Even at a glance, I could tell the woman in line ahead of me had way more than the 20 items permitted in the express lane.
It looked as if she’d done a year’s worth of shopping that day, her buggy bulging at the sides from being packed with so many items. The groceries crested the rim of the cart like the bulbous gut of a potbellied man knocked flat on his back. I was no math wiz, but it was definitely more than 20 items.
I eyed the 12-pack of toilet paper tucked beneath my arm and frowned.
“Why do people do that?” I asked. “I mean, surely she knows that she has more than 20 items. Can she not read the sign? Doesn’t she know how to count?”
The toilet paper offered no opinion on the matter.
I reconsidered. Maybe she didn’t know how to count. Perhaps, providing my tendency to be self-centered, I failed to consider the possibility that the lady wasn’t equipped to know whether or not she belonged in the express lane. Maybe I shouldn’t be so judgmental.
“Bully for her,” I told the toilet paper. “It’s amazing that she’s achieved so much in life without having stepped foot inside a kindergarten classroom. She should be commended, praised.”
The toilet paper remained silent on the matter, apparently disagreeing.
Well, I thought, then maybe she’s one of those confused shoppers who mistakenly believes that “20 items or less” (which, by the way, really should be “20 items or fewer”) refers to the number of item types, not the actual item count. For example, those 75 cans of Campbell’s Chunky Mushroom Swiss Burger Soup would still only count as a single item. Only stupid people think this way, of course, but I didn’t personally know the woman and therefore couldn’t attest to her beliefs.
But then, she turned and smiled at me. That’s when I knew.
“Sorry,” she said, and there was no actual apology in her tone. Feigning embarrassment, the lady shrugged. What could she do about it? It wasn’t her fault. She was helpless in this matter … as much a victim as I.
That’s when it occurred to me: This woman, who was most likely raised and educated by something other than barbarians or rock formations, had intentionally entered the express lane knowing good and well she had more than “20 items or less (fewer).” There I was, merrily following the rules with the single item I hoped to purchase, and I was stuck in purgatory because somebody didn’t want to follow a pretty basic courteous guideline. Twenty items or less (fewer)? Not for her. Twenty items or less (fewer) was just the jumping off point; she had somehow advanced beyond that particular rule.
I turned over my shoulder to make a snide comment to the guy behind me, certain he would join me in my frustration. But lo, what’s this? His shopping cart was equally packed to the brim … perhaps more so. His poor buggy groaned from being so bloated with items.
“What kind of world is this?” I asked my toilet paper. “Surely these folks know they’re being incredibly rude. I’m not a stick in the mud or whatever; I know some rules are made to be broken. Sleeping at work, for example.
“But the Law of 20 Items or Less (Fewer) … well, that’s one of the building blocks of our consumerist society. It’s absolute. Without it, the very order that holds our supermarkets and supercenters and other super-retail stores together will go POOF. The poor planners among us, those who haven’t the patience or foresight for list-making and do our shopping a handful of items at a time, multiple times a week, will be up … well, you of all things should know the creek I’m talking about.”
Those sheets stared at me blankly. They had no answers.
“Why can’t people just … I don’t know … do right by each other? That should be simple, right? Especially when it comes to something as low-commitment as counting to 20. Sometimes it’s OK to follow the rules … to be one of the crowd.”
Lost as I was pondering the tangled threads of our society, I almost neglected to acknowledge the woman speaking to me. She had, apparently, finished loading all two-dozen sacks of groceries in her cart and was ready to … finally … leave.
“Sorry again,” she said, then smiled half-heartedly.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I replied, and smiled in return. Mostly because I’m a coward.
By the time I reached the parking lot, the woman was loading the last of her bags into the back of her vehicle. She slammed the hatch, then pushed her shopping cart to the side of her car and abandoned it. Then she got in her car and drove away, passing the nearest buggy stall as she did so. It was three spaces away from where she had parked.
Sighing, I set the toilet paper in the backseat of my car and walked over to retrieve the cart, now drifting slowly toward the center of the empty parking space as if unsure of where to go or what to do next.
“Come on,” I said, taking hold of the handle. Together, we rolled over to the nearby buggy stall.
“Some people, right?” I said as I pushed the cart into the stall.
“You’re telling me,” it said as it rattled to a stop, joining the others standing uniformly in line.