I ran the item over the scanner. “Peanut butter—four-thirty-five.”
After the machine read the checkout amount, I paused. We have lost so many things over this last year, and this felt like a symbol of much of it.
I thought about when I was a boy, and the first time I could remember going with my mom to the grocery store. I was only about three, and I walked along holding onto the edge of the shopping cart. I felt I was too big to ride in it. Besides, I had a new baby brother who claimed that space.
I felt amazed at the size of the store. It was the biggest building I had ever been in. That store today would fit in the checkout area of a typical department store, but back then, it was the biggest commercial building in town besides the theater. As we shopped, I felt a small child’s wonderment seeing three brands of soap, four kinds of cereal, and two types of peanut butter. I thought it had to be the most amazing store in the world.
When we got in the checkout line, the lady ahead of us turned around. She greeted my mother by name and asked about our family.
“Well, if you can believe it,” my mother replied, “our oldest son is now in high school.”
“Wow!” the lady said. “Time really flies. I remember when you and your husband had just gotten married. How many children do you have, now?”
My mom pointed at my baby brother, who was cooing and trying to stick his whole fist into his mouth. “This is our ninth.”
“Oh, my goodness,” the lady said, patting my little brother like he was a lump of bread dough, “aren’t you the cute little one.”
My mother and the lady talked until it was the lady’s turn to checkout. When it was our turn, the checker also greeted my mother by name. My mother smiled. “Bob, you aren’t usually up here at the checkout stand.”
Bob nodded. “True. But Anita is in the hospital having a baby.”
They visited the whole time Bob punched each item’s price into the machine and then put it into a paper bag. After Mom finished paying, Bob handed her a sucker. “This is for your little helper,” he said, smiling at me.
Growing up in that small town, I knew every checker, and they knew me. At one point, Jason, one of the young men that bagged groceries, got sick. Jars were put on the checkout stands, and everyone put in their spare change. Jason was a cheerful, positive young man, and everyone loved him. The jars filled up repeatedly.
After lots of operations and many prayers, Jason started to recover. Everyone was relieved when he returned, even though he was thin and still weak from his ordeal. And Jason decided it was his turn to give back to those who had supported him. He made lots of personal notes with kind thoughts and slipped them into the customers’ bags at the checkout. He did that until he could no longer work, and the original health problem took him from us.
Over the years, the communities I have lived in have gotten bigger, and so have the stores I have shopped at. Even so, when I have checked out, I have tried to connect with the checker, the person behind me in line, or the person ahead. Maybe it’s nothing more than a friendly word or a smile at a young child in the shopping cart.
But COVID has taken much of that. Many orders are now online. And when we do shop at a store, the masks have covered our smiles. Still, I have tried to make some semblance of kinship through muffled talk through a mask.
So, when one of the biggest local department stores went to mostly self-checkout, I felt I, and possibly others, have lost even more. Yes, it is faster, but going through life at high speed does not always yield the happiest results. The machine announcing the price of the item doesn’t care how anyone feels, if their children are in high school, or if someone is sick.
I guess we will all have to try even harder to find different ways to connect with people in our community.