Monday, January 28, 2013

A Struggle of Wills at Gristedes

My basket full, I stepped up to the back of the line at register two.  In front of me was a young man buying ramen and Gatorade; in front of him, an old woman who only spoke Spanish and who seemed to be paying with some form of obscure government documentation that required several witnesses.  I was fine with this delay, because I came here with a mission and I needed a little time to accomplish it.  I brought my own bag, and damned if this cashier was going to make me put my groceries in it yet again.

I have been a whole-hearted supporter of the bring-your-own-bag movement.  Being both practical and environmentally-minded, I never threw away plastic bags.  I never used them either, which meant that several cubic yards of any home I've had as an adult were dedicated to plastic bag storage.  Since it has become generally accepted to bring a bag from home, I haven't touched a plastic bag in years and I have oodles of storage space for other things I never use.

The only problem with bringing your own bag is that cashiers seem not to have gotten the memo that times are a-changin'.  They view bags from home as some alien intrusion into their workplace, some strange new math far above their pay grade and training that requires advanced philosophical understanding and strange Eastern mysticism to truly grasp and utilize.

In short, they won't touch them and generally stand there texting while you rush to put your groceries into this strange thing with which you've violated their place of business.  This was especially true for the cashier in whose line I now waited.

Really, it's just a bag, and that word has a loose definition.  They're lucky I don't bring a sheet with me, lay it at the end of the counter and ask them to tie it up like a hobo's bindle when they're done.  That, too, would more or less fall under the category of "bag," but semantically I'm sticking very close to the device they understand to be a bag.

Back to the line: I wanted a little extra time.  If there's no wait, as I'm unloading my basket they start scanning and attempting to put my food in plastic.  I have to tell them I brought my own bag, at this point still folded under my arm, which always translates to "please, don't do your job.  I'll take it from here."  No, I wanted to unload the basket while the cashier was dealing with the young man's sad, sodium-packed dinner, so that when it was my turn I could put my open bag on the counter and watch her do her thing.

The old woman was wrapping up her transaction.  Translators were indicating that the proper paperwork had been notarized, and witnesses and judges all agreed that this served as legal tender for her food.  I quickly unloaded my basket while the cashier swiped the young man's items, stowed the basket under the counter and snapped open my own shopping bag with a flourish.   Today would be the day.

Before the cashier's hand even touched my yogurt, I blurted "I have my own bag" as I raced to set it on the counter, holding it open with patient optimism.  I watched as she scanned each item, sliding them down next to the stack of New York Posts screaming the headline "BOFFO BLOOMBERG BLASTS BUS BUSKER BUSTERS," which means nothing in any language I know.  I twitched my bag a little, indicating that she was free to put my groceries in there rather than letting them pile up.  Piling up they were.  This was a full trip.  I'd depleted my cabinets with the intention of going for broke today.  Two, then three people formed a line behind me as the cashier kept scanning.  The master of efficiency inside me wanted to start bagging, to get out of the way as soon as possible, but no.  I wasn't here to be polite.  I was here to make a statement.  I was here to win.

Everything scanned, the cashier announced my total.  I gave my bag another feeble twitch before swiping, but she stood idly as I punched in my PIN.  The true test was beginning.  She handed me my receipt.  Our eyes locked.  She was on to me.  We each stood unmoving, daring the other to admit defeat.  We did not break our gaze.  Time stretched, slowed; the store became quiet.  The world at large had ceased to exist.  There was just me, the cashier, my bag, and a pile of food that wanted to go home.

We stood there like two samurai, knowing the first to move would lose the struggle.  We exchanged whole paragraphs without speaking a word.  I could feel the tension, the energy between us shifting, first towards her, then towards me, then holding in the middle.  It was an even match.  A single bead of sweat ran down my temple.  She gave her eyebrow the subtlest of arches, as if to say "had enough?"  I narrowed my eyes—never.

The fool behind me spoke up.  "What the hell are you doing?  Get out of the way!"  We paid him no mind.  If he couldn't understand what was happening here, then no explanation we could provide would make sense.  The loudspeaker crackled.  "Register one is open with no waiting."  Grumbling, the line behind me shifted over.  "I just don't understand some people."  "Is this performance art?"  They were as ants to us.

Time passed.  I was exhausted.  The strain was mounting, but I could tell the same was true for the cashier.  My yogurt was now as sweaty as me.  My bananas called out.  I could practically hear them ripening, begging to be eaten.  My mind started to wander, and I imagined myself on my couch, ripping into these Cool Ranch Doritos as the title screen to Assassin's Creed flickered on my television.  I snapped back to the present, waiting.  A big bald man in a short-sleeved shirt and tie came over to the register.  "Lydia, what the hell is this?"  The cashier's eyes flicked over to him, then back to me.  I had the upper hand and she knew it.  Yet she didn't move.  "Lydia, bag those groceries."  She was a statue.  For the first time in what felt like hours, I smiled.  I saw the end, and I liked it.  "Lydia, I'm counting to three.  One."  She looked to the manager, then to my groceries.  "Two."  I nodded towards my bag.  She had no choice now.  "Alright.  Three.  Turn off your light and go home.  You're done here.  We don't have time for crap like this."  The cashier smiled at me, turned off her light, brushed by the manager and marched right out of the store without a single backward glance.

The manager started bagging my groceries for me.  "I'm sorry, I don't know what came over her.  She's never acted like that before.  I'll give you a five dollar coupon for your trouble, sir."  I just nodded faintly.  I was shocked.  Lydia had known exactly how this would play out.  She was ready for me, and she knew the only way to defeat me in a place where the customer is always right.  She let me take her land, but she salted the earth and slaughtered her animals before letting me in.  Technically I had won, since I didn't bag my own groceries in the end, but it was a hollow victory.  The manager pushed my bag towards me.  "There you go sir.  Are you OK?  You look pale."  I made a noncommittal sound and shambled towards the door, replaying the events of the day in my mind.  I looked for any way I could have truly succeeded, anything I could have done differently.  There was nothing.  Lydia had locked it all down before I even showed up.

I began the long walk home.

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.


  1. move to austin where they scoff if you didn't bring enough of your own bags (also there's now a city ordinance in effect banning plastic bags)

    1. I'm assuming this plays out on a daily basis in Austin:

  2. Good use of the term 'bindle'. I always wanted to design a line of upscale designer bindles and convince rich people that hobo chic was the new thing.

    1. Oh, that will absolutely happen at some point in our future. I'm picturing like an Hermes scarf tied up at the end of a nice mahogany dowel or something. I can see them bouncing up and down Fifth Avenue as I write this.