Tales of Temerity and Terror From The Front Lines of My Life

In my mind, the only good lineup is no lineup. Give me a checkout counter with no customers and I am one happy camper. In and out fast with no surprises. That’s my goal. But how often does that happen? Not enough, I say. So I have become very skilled at assessing lineups, which you must understand are never what they seem.

A short line looks tempting. But beware this temptress. Even a line of just three people might contain a Jumper, a No Limits or, God help me, a Placeholder working in cahoots with a Runner. I fear them all because I have seen what they can do. They are merciless line wreckers who regularly sacrifice the needs of the many for the needs of the one, even if that leads to the ultimate disaster: a Line Freeze.

Everything gets even more complicated when you take into consideration the pros and cons of the cashier handling the checkout counter. I look for conveyor-belt veterans who never have to ask for a price check (disaster) because they know what everything costs, including the critically important Daily Deals. But here, too, there is danger. Because you never know when that wonderful, experienced cashier will be replaced by an inexperienced Nubie, at which point everything changes for the worse.

Time of day matters. There seems to be less chaos in the morning, more in the evening, perhaps because people are more inclined to break rules and flout conventions at the end of a long, tiring work day.

Income status does not matter, although my guess is that people of humble means are less prone to violate lineup etiquette than rich folk, particularly those who have already decided that the world revolves around them. The world would be a better place if they knew — and followed — the dos and don’ts of lining up, which go something like this:

1. Your place in a line is determined by the time of your arrival, not by your status in life.

2. If you opt to leave a line to get a better spot in another line (Jumper), you forfeit the right to return to your original line.

3. You cannot employretainassociate with a Runner, defined as an unidentified third party who shops for you while you are in line and adds those items to your cart just before your order is processed. Curse you!

4. You will not choose unpriced items, claim to know the actual price at the checkout, and then feign surprise when the real price is higher than what you claimed.

5. You will not attempt to use coupons you know have expired.

6. You will not freeze a line by trying to ram through a purchase that clearly violates purchase limits.

Keep all this in mind as I recount for you my recent experience at a supermarket. It was mid-day, not ideal as a certain percentage of shoppers, all impossible to identify, could be making a rush purchase over the lunch hour. I file this important information and scan the terrain: six checkouts open (Express, 3, 5, 7, 8, 11), all moving reasonably well. I ignore the Express checkout (Ten items or less) as I don’t qualify and respect the rights and responsibilities of those who do.

I look for Runners, easily identified by their rushed movements. All clear. I am a little concerned about a woman parked by a display of soda pop cases on sale. She has two carts, both piled high with the sale item. But she is not moving (danger). What is she waiting for? One thing is clear: she is a No Limits with nefarious intent.

I return my focus to the lineups, looking for “Tells” the ordinary shopper would not notice. For example, I am very suspicious of the third person in the line for Checkout 3. She has just 12 items. That’s the sweet spot for Express Line cheaters, yet she chose to not use that lane. Could this be a sign that she is a Placeholder with a giant order that at this very moment is being assembled by a Runner?

An announcement comes over the store’s barely working sound system, undoubtedly manufactured by the same company that makes subway speaker systems. I can’t make out the entire message, but I do hear the words that make me tremble: price check. One of the lines has just frozen, but which one?

Seconds later, No Limits arrives at Checkout 5 with her two carts groaning under the weight of soda pop cases piled so high that they represent a clear and present danger to other shoppers.

My choices are dwindling fast. I have too many items for the Express Checkout. I won’t go near Checkout 5 — not with No Limits in that line up. Checkout 3 is a risk because the line might include a Placeholder. And I know one of the remaining three lines has been frozen by a price check.

Then some good news. A pimply-faced Shelf Stocker arrives at Checkout 8, confers with the cashier, and heads off to find the missing price. I am heartened by this development, but understand that the average Shelf Stocker is not a heat-seeking missile. More like a feather in the wind that might never be seen again. Checkout 8 is definitely a no go.

Just two possibilities now: Checkout 7 or Checkout 11. The default is Checkout 11. Has to be because shoppers like to get from A to B as fast as possible and that means they will gravitate, like sheep, to Checkout 7.

I make the call. Checkout 11. Now everything depends on my ability to get to that destination before anyone who might have bad intentions. But I can’t rush as that might signal my choice to a Jumper who will easily beat me to the Checkout because, if I know anything about Jumpers, it is that they are fast.

I reach Checkout 11 with no issues. I am third in the line, the two people in front of me appear to be no threat, the cashier is a middle-aged woman.

The first person goes through the Checkout quickly and efficiently. Has her own bags, valid coupons, no price checks, a debit card that works. I have made an inspired choice.

And then it happens. A young man with a cart full of groceries approaches in a direction that says he has no intention of lining up. “That’s the rest of my order,” says the woman in front of me. There are no secrets now. The woman is a Placeholder, the young man is a Runner. “Come right up,” says the Placeholder to the Runner. I look plaintively at the cashier hoping desperately that she will deny the Runner access to the front of the line. But that is not going to happen because it is break time and my wonderful, experienced cashier is being replaced by a world-class Nubie, a young man on the low side of twenty.

I am now in big trouble. But it gets worse. No Limits has just jumped into my line with two intentions: block the Runner (A cheat knows a cheat) and somehow get in front of me.

The Runner rolls up to No Limits and says, “Excuse me, “I need to get to the front of the line.”

No Limits responds loudly in a language I do not understand, but I am fairly certain that her response is a jet stream of curses.

The Placeholder jumps in with her own curses, none of which need translation.

Everything would end in an instant if the inexperienced cashier exercised his God-given authority to manage the line. Instead, the cashier decides now is the time to bring the feuding parties together for some good faith negotiation. “Come forward,” he says to the Runner, not realizing he has just given two people — the Runner and No Limits — exactly what they want: a Golden Ticket to the front of the line.

No Limits reacts just a little faster than The Runner and is rewarded by gaining position two, directly behind The Placeholder.

This is bad. Very bad.

The cashier, who until now was largely a waste of oxygen, suddenly develops some backbone. “Ah, mam,” he says to No Limits, “you have gone beyond the purchase limit for that item. You need to put two cases back.”

No Limits responds with the now familiar jet stream of expletives.

The Placeholder adds a jab of her own, “you need to go now, put those two extra cases back and then line up again.”

The instant response — a jet stream of expletives — makes me wonder whether No Limits knows more English than she is letting on.

The Cashier repeats his order. “You need to put two cases back.”

“No, I am not putting anything back,” says No Limits in perfect English. “You take them.”

“I don’t have room,” says the Cashier, with no acknowledgement of the instant language change, not even an arched eyebrow.

“Not my problem,” says No Limits.

“Why don’t you just do everyone a favor and get out of the line,” says The Placeholder.

Jet stream of expletives.

All is lost. I prepare to make a Line Freeze declaration and abandon my cart, the ultimate humiliation.

Except something miraculous happens. The veteran Cashier returns. She was not on a full break, just a short bathroom break.

Order is instantly restored. The Placeholder, No Limits and The Runner all get expelled. When they protest, the Cashier gives them her default response: Talk to the hand. They slink off, defeated.

The universe is back in alignment. No pun intended.