The Shopping Basket Case
Stop the clock! This week marked a much longed for triumph. After more than two and a half years, I managed to fit all my groceries into my shopping bags just as the cashier rang up the total. On top of it, I managed to put the right things into the right bags – soft and dry stuff in the one, cold and heavy stuff in the other… and the bags were neatly nestled in my trolley as I achieved this Olympic feat. Trust me, this is a big deal.
Perhaps my memories have been adjusted to reflect a rather rosy perspective, but where I come from you usually have a fairly friendly cashier ably supported by an equally friendly packer, who try very hard to pack your things as they perceive you might like them to be packed. The worst you could encounter is having a dozen eggs supporting the canned goods or having to remind the packer to please keep the ant poison (sorry environment, I need to save my house) separate from the food items.
It’s hard to understand the psychology behind it all, but here the picture is tinted somewhat differently. The tension creeps in as you approach the tills. Typically, you find yourself in a long queue, which you accept as being par for the course, but you are alone in your acceptance. The impatience levels are tangible as the trolley or basket behind you gives you a firm push along, as if you had any other place to be than the spot in which you are standing. The person in front holds firm even though there is a half-a-metre gap in front of her (which is possibly what Mr Behind Me Now sees and hopes I can help close). Now if you really want to start getting a South African’s hackles to rise, it’s to nudge them in a shopping queue. We’ve far too street-smart to know that’s how you get to donate your smartphone or purse to a quick-fingered quasi-shopper. So, Mr Behind Me Now doesn’t realise that he’s dealing with a ticking time bomb who did a self-defence course when she was in high school and can go from sweet little caring Cara to I-can-make-an-example-of-you-if-you-give-me-a-chance wannabe Ninja.
Now, this is when a small miracle takes place every time. Suddenly a frail little old man (actually, it could be a twenty-something in his prime – it doesn’t seem to make a difference) appears to the side of us, apologetically holding his sparse supply of goods for the day ahead in his two hands, the weight of which makes his shoulders droop. The queue shrinks and steps back to allow him to take pole position at the till. This is where us South Africans draw the line, we are very firm about our place in the queue and it takes a very rare moment of letting your guard down and not having the energy to argue to let anything like this happen, especially when they are not supporting the supermarket to the degree that you are (and they have the cheek to pay with a credit card, taking up even more time!). Yet, here, where impatience is the hallmark of the shopping experience, it is understood that the less you have to buy, the better you are treated.
It’s at this point when my conscience taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that I can be a better person and look how happy that queue-defying shopper jauntily exits the shop (yes, the frail old man suddenly develops a carefree spring in his step and I haven’t moved an inch).
In the meantime, the cashier has summoned reinforcements and Cashier Number 2 arrives. Well, the moment the announcement is made by Cashier Number 1 your fellow shoppers morph into sprinters, eyes focused on the target, legs-get-set and awaiting the go-ahead. It took me many months to realise the go-ahead comes in the form of either a subtle lift of Cashier Number 2’s eyebrows or slight movement of the chin, but then all hell breaks loose like long-distance runners jostling for position over a two metre cross-over. There’s no such thing as, “Well, I was here first and you came after me, so I guess I’d better go over to the other side then and thank you ever so much for taking over the spot I warmed up for you!”. Oh no, if you’re not quick… well, then you’re exactly where you were before. The rule, it would seem, is “Last in the first queue, first out the shop” and it hardly ever works in my favour, unless the Mr Behind Me Now has just nudged me and I am ready to pounce. Then my senses are primed for action.
Finally, I reach the till where the last opponent in this tale is Cashier Number 1. The cashier is usually a robust, narrow- and steely-eyed character who, with her/his deft wrist-flicks and a strong sadistic streak, matches and overtakes the speed at which you attempt to pack your shopping bag – and, let me tell you, it’s a clumsy, feeble and humiliating attempt. You almost hear the silent cheering by the shoppers waiting behind you, egging her on to greater speeds as you smash your loaf of bread into the side of the bag, while squeezing in the cartons of milk and shredding the bag. Mr Behind Me Now adds to the scrum by moving into your spot as you try to stop the trolley from rolling away after your last effort at hurling the washing powder and softener into the trolley, beyond caring whether they make it into a packet or not. Cashier Number 1 jubilantly calls out the total due as your fingers turn to jelly strips, trying to clutch at those little items that just keep falling back onto the waiting area of shame. Giving up, you scoop them up in your arms and throw them down, not caring if they even land in the trolley. The queue makes a further choreographed move and shifts forward about a metre, edging you closer to the door. You hand over your debit card and key in your pin code like a T-Rex, extending your neck to try to make up for you having to reach your little arms from the back of the trolley to the front where Cashier Number 1 sits, tapping the pen impatiently against her fingers, waiting for the payment to go through.
I won’t lie, I am sure I need a new debit card with a super-duper magnetic strip, but this is where I exact my revenge as she has to swipe the card two, three times before it registers and the queue holds their breath, nearly exploding with annoyance.
Over time, I’ve learnt to stand my ground, smugly keying in my pin code and standing in the same spot as I put my purse away. Another tactic is to hurl my groceries into the trolley, moving to a quiet place where I can slow down to a panic and pack the contents at my leisure while at least five shoppers are processed, scuttling out the shop in a hurry to goodness knows where.
On this day of success, almost a week ago, I devised a new tactic. My cunning took me by surprise, but oh how it paid off. My success has made me generous and I don’t mind sharing my secrets with you. To put the cashier on the back foot from the get-go, I placed the big bag of toilet rolls first. A friend has expanded on this tactic by recommending that I put the fruit and veg that require weighing down next. Then I put the rest of the contents down in the reverse order of how I would unpack them back at home (this is usually how it should be done, but thinking in reverse is like doing trigonometry for me) and finally I made sure I used firm bags that would be able to stay open in the trolley as I started filling them. Now, maybe I was in a more resilient or determined mood than usual – or maybe it was because I was the only customer in the queue on that day – but I’d like to think that my success all comes down to me mastering the art of packing. It’s taken over two and a half years and I’d hate to think it’s a fluke.
Maybe I’m reluctant to put my newfound mastery to the test, but boy am I happy that the shops are closed on Sundays. If anything, I usually just need a day to recover from the shame and humiliation of being a tad too slow, but this week I want to hold onto that mental trophy for as long as I can, while Cashier Number 1 reflects on her failure, licks her wounds and cracks her knuckles in preparation for her revenge…