The grocery store has rules. Not just the kind posted in the bathroom about employees washing their hands. These are more discrete mandates, ones that fall into that murky social contract area that upholds the razor thin margin between civilization and Lord of the Flies anarchy.
For instance, everyone knows it’s not kosher to eat food before you buy it, but we all do it. Cruising through a store in a state of palpable hanger (the irritability brought about by hunger) is a near guarantee that those plantain chips do not have a prayer of reaching the checkout unopened. And since you’ve already gorged yourself on those, you might as well wash it down with a fresh-pressed juice drink. I mean, this isn’t the Amazon now, is it? Related: free samples. Or as I like to think of it, the carnival of supermarket territory. People hawk the with mini-quiches and kale chips and bite-sized sausage rolls like barkers at a state fair. That doesn’t mean you’re entitled to wiping out the entire tray or to loitering around the kale chip stand hoping to impress the girl with your keen knowledge of origami. You’re also supposed to politely ignore the child leaning out of the cart, grasping for the package of Oreos as if he were about to get hauled overboard on the Titanic. And you definitely should not help yourself to an unopened box containing packages of Cadbury mini-eggs because you cannot wait fifteen minutes for someone to restock the shelves. The grocery store, like the airport and the gym, is one of those cultural places where, for better or for worse, humanity in all its janky facets are on display. It’s a delicate ecosystem strung together by a shared understanding of many subtleties until, that is, it’s not.
The other morning, I stopped by the grocery store on my way home from the gym. The store was still sleepy at 7:00 AM. Staff quietly restocking or readying prepared food for the deli and “grab and go” counters and a handful of customers shuffling along the aisles in that brain haze that hovers before the caffeine has stepped up to do its job properly. I had a small amount of items—15, including a half gallon of milk, to be exact. At this time of the morning there was one person working a single checkout; the rest were self-check lanes. I’ve been burned one too many times in those self-check aisles pressing against the screen to scroll through skew numbers of fruits that do not seem to exist or getting held up by the creepy Hal-9000 cashier-bot voice telling me to remove unwanted items from the checking area after I’ve already paid for and bagged them. Not today robot overlords, I thought. I headed for the cashier and got in line behind a young woman.
She had a toddler lashed into the carriage seat. There were a modest amount of items in her cart. It was somewhere between “the day before a blizzard” and “shit, I forgot his sister’s coming to stay with us for the weekend.” I smiled at the baby, a little girl with a knit hat the resembled the head of a panda bear. A few wisps of blonde hair licked the edges of the fabric. She smiled in return, jamming a pink fist into her mouth and letting loose a viscous trail of drool that would impress a snail. As a kid I remember loving regular trips to the supermarket with my mom. I rode in that cart like I was on horseback at the rodeo or a prom queen in a homecoming parade. Watching all the fun stuff fill my mom’s cart—boxes and bags and cold, squishy items—while also knowing a well-placed tantrum could put an end to this excursion in less than sixty seconds was pretty heady and about the most power my 5-year-old self could handle.
The woman had put most of her items on the belt. I reached over to take the plastic divider and section off my small slice of conveyor belt real estate. I find the plastic divider as marvelous an invention as the artificial lung. When it comes to people, I do not support segregation. However, when it comes to food and market products, the divider is one of the only things that keeps the checkout line from becoming a Thunderdome situation. Besides, without the divider how would we properly eye-shame and judge the other person’s products? Really, soy milk, Tombstone frozen pizza, bag of Funions, and six pack of Pepsi guy? No one believes your soy milk decoy product.
“She’s not going to have enough room!” the cashier said as I lifted up the divider. Her voice startled me.
“I’m using the divider,” I replied, waving it a little just in case she thought I meant something else other than “the divider.”
“Yeah, but she’s not going to have enough room for all of her things.” The woman continued to put her remaining things on the belt, rolling forward in a tide born of baby food and packages of pasta. A patch of rubber lengthened behind her groceries. Surely it would be enough for me to at least put down my half gallon of milk that I had been holding for this entire five minutes and was starting to give my hand a little cramp. But I hesitated. I had been reprimanded. What would happen if I defied the cashier regime further? It felt like a scene in a Seinfeld episode:
George: There’s plenty of room! What? Do you think I’m encroaching? There’s no encroaching!
George: Oh, I see! Are her groceries so much better than mine that they get to take up this entire conveyor belt? Is this a grocery store or a fiefdom?!
Cashier: Sir, if you don’t settle down I’m going to call security.
I waited politely, patiently even though there was enough conveyor belt runway to land a 747. I finished up my transaction and left, not sure of what just happened. In the car I went right to the oracle for wisdom: Google. Just as there is someone for everyone, there is a search for every question no matter how humiliating or esoteric. There it was in an obscure forum—I had critically breached grocery store etiquette. It’s kosher to let the person in front of you put the divider up, thereby signaling in some weird supermarket ritual, permission for you to begin dumping your junk on the conveyor belt. I was appalled. I had rarely followed the rules of this game. As long as there was a reasonable amount of space, I had always grabbed the divider and proceeded to unload my stuff. I was a divider and conqueror, I realized, breaking out into a small panic.
What other social mores had I unknowingly violated, I wondered. I waved people through stop signs. I routinely surrendered my armrest on airplanes. I held doors, even lightly scolding the person breaking out into a light jog–“Hey! No worries! Don’t run.–” just so I wouldn’t have to stand there for minutes on end. Those were the easy ones. There were probably others I missed or flaunted in some way. How could there not be? The world is tsunami that swamps us daily with stress and demands and a billion microscopic social quirks and kinks subdividing like horny cells. Show me the person who gets it right every time and I’ll show you where to attach their charger. We have choice and individuality even if that chafes from time to time. The world and the supermarket needs its renegades.