From Lane Sixteen

Black and white drawing of half of human face with a reflection.
Thumbnail Art by Mariana Moreira

My life could be summarized as a series of beeps. More specifically, the beep that emanates from the grocery scanner that I find myself standing behind most days of the week. You pass an item with a barcode over its smooth, glassy surface and “beep”. A customer walks up to me and I recite the standard greeting. “Hello, how are you? Did you find everything you were looking for today?” Beep. “Your total comes to $39.67” Beep. “Have a great day, sir or ma’am.” Beep. Sometimes I make small talk with the customers. Even that comes out as a beep though. Sometimes the beeps that come out of the scanner sound slightly louder or softer than they should. They are slightly different beeps. These are the beeps I speak in when I’m making small-talk with my customers. Slightly different each time, but ultimately, only beeps.

The customers have a beep of their own. It has its own pitch and moan. It’s always different sounding, but eventually it all starts to sound the same. They don’t have a lot of interesting things to say. It’s almost as if they all got together somewhere and had a conference where they decided on about 20 or 30 predetermined things they can say at any given time to cashiers, and vowed never to differ from the sacred list. They come to me, beeping about their kids, how they hate shopping, how they only meant to pick up a few items but ended up filling two shopping carts to the brim with food. It’s obscene how much junk food people buy. They max out their food stamp cards with cookies, soda, sugar cereal, potato chips, etc. A hungry child dies in Africa of starvation and I scan a jumbo-sized box of fudge-dipped Oreos. Beep.

It’s not all as bad as I make it out to be. Occasionally there are interesting customers who find their way into my lane. They sometimes impart their philosophies onto me, as if they’re compelled to teach me something for the few short moments I know them. Because I’m young, I think. The majority of my customers are middle-aged folks. They’ve seen a lot more than I have and I think they’re desperate to reach out to someone, anyone, if only for a moment, even if it’s the lowly teenager working the cash register at the local grocery store. Many of them seem like sad, broken people. They look at me sometimes with sad cow eyes. A sort of quiet, desperate scream can be heard when you look into them. Their mouths turn into little, strange smiles. They abandoned their dreams along ago and seeing me makes them remember what it was like to be full of youth and life, I think. They crack jokes, some funny, most of them corny. I laugh even if it’s corny. I like these customers. They don’t beep so much.

I don’t actually mind my job sometimes. All beeps aside, it provides me with spending money and it’s not hard work. I could be a lot worse off. It really helped develop my people skills as well. I used to be very shy. After being forced to interact directly with the public for hours on end, I found my voice. I enjoy the people I work with. They’re kind. I used to be a bus boy and I worked alongside a whole lot of assholes. The people here are screwed up in their own way, but I kind of like that about them.

Take a woman named Leslie, for example. Leslie makes up the population of cashiers that we refer to as the “lifers”. These sad employees were, at one time, just like me. They washed up on these cold, linoleum shores long ago, seeking refuge and steady pay. Years passed by and suddenly they found themselves trapped, totally institutionalized, finding comfort in the constant company of strangers and warmth beneath the pale fluorescent lighting. I swear I’ll quit before I become that way. Leslie enjoys buying a twelve-pack of cheap beer and a bottle of even cheaper wine every night after her eight-hour drudgery. To wash away the misery of a wasted life, I expect.

Then there’s Darius. A hulking, bald-headed wild man carved out of ebony. He regales us all with tales of excess, unnecessarily descriptive stories of every sexual encounter he’s ever been involved in, and often comes to work drunk. On several occasions he and I have worked the self-checkout and during those shifts he would take great pleasure in determining which of our female co-workers he found to be the most attractive, revealing which ones he had been with, and very thoroughly explaining to me why I should not get with any of them.

There is one girl, however, who is untouchable. Her name is Angelica, and she is truly the epitome of angelic. I know her name only because I have heard it used. I’ve never said a word to her. She is of a certain level of attractiveness which makes her beyond my level of comfort. She’s around my age, and usually can be found working the express checkout. (The area designated for customers who miraculously only managed to purchase 12 items or less.) She somehow manages to look absolutely riveting, even in her silly work uniform. She makes red polo shirts and nametags look damn good. Her hair is cut so it falls gracefully slanted across her face, like the shadows in some noir film. I think she is either Italian or Spanish. I’m not sure. I have been biding my time in closeted anxiety for the day when by chance, we will work the fast lane together. That’s when I’ll make my move.

I said it wasn’t all bad in reference to working. There are times, however, when things can take a drastic turn from “not all bad” to utter disaster. Allow me to explain. I once had a woman who came into my lane. She was young, maybe in her late twenties. A mother, she had three little children tagging alongside her when she came wheeling down to my register with her absolutely massive shopping cart assortment of items. It was filled to the absolute limit. I was surprised the shopping cart didn’t collapse under the weight of it all.

This slightly annoyed me, but being the sunny guy that I am, I tried to keep a positive state-of-mind. As she unloaded her bulging cart, her kids began rifling through the candy displays that make up the walls of the lane. They picked up every candy bar their beady little eyes could see, and the littlest one was putting unopened candy bars into his mouth and sucking noisily on them. I realized these were just children, and this sort of behavior was to be expected of them. I was not annoyed with them. My annoyance was with the mother who chose to completely disregard what her children were doing so that she simply didn’t have to be bothered with it. I see a lot of bad parents when I work.

I didn’t bother to say anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of my experiences, it’s that it is nearly impossible to get people to act the way you want them to, or even expect them to. Even if it’s just simple, socially acceptable behavior. I started scanning the massive heap of items that were piled up upon my conveyor belt. I filled bag after bag full of junk, the scanner beeping in rhythm with my motions, a song I know well. I hardly put a dent in her order after what seemed like forever. She stops me midway through bagging a frozen dinner. “Wait, I have separate order!” Her English is poor and she speaks with a heavy accent. I comply and ring her up for the items I’ve scanned thus far.

“Welp, that’ll be $237.55”, I say, in my artificial cashier voice.

She starts digging around in her purse for something.

“I have a coupons.” She informs me. I hate coupons. They are the bane of my cashier existence. They are usually a complete hassle, and this experienced proved no different. If a coupon has the word “FREE” written anywhere on it with a picture of a loaf of bread somewhere, the customer will automatically assume they are about to receive a free loaf of bread. This is not so. If they had bothered to actually take the five seconds and read the words below the word “FREE”, they would discover what the coupon actually says is something more like: “FREE… with purchase of 2 loaves of Honey-Wheat Homestyle bread.”

Some people just choose to blindly ignore it, hoping I won’t catch it and I’ll let them use the damn thing anyways. I often do. It’s not worth the hassle of explaining it all to a dumbstruck person, who will most likely cause a big fuss and get a manager involved so they can get thirty-five cents off of a can of soup.

So surely enough, the woman in my line hands me a towering stack of coupons. I hope and pray they all scan through with the satisfying beep of no complication. I run the first one over the scanner. “Bzzzt!” No such luck.

I tell the computer to accept it anyways, hoping the next one million will all work. It was for a small amount anyways. I run the next coupon under the scanner and again I am treated to a painful and mocking “Bzzzzzt!” I actually decide to read this coupon. It says: “$1.00 off of the purchase of Homestyle Butter Spread with the purchase of (3) or more 8 oz tubs of Homestyle Butter Spread.” I check the order on the computer screen. This woman has purchased no butter spread. She just gives me a confused look when I attempt to explain this to her. I stare back at her.

“You mean…” she hesitates, “I no…can use?” I shake my head and firmly say “No. You no can use” She seems to accept this and nods her head in agreement. I warily slide the next coupon. This one is a $10 off coupon for some sort of new teeth-whitening solution. I definitely cannot accept this one if it doesn’t work. “Bzzzt!” I ask her, knowing good and well the answer, if she’s purchased this item. She nods. I tell her I don’t think that she did. She digs into one of the bags and pulls out a bottle of mouthwash.

“This is.” She explains.

Not even close, lady.

This pattern continues for the remainder of the coupon stack. One or two actually work, but the rest don’t. I now have a vendetta against this woman. Who is she to come into my lane with her feral children, her faulty coupons and her broken English? Customers are piling up behind her, some becoming visibly ornery and annoyed. The tension was palpable. Normally I would have finished this order in about 10 minutes or less. It takes me a good 25 to sort this mess out. After I had finally finished with all of the woman’s nonsense, I was thoroughly upset and agitated.

As she strode off with her brats, pushing her cart down the concourse to the exit, I looked upon the destruction left in her wake. My lane is littered with candy wrappers and other assorted garbage. Mashed grapes and spilled soda coat the floor in a layer of sticky grime. My boss approaches me several minutes later. I’m in the middle of ringing up a man with a bad ear, who beeped endlessly about his grandson and how he’s in the air force. Boss asks me if I remember a woman with some kids. Of course I do. How could I forget? She tells me that the woman came to her and made a comment (albeit, a hard-to-decipher) about me being a nice, patient young man. She went on to commend me for the good job that I did. Like I said, it isn’t always so bad.

(Thumbnail Art by Mariana Moreira)