Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Counter Culture, Pt. 2

You have manned the take-away register seven days out of the last eight. Co-workers greet you with comments of the “What did you do?” variety.

The register is awkward, being positioned on a postage stamp-sized cart with an acute shortage of space for groceries. Never mind the cell phones, purses, babies, water bottles and key rings shoppers have with them.

This is likely the reason for the ‘6 Items or Less’ sign. Thankfully, most of your customers can read. (But more about that later.)

There is even less room for maneuvering flimsy styrofoam containers overfilled with sauces, dressings and gravies into plastic bags mounted on a rack only slightly more stable than Lindsay Lohan.

When pulled, the bags are supposed to tear along a perforation, much like a sheet of paper from a pad. But then, the Great Recession supposedly ended in June of 2009, too.

Then there is the change cup. By the time a customer is standing at the register paying for their groceries, it is actually positioned behind them.

So during the lunch hour, the line of customers is continually performing a polite but poorly-choreographed samba as they move backwards, and then forwards, to accommodate customers retrieving their change.

You wonder if this could be parlayed into a slot judging contestants on Dancing with the Stars. If not, you still retain one measure of celebrity, because the register is located in the store manager’s favorite area of the supermarket.

This means that when it’s 9:45 AM and there isn’t a long line of customers waiting to purchase BBQ, soup or salad at your register, you become visible in a manner desired only by unknown actors, writers and musicians.

You proffer reasoned arguments that your position is an on-demand one; that standing around is your job. They fall on deaf ears. The fact that it isn’t the lunch hour is never an excuse for it not being the lunch hour.

The area's track lighting is specifically arrayed to reflect off the stainless steel counter and into your eyes. Customers have observed that the resulting squint gives you an uncanny resemblance to Sergio Leone–era Clint Eastwood, especially when you don’t shave.

You are crestfallen when you learn that ponchos, cigars and black cowboy hats are prohibited by the store’s dress code.

In addition to the revolving door, there is also a traditional one store architects thoughtfully placed near the register. Due to their exhaustive studies of prevailing wind conditions, it allows maximum blasts of icy, Arctic air into the workspace.

Locking the door activates a silent alarm in the manager's Blackberry. Or at least seems to. Technically, there is a wall-mounted space heater near the door. But only in the same sense that technically, you are no longer unemployed.

So yes, employees clamor to work here.

Strange things happen. Like the time you are summoned to the main registers to cover for several late-arriving employees. You shut-off your light, flip the sign to ‘Closed’ and head to the front of the store.

When you return some twenty minutes later, there are several people waiting at the register. You didn’t know ‘closed’ also meant ‘wait’. You are gobsmacked.

The knock-out punch arrives courtesy of the woman at the front of the line, who says “You were open when I came in here.” You choke back several less-considered responses before telling her you're sorry, but you had to help out in another part of the store. She repeats herself before snatching her bag and storming off.

The sixty-ish man behind her is irritated also. “You could’ve told someone how long you’d be gone so people didn’t wait around all day.”

He slaps a ten-dollar bill on the counter. You look for Ashton Kutcher. This is an episode of Punked.

You desire fervently to tell him that your ESP is in the shop for its 60,000-mile check-up, thereby inhibiting your ability to predict the future. But you wear a name tag, and despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, this man may know how to read.

Instead, you tell him you’re sorry. He is unmoved.

You hand him his bags without saying “The door is straight ahead. And unlike my register, it’s open.” This is a small-but-important victory.

As is resisting the powerful and insistent urge to quit.

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