always been Ethel’ comes next. Even as my memory fades in older age this will be one of the last fragments to go. My last words could well be ‘There’s always been Ethel’.

I get my loyalty discount card out of my wallet ready to pay. Okay done that, so what now?

I decide against picking my nose. It could be embarrassing. An armed robbery might take place just in front of me and the grainy security camera images that subsequently appear on national TV would catch me in the top left corner with a finger wedged up my left nostril.

I think again about not thinking about sex.

How much have I spent? I’m betting 412 dollars, 63 cents. I’m good at guessing the total bill. No idea how much individual items cost, and deeply suspicious of anything cheap or discounted which is pretty much everything here, but I can price a mound of groceries to within 5%. I don’t subscribe to the Micawberian ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’ school of thought (nor, I suppose do Americans –‘look after the dollars and the cents will look after themselves’ doesn’t quite have the same ring). Look after the pounds, is my way of thinking, and you don’t need to bother about pennies.

Is there anything left in my Starbucks cup? (Best thing about this Supermarket is the Starbucks inside). I turn it upside down and throw back my head to drain the last remaining dregs. Check-out Girl pauses, briefly looks concerned before giving me a big American smile. Fleeting sexual thought.

I watch my carton of Good Eggs from Good Farms pass on the conveyor. I always buy Good Eggs now, ever since discovering that they print a psalm on the inside lid of the carton. Why do they do that? Are they hoping to convert me over breakfast?

The end is nigh. 431 dollars and 3 cents. Within 5%. Told you I was good.

“Do you need any help, Sir?”

“What? To wheel my well-packed trolley all of thirty yards to my car?”

“Yes, Sir”

“No I think I might just about be able to manage that myself, thank you.”

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