Bridging The Divide At The Checkout Line

02/11/2017 05:38 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2017

I have a confession: I absolutely LOVE grocery shopping. I don’t know what it is about it – the predictability of the aisles, the ability to remember every single item we need without a grocery list, the delight in finding a huge sale on LaCroix?

Well, certainly all of those, but there’s a zen to grocery shopping. You start with the shopping cart, selecting one that appears to be free of wonky wheels or wet from being taken inside within the hour. Then you head to the produce, looking at all of the beautiful colors of fruits and vegetables. Wait a minute, they started packaging curly spirals of yams and squash? How did I do without those?! I’m pretty sure if you took imaging of my brain while I was shopping, it would be lighting up like a Christmas tree.

To be honest, I start getting a little fatigued by the time I reach the paper products, but always rally when I reach the dairy aisle and deli counter. Then, I make my way to the checkout lines. My high begins to diminish. Grocery shopping is coming to an end. And the real challenge now is finding the right line to get into. As I begin to put my items up on the conveyer, I glance up and notice it is my least favorite cashier. Because everyone who loves grocery shopping as much as I do has their favorites: like Colleen, a spunky woman who manages to scan each item right the first time; or Charles, the exuberant, eccentric older gentleman who relies on alliteration heavily to get through the day (“Lemon LaCroix for the lovely lady!”). But here I am faced with Sharon.

I once witnessed Sharon scold a disabled man for not bagging my groceries correctly. It wasn’t so much what she said, it was how she said it. “That’s NOT what I told you,” she said tersely with an eye roll. Geez, Sharon, give the guy a break. I spoke up, of course, looking the guy right in the eyes, “You’re doing a fine job.” And then back to her: “That was really unnecessary. He’s doing his best.” Oh, I wanted to say much more.

Sharon also has that annoying habit – which, to be fair, is something that store clerks and cashiers are trained to do – which is asking the customer a string of banal questions. I’m sure you know them:

Paper or plastic?

How is your day going?

Did you find everything you were looking for?

Would you like help out?

The most annoying thing about these questions is that even if you have answered them, Sharon will ask them again, in rotation, in the exact order in which she has likely been trained. If you happen to answer, “My day is going pretty well. How about yours?” she doesn’t respond, she just waits for five beats and then, “Did you find everything you were looking for?” Sometimes I just want to yell “I don’t want to play this game! Please stop!”

But today, something magical happened.

The dance began as it always does. “Paper or plastic?”

Paper.

She was just about to get to Question #2 when I exclaimed, “Wow, that Valentine’s Day display when you enter the store is just beautiful!”

She looked up, surprised. “It is, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes, you really can’t forget Valentine’s Day is coming,” I chortled (yes, I chortled, look it up!)

She laughed as well, “Maybe a bit overdone.” Then she added, “Did you know that Valentine’s Day is the second biggest holiday for sales?”

“No, really? Well, I guess that makes sense. Behind Christmas?”

“No, actually behind Mother’s Day.”

“Huh. I did not know that.”

By the time we finished talking about the Valentine’s display, and the new Sweepstakes game that the store was offering, my groceries had been bagged and I was done. I looked at Sharon again and her bitter edge was gone. Her face was animated and she looked genuinely happy to have chatted with me.

We never even got to Question #2.

I was thinking about the Sharons of the world. The people who are down-trodden, bitter, and well, downright mean at times. People who may have voted a certain way. Engaging with them about topics that are not charged, not politicized may allow us to begin to cross the great divide that exists in this country. If I had a personal relationship with Sharon, I may have even been able to talk to her about how disgracefully the disabled are treated – that surely we can agree that the most vulnerable in the world need our respect and our care. We could just start with that. A common ground.

I love grocery shopping. A grocery store is a microcosm of the world – just about everything is represented: agriculture, commerce, marketing, transportation, production, social exchange. Maybe within this world we can make more conscious choices in how we treat the world and each other, right at our own grocery stores. I wonder if Sharon feels the same way.

I hope so.

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