One of the great rituals of life is standing in line at a grocery store to pay for your stuff. .
You're a captive while you wait. And the store's happy to entertain you. There's all the screaming tabloid headlines with the scoops du jour:
Hillbilly mother gives birth to quarterhorse
Michael Jackson: "I'm Joan Crawford's daughter"
Bruce Willis' parents are chimpanzees
There's plenty of candy, batteries, gum and all those things stores figure you'll buy, just because you're standing there, bored stupid.
Used to be, back in the day, each item's price was punched into a cash register by the checker.
Not anymore. Too damn slow.
When pricing codes came into play with checkout scanners, the skill level needed for a checker was reduced to passing items over a beam until a telltale "beep" shows that the price is recorded. Beep ... beep ... beep ...
And most people used to write checks to pay for groceries. Now it's a card-swipe world, with only the occasional check writer grinding a line's progress to a halt.
Those in line bristle at the delay but are soon anesthetized by the latest aliens-landed story, as the nice lady up front discovers -- after off-loading a plastic jug of Popov vodka, six cartons of Pall Malls and a PayDay bar -- why heavens, she's fresh out of checks.
Somewhere along the line it occurred to store chain consultants that, hey, we don't need to pay for checkers! People can scan their own stuff, bag their own stuff, swipe their card, sign and go. It's a win-win!
A few months ago at a warehouse hardware store, my wife and I noticed the first self-checkout lanes we'd ever seen. We went for it. The touch-screen walks you through it, and it's no sweat. Unless the short guy in front of you tries to scan the sticker on 20-foot wooden planks. Then you risk getting Three Stooges head smacks while he swings the boards into scanning position.
And just forget about scanning bags of cement.
Still, barring operator error or machine crashes, it's easy.
Maybe even too easy. If you're an evil-doer with a stolen credit card, you can self-scan all the stuff you want -- just don't take home half the store's inventory in one visit. But after your scans, all you do is take the pen and sign the screen. Seems like you could sign any name at all: W.C. Fields, Gen. Curtis LeMay, Oprah, even illegible scribble. Who's watching?
And you're out the door with your booty.
Still, self-checkouts aren't for everybody. Sometimes, just standing there in a half daze, vaguely hearing somebody rhythmically beep your groceries, a peaceful moment presents itself, a welcome oasis after a tough day.
Crunched for time, my wife and I recently made a quick stop at a grocery store.
We get our cans of pumpkin and Elena makes a beeline to the self-checkout. I size up the regular checkout lines and the relative pep of their checkers.
The self-check lines feature a hefty guy in one of those store-supplied electric scooters, fumbling with his huge basket of groceries. Others in line look like they're suddenly caught in the Bermuda Triangle of checkout hell. "Operator error" is stamped on their foreheads.
Then I spy the express lane: Just one scruffy fellow putting a couple of items on the belt for the checker: a jar of chunky peanut butter and a tallboy of King Cobra malt liquor.
"Let's do the express lane," I say. "It'll be faster, you watch."
Elena, however, a self-checkout disciple who's mostly skeptical of my predictions, shakes her head.
"You'll see," I say, and rush over to the lane.
As fate would have it, scruffy dude has out his battered leather change purse.
He's going to pay for his dinner in small coins.
Like a human nickel slot machine, the guy pours out a jackpot of jingling change into the checker's cupped hands.
"How much is this?" asks the checker.
"I dunno," says the guy, looking at me. He starts laughing.
Elena raises her eyebrows and looks over to the self-checkout lanes, which are now empty. I get the "told you so" look.
The checker starts counting the change, as a haggard dad and his 10-year-old son line up behind us.
"Hey Dad, there's nobody in the self-checkout line, you can do it yourself!" chirps the boy.
Dad looks like he got dropped after boxing 15 rounds with a kangaroo. He plops his supersized Froot Loops and Mountain Dew onto the belt, as if he's just shed a 50-pound load.
"No, son," he sighs with world-weariness. "I want someone else to do it for me."