The people in my checkout line were impatient. I had chosen self-checkout reluctantly due to endless lines elsewhere, and now, with their faces cemented in a single linear glare, I had become their inadvertent scapegoat. I had eleven different vegetables, tiny peppers in shades of orange and green and three versions of red apple for a still life my class was drawing, none with scanable bar codes. It was taking a long time. “DO YOU HAVE ANY COUPONS?” the touch screen moaned. I shot a glance at the bored, hovering cashier leaning against a nearby podium; someone presumably competent, but unusable. I wondered what I was doing.
I had house flies careening like tiny airplanes around my house. I killed at least nine a day, smashing them with the same paperback until their flying parts resembled wet figs. I was good, really good at this task; I could take out two in less than five seconds. But here I moved slower than I should, my mind sticky. I was relieved when the beep indicated I needed assistance (I had punched in the wrong code on purpose), for then Daneesha showed up: name tag hanging crooked, eyes sunken by too much blue eyeliner, her gum trapped mid chew. She considered an apple.
“You need to take that off the scale.”
The collective sighs of my fellow self-checkers fortified me. “You know I get such a sense of empowerment from being able to do this myself.” Daneesha seemed to get my sarcasm. She elicited a slight smile, crooked too. I continued. Serious.
“Do you actually like standing there, waiting for us to mess up? Wouldn’t you rather be doing something?”
Daneesha thinks. She looks down at the tile and then up “I dunno. I guess so. But it’s kind of fun watching people get mad.”
I decided to prolong everyone’s agony by inserting exact change, seven tattered dollars and six pennies, into the sprawling, automated cashier. I received a tapeworm receipt for my efforts including some coupons it will prove too tedious to use should I find myself here again. (Never!) As I walked out of the store, I thought of all the other things I find tedious about America lately, about Richmond, and what they might have in common.
Starbucks calling a small “tall.”
Starbucks selling mix cds.
Starbucks making mints.
Fandango (that name!) fooling you into thinking your movie night has been made simplerby being able to purchase the tickets online (assuming you own a computer) only to arrive at the theater five minutes prior to show time (normal time, you do have a ticket) and realizing the only seat left is the one where your head is craned at a 90 degree angle to the screen. Why bother?
The cinemas themselves touting more choice when, in fact, even if you can choose between 20 films only ten people can fit into each theater now anyway.
Parking at the mall. Just getting to the mall. It’s almost time for satellite parking and shuttle buses. Where and why is everyone going?
Building two malls that start with the same two letters, S and P, at the same time, in the same city, and expecting anyone to know the difference.
Chipotle, Barnes & Noble, Pet Smart, Old Navy, Crate and Barrel, Target, take your pick. (even Walmart sells decent jeans these days). The little neighborhood, perfectly branded, places we call home and that dictate what we buy. What brand we “are.”
Bluetooth. People out to dinner with their family with the tooth still in. Still on.
People driving while talking on their cell phones and eating the same Panera Tuscan Artichoke Chicken Sandwich the third day in a row.
Grown men in business suits passing the time on the airport shuttle bus by playing games on their V-cast phones.
Anthropologie advising me on what I ought to read.
Green tea and pomegranate infused anything.
Green tea infused half caf soy milk no whip caramel chai latte.
So where’s the common ground?
With any of these, wherever you are, whatever it is, you are everywhere and nowhere at once. There is no moment to actually be in. No place that looks any different from any other anymore. Withcita’s Outback Steakhouse is the same as Omaha’s. Drive down any highway that ultimately becomes a small country road and you will pass the same series of stores saddled by strip malls, repeating endlessly like a bad act of hypnosis. Life’s “joys” are measured by how benignly convenient they appear to be and by how much they allow you to do two things at once. How much they allow you to “be” with others (e-mail! text messaging! I-Ming!) without being) with them at all.
As if these gifts of modernity weren’t enough, you now also live in a world where you can be instantly transformed from tasteless to tasteful; unhealthy to health-obsessed. And so can everyone else. All it takes is a simple swipe of a card, of cards plural, to insure that no one is better than you. Even the trucker from Detroit is aware of the benefits of soy. And don’t forget that you are able to move at the speed of light now, connected to that magnificent, benevolent wireless network that monopolies like Comcast lure you into believing only costs $33 a month. But multiply by 3! You need all three! And you end up paying 99 dollars plus tax. But you can and you do, along with everything else. Therefore, you are smart and independent. You are looking good : you’ve got your Seven’s on! And you’re going places. In fact, you are going to lunch at Panera to sip from your Styrofoam mug ofFire-roasted Tomato Bisque in front of their fake fireplace! Then you are going to dine on Beef Carpaccio andPorcini Ravioli at Brio! You’ve read The DaVinci Code! You’re workingon your fitness like Fergie! Who needs a checker at Kroger? You can do it yourself, albeit with a hollow-voiced robot prompting your every move.
But you know what? I need a checker. I need Raymond. Raymond works at the Carytown Ukrop’s and whenever I am there I make sure I am in his line. He knows me. Addresses me by name. “How you doin’ ,Pam?” The thick gold chain around his neck hangs alongside the numerous good service gold stars on his vest, these when coupled with his large white teeth cause him to glisten. Raymond has worked at Ukrop’s for 27 years. His voice literally purrs, slow as real maple syrup, southern and kind. No matter how many items I have, no matter how many people are piled up behind me, he takes the time to connect with me, to smile, to thaw me out from whatever set offrozen tasks have defined the mostly unmeaningful map of my day. He does this while effortlessly scanning bars of soap, weighing non-stickered seckel pears, and possibly changing cash drawers with another less seasoned checker. In short, he knows what he’s doing. He’s good at it. Not just technical good, but hospitable good. Raymond cares. He cares about doing his job well and, fortunately, a big part of his job is caring about me.
There is something inherently sad and frightening about a world that is moving so fast that courtesies like Raymond’s--basic customer service-- are facing extinction. Even letter writing, let alone letter receiving, both old world courtesies, have become almost dinosaurish acts. What was once one of the simplest and most intimate avenues for human connection, something you wanted to take the time to do and to save because handwriting and paper were evidence of apowerful tie to someone else, has been reduced to an e-mail that gets filed in a virtual “favorites” folder. Like the plethora of credit cards rapidly replacing tangible currency, nothing seems to really “be” anymore. What is money anyway but an abstraction on a computer screen? Certainly not meant to hide under mattresses anymore. And to argue that this same technology has afforded us a more authentic connection to others through its infinite conveniences, is to say that my self-checkout at Kroger was a better grocery experience than my one with Raymond, or Daneesha, were she actually working on my behalf. Quicker? Maybe. But better? Only if the end point is held in higher esteem than the journey. And that’s what worries me.
Everyday we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, where am I? In noticing where we are we often discover who we are. In the larger culture’s efforts to brand and sell, to homogenize, to “empower” by honoring convenience and conformity over genuine engagement or identity, we lose something precious. We lose ourselves. We lose our rich connection to others and to the concept of other itself. When every student is encouraged to take as many AP’s as possible, to load up on mindless extracurriculars, in order to remain competitive for college admission, how is any student expected to stand out or get in? When the same gourmet restaurant is available in any town across America, what, then, defines that place as unique when compared to somewhere else? And when a person is actually asked to stand and watch as someone else, the supposed customer, does his job, all in an effort to increase efficiency, I can’t help but think: at what cost? Self has checked out indeed.
I wonder if there will come a time when my annual mammograms will become self serve too? As awkward as it is to place your breast between two cold sheets of metal andlook away as it is squeezed into an unrecognizable sheet of dough, it helps having the nurse there. Guiding you. Comforting you. Making you a little less worried about what may or may not be growing inside of you. But then my doctor used to call me with the results. Now I get a small white card in the mail with a check mark next to the appropriate typed reading. VCU’s cutting back they tell me. It’s more efficient this way. I comfort myself with the fact that it’s kind ofa “letter”. And at least there hasn’t been any bad news in it yet. But what if the wrong blank gets checked? Would someone real, not some plastic answering machine voice, reach out to me then?
“Today is a marvelous day, Miss Pam, “ Raymond coos on a day when I manage to hand him the exact change. He’s right. It is an extraordinary day, sunny and hot forearly March.
“Yes, it is” I reply, sure that I am better for this exchange. Sure that I am safe. I
haven’t returned to that awful Kroger in months. I notice there are less self-checkout lanes here and that only one is occupied despite an undeniably large pooling of carts.
“Do you ever use those, Raymond?,” I ask, pointing the enemy’s way.
“Naah. No need. I already got my job. And I like what I do. Besides, the less machines the better. I gots to know myself you know? If anything, we need a self check IN, don’t you think?”
“That’s what you are,” I say.
“I know that’s right!,” he chuckles.
I step into the sun with my brown bags. I smile inside. Check.