Checkout Counter Culture: East and Midwest

Editor’s note: We’re taking a break this week, so enjoy one of our favorite essays from the archive. We’ll be back next week with new content. This piece originally ran on May 3, 2011.

I love supermarkets. I love everything about them. Even the things that I probably shouldn’t. The light rock on the store PA system. How they seem to have a little of everything — even random stuff like rope and sweatshirts and potting soil. I also love how they’re all sort of the same — how you can walk into any supermarket in any part of the country and know exactly where stuff is going to be: Dairy will be on one side, produce on the other, meat at the back, pantry items in the middle. If you’re on the road and in need of a bathroom, it’ll be in one of two places: either toward the back or to the left — and chances are it’ll be a lot cleaner than a gas station bathroom.

And for me, a great supermarket experience is always capped off by some causal banter with the clerks at the checkout lanes. Sometimes it’s just a simple conversation about the weather; sometimes you have your regulars and kind of develop grocery store friendships. Like the one I had with Skyler B, a cashier at one of the mom-and-pop chains in northern Michigan, who always kept my girlfriend Emily and me up to date on in-store political struggles between managers, and romantic flings between baggers. Regardless of how busy his lane was, we always went to Skyler B and you could tell he appreciated that. These sorts of relationships are of course always fleeting, though — cashiers tend to move on to other jobs — and one day Skyler B just wasn’t there. We found out later that his constant threats to quit or go down in a blaze of glory weren’t hollow: Another cashier informed us that Skyler B had been fired for sleeping under his register during non-peak hours. An appropriately legendary end for our friend who, of course, we never heard from again.

Admittedly, I’ve been known to take the supermarket friendship thing too far. Like the time Emily and I befriended two other clerks at that same store. The first was a 17-year-old cashier who we’ll call Misty S. She was awkwardly cute and endearingly self-conscious, sort of in the way the characters from Freaks and Geeks are. She bothered to learn our names, which is rare but very much appreciated in these sorts of relationships. (Usually with cashiers you get to know their names — they have name tags, after all — but they have so many customers, it’s hard for them to return the favor.) When I would shop alone, she would ask where Emily was and how she was doing.

During one of these solo trips, I greeted Misty S with the usual “Hey, how’s it going?”

“Not so good,” she said.

“Oh no, what’s going on?” I asked.

“Well… I’m feeling really awful today. I have really bad period cramps.”

Obviously my and Misty S’s grocery store friendship had just vaulted to the next level of intimacy, and, I guess, being sort of excited about this, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind:

“Yeah? That sucks. Emily gets really bad cramps too.”

Violations of Emily’s privacy aside, that response seemed to do the trick. From then on Emily and Misty S and I were full-on grocery store friends. The check-out lane conversations became more involved to the point where customers behind us started to get annoyed by their length. Misty S even friended us on Facebook. And like friends of the non-grocery store variety, Emily and I began concerning ourselves with Misty S’s love life. There was, in our estimation, another cashier about the same age, who we’ll call Josh R, who was equally awkward and sweet, and who we thought would be perfect for Misty S. Misty S’s and Josh R’s fantasy relationship became the frequent topic of conversation on our walks home from the grocery store. Then one day, all our supermarket matchmaking dreams came true. I spotted them out of the corner of my eye holding hands at the courtesy counter. I could hardly believe it. I elbowed Emily to get a look, and we played it cool until we were through the automatic doors and a good distance from the store, where we safely celebrated the juiciest day of grocery store dish since the legendary fall of Skyler B.

Things sort of took a turn from there, though. The comfortable grocery store rapport we’d developed with both Misty S and Josh R as individuals quickly evaporated when they became a couple. Josh R and Misty S were now inseparable. All of the over-the-register banter was now about their relationship. And because they often seemed to coordinate their shifts — and even when they didn’t work together, one seemed to hang out at the store while the other was on the clock — trips through the checkout lane started to feel like a strange form of double dating. The final weird straw came though over Facebook, when pictures of Josh R and Misty S in the shower together appeared on my news feed. It was nothing pornographic, but there was more skin and steam and sweat than I was prepared for. And I realized: Like the short plastic dividers that are used to separate orders at the checkout lane, some boundaries of grocery store culture should be respected.

From there, Emily and I managed to avoid all but a handful of awkward encounters with Josh R and Misty S. We had planned to relocate to Maine that spring and the move gave us a chance for a fresh start with new grocery stores and new clerks. But our dreams of a new beginning were quickly crushed. First, people in Maine are notoriously insular, and our conversations with the cashiers at our new supermarket hardly ever made it past a simple “Hi, how are you?” Second, in our new town of Portland, there were only three grocery stores for a population of 75,000 people. The stores were always overrun and checkout lines were so hopelessly long that our once beloved trip to the grocery store became the most stressful part of the day. All the baggers and cashiers were weary and worn, and by the time it was our turn at the register, so were we. Even if there was time for some good old grocery store banter, no one had the energy for it.

Naturally in this environment my supermarket social skills atrophied, leading to some bizarre behavior. Once while on a trip up to the remote vacation spot of Mt. Desert Island, Emily and I were totally taken aback when the cute, sassy blond behind the register in a tiny village market started shooting the shit with us. Over the course of the weekend, we had several good conversations with her, and so when we returned home to Portland, we actually sent her a care package, addressed to the market, complete with a handwritten letter, pictures of our cats, and an invitation to get together if she was ever in the area. We were like those desperate desert lizards that overreact and gorge themselves at the sight of food because they only feed twice a year. Or at least we must have seemed that way to her, because we never heard back.

After that I gave up. I became an efficient supermarket shopper like everybody else in Maine. Grocery stores were for buying food, not for making nice. And for the year that we were out East, I accepted that new reality without much thought to what I had been missing.

So when Emily and I moved back to Michigan last month, there was naturally some culture shock. On one of our first trips to Kroger, we filled up our basket with a bunch of sale items, forgetting that at Kroger you need the Kroger Card to get the sale prices. When Emily awkwardly realized this in the middle of checkout, a dark suit in line behind us silently handed his own card to her. And later in the week, when we decided to make some natural casing hot dogs one of our first meals back in Michigan (they don’t really get the whole cured meat thing out East, especially in Maine where the hot dogs are dyed fluorescent pink), we headed back to Kroger and hoisted our Koegels, ketchup, mustard, onions, and hot dog buns up on the checkout lane conveyor belt.

“Gee, I wonder what you guys are having for dinner?” the teenage clerk said as she scanned each item.

At first I got all bristly, thinking to myself, What’s it to you? It’s my dinner, why don’t you just mind your business?

Then I softened, realizing the rules of the checkout lane had changed on me yet again.

“Yeah,” I said. “Guess it’s pretty obvious.”

“You know where they have the best hot dogs?” the bagger chimed in. “Home Depot. Home Depot’s got the best hot dogs.”

“Really?” I said. “Home Depot?”

“Yeah, whenever my dad goes to Home Depot, I always tag along because they have the best hot dogs.”

I hesitated for a moment, trying to think of what to say next.

“Cool, good tip, “ I said. “Just watch out for the hamburgers at Lowe’s. I hear they’re not so good.”

The bagger looked at me first like she was surprised to learn they had hamburgers at Lowe’s, and then, realizing it was a joke, smiled and laughed. I smiled back and thanked her and told her to have a good day.

Emily and I walked out of the store, and we cast little smiles at each other as if to say, It’s good to be home.

“Was that dumb? That thing I said about the Lowe’s hamburgers?” I said to Emily.

“No, it wasn’t dumb,” Emily said. “You’re just rusty.”

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