Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Loser Lane

Life, as it is sometimes

Such a simple thing. I decide to swing by the grocery store on my way home from Ballard. I had a rough evening at the climbing gym, flailing and falling on problems I should be more than capable of.  I was frustrated and confused; I've been working hard and consistently, gaining strength and momentum, inching my way up the bouldering grades when all of a sudden, I can't do anything. My finger tips and the pads on my fingers refused to do anything but pulse in raw, dark red protest, and scream out in pain if I tried to crimp them around a hold.  People around me were crawling up everything and exchanging fist bumps while I just sat there on the floor staring at my hands. Alien hands. Super sensitive wuss hands.

I stop by the Safeway on Market Street. Going to Safeway is a very intentional decision. It's part of my Wise the Fuck Up Coogan Campaign I'm launching for my 26th birthday, which is on Monday.  I'm trying not to go broke, which means I cannot always indulge my fetish for the 'good' grocery stores. It's not that I'm a huge snob. It's just that when I go into the Safeways and the Grocery Outlets and the Wal-Marts, I go back to when I lived in West Virginia and then I have panic attacks.

But I'm trying. "What's so bad about Safeway, anyway?" I ask myself gamely as I walk through the sliding glass door, past an array of sparkling foil birthday balloons. It's bright and well lit, and I find just what I need right away. There is even a tiny little aisle of healthy stuff and it is noticeably cheaper.

Feeling calm and on top of things, I head to the register. I notice the time, just shy of ten o'clock, and feel a tiny sting of panic. I have to be up at 6am the next day, and I need to get home and put the groceries away and eat dinner and ice my fingers and watch an episode of something on my computer before I can fall asleep. I choose a check out lane and I'm about to get started when I remember I need a bottle of Wheat Germ.  The Wheat Germ is part of the Eat Your Damn Breakfast Campaign I'm launching in honor of  my 26th birthday, which is on Monday. The most important meal of the day is something I've struggled with since infancy. 

But wheat germ, what is it, exactly? Is it a bread product? Bread Crumbs? Health food? Do they have it at Safeway? So many questions.  I spin around once, looking for an employee for guidance but, finding no one, decide to head in the direction of the breakfast aisle. Where I was immediately distracted. I'm sure it's around here somewh- hey look! Tea boxes. Colorful.

At that moment, a voice comes over the loudspeaker. "Attention Safeway shoppers! Just letting you know we're restarting our computer system. It'll be about 15 minutes, and then we can help you at checkout aisle 1 or 2."

What? I turn and sprint back to the register, the register I had almost committed to if it hadn't been for the wheat germ. The mother fucking wheat germ. I throw myself at the man behind the register. Doesn't he recognize me? I was just there! Surely he'll let me- No! He's reaching for the light. He's turning it off! Brazenly, I place a quart of milk on his conveyor belt and look him in the eye. He shakes his head. "We'll have to help you in 15 minutes," he tells me, unmoved. "At checkout 1 or 2."

Checkout #1 or Checkout #2. I have to choose, and whichever one I choose is inevitably going to be the wrong one. I just know it. So I choose Checkout #2 because it is about a foot closer to me. I lay out my food on the belt, to pass the time and to be fully prepared when the cash registers turn on. I worry briefly about my box of frozen lime Popsicles. I pick up a People magazine with my palms and try and bat open the front cover without using my fingertips.  

As I stand there, reading about Charlie Sheen and teen Mom Amber's break down, other shoppers begin to congregate behind me. If I hadn't been committed to checkout #2 before, I am now, bottlenecked in by six other customers. And I am in front, leading the pack. I have chosen checkout #2 as a suitable path towards payment, towards leaving, towards home. They have trusted me and, like lemurs, lined up behind me. For better or for worse, I am now their leader.

And then it happens. A middle eastern man with a crisp white shirt and a Safeway name-tag bounces up to the front of the store, eyes both lines, and makes his decision, taking his post behind the register at checkout #1. He appears to be the only cashier in the entire store.

This is not an immediate cause for alarm because the computers are still down. For the moment, no one is going anywhere. Nevertheless, the people in the opposing checkout now have the confidence that the minute the machines reboot, they are well on their way to getting out the door and returning to their lives.

I, and the other patrons of checkout #2, have no such comfort.

I read more of the magazine. The Popsicle box begins to soften.

"You enjoying your magazine?!" Asks the cashier, out of nowhere, his words lilting with an accent. I take a deep breath. Melina-I'm-not-sweating-the-small-stuff says with contrived cheer, "Oh, I sure am, Charlie Sheen, you know."

I smile across the empty register, but deep inside I am starting to lose it. It has been twenty minutes and there I am, standing in the Loser Lane. I am stuck. I've chosen wrong. I finish up the headline articles in People and start in on the Heroes Among Us section when the computers reboot. The cashier at checkout #1 starts to bloop people through. He bags their food, takes their cards, grants them their freedom. They take their bags and run for it, guilty and relieved, careful not to look back at those of us still marooned in line.

My checkout lane remains unmanned.

As the minutes tick quietly by, I seriously contemplate making a run for it. I could leave my food on the conveyor belt, make the ten quick strides for the door and never look back. Of course, I'd never be able to return to the Safeway again, but that was a small price to pay for my freedom. 

But I don't. I can't. First of all, I need the food. I have no food at home and nothing to bring with me to work. If I don't have a snack every two to three hours I will get cranky, and nobody will want to be around me, and nobody will attend my birthday party, which is this Sunday.

Aside from all that, part of me is perversely curious as to just how long I'll be allowed to wait at the register, while customers continue to sail effortlessly through checkout number one, and around me a handful of Safeway employees stack cans of soup and collect carts from outside, oblivious. 

"You tell me when you've read that whole magazine, okay?! Then we check you out!" The cashier again sings out as he whisks some body's rootbeer across the scanner.  All heads in checkout line #1 swivel around to look me, standing there with a conveyor belt full of frozen enchiladas, holding a People magazine on two hands that are splayed like starfish.  And suddenly, I get angry.

"I'm DONE WITH THE MAGAZINE." I tell the man, my voice rising. "I'VE READ ALL OF IT."

The man said, "HA! HA! HA!" His machine goes bloop! bloop! bloop!

I turn and face those lined up behind me in loser lane #2. My teammates. My fellow cast-asides. Surely, someone will make a gesture of sympathy, of camaraderie.  But they just looked forward with blank expressions. One has silver earphones in her ears. Another pretends to be engrossed in the ingredients of a sports drink.

"You are lucky, see, you get to read a whole magazine! For free! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

In these situations, I've stopped wondering why I'm always singled out. Why it's always me who is the recipient of the random and loud discourse of strangers when I've been minding my own business. It just happens so often. I'm a good sport, I'm usually up for a colorful interaction with a stranger, but at this moment I'd give away just about anything to hear a nice, normal, "We'll be with you shortly."

I can't help it: I actually feel tears spring into the waiting area behind my eyes. It's just that I'm so tired. And there's no end in sight. "Look-" I shove the People back onto the shelf. "No more magazine. Done. I'm ready to go. Please just-" my voice quavered, "just, help me."

He doesn't help me. With the magazine stashed away, I have nothing to do but look down at my shoes and blow onto my pulsing fingertips. This is the Rock Bottom of the shopping experience.

And then, as if sent from above, a man approaches the counter. "Hello, there," he says. He has the same deep, comforting voice the angel Gabriel used when he said Fear Not! to an adolescent Mary. "I'm so sorry for the wait." He presses a button on the cash register and it springs to life.

"Oh, it's-" I take a breath, regroup. "It's no problem."

"I had to refund that man's container of yogurt." Explains the man. "And just as I was doing it, our computers shut down! As they do every day at 10pm! I don't know what I was thinking!" He chuckles at himself as he starts bagging my half melted groceries. "At least you caught up on your gossip, yeah?"

The man is so nice. It is not the man's fault. The man is so nice. It's not the man's fault. "Yes." I said. "Charlie Sheen, you know."

As I take the plastic bags into my hand, the angelic checkout man turns his attention to the next customer. "Sorry for the wait. Did you get to catch up on your  gossip?"

"No." Responds the customer flatly. "I refused to get involved."

Oh, it takes some serious restraint on my part not to fling a frozen burrito at the man. "Get involved? We were all involved! We didn't have a choice! We were just prisoners of the Demon Safeway on Market street for forty minutes! But still you're too good for People magazine!? Really?!"

But I don't. I hold my tongue, because I'm launching a No More Unnecessary Aggressive Encounters campaign, in honor of my 26th birthday, which is on Monday.  

I carry the air of the defeated soul all the way home. I try to put the groceries away, but I just can't. It's hard to do anything when your fingertips are bleeding and useless.  Everything I try to shove into the fridge with the heel of my hand just falls out again, and I end up lying on the kitchen floor, the dog thrusting her little nose into my face, surrounded by the sticky puddle of ruined Popsicles. "When I turn 26," I tell the dog, "I'm going to launch the No more Crying on the Floor For No Reason Campaign." I stroke her fur. "Things are going to change around here. But that won't start until my birthday," I whisper into her big, soft ears. "Which is next Monday."


elissa said...

Hahaha, YES! I mean, not yes for the experience but, yes, I can relate.

Anonymous said...

I am often the victim of wuss hands and the fickle bitchy whims of supermarket computer systems. I usually don't tell the story quite as well tho.

Tracy said...

Oh Melina, what a hilariously tragic story! I love the way you can turn a crappy Safeway experience (and yes, we've all had them, especially at Safeways late at night!) into a beautiful, funny, insightful story. Happy early birthday my dear!