September 22, 2011 in Washington Voices

Front Porch: Checkout woes nothing to sneeze at

By Correspondent

Lamaze breathing techniques recently helped me endure an excruciating experience at the grocery store.

Shopping shouldn’t be painful, but on this sunny Saturday, I experienced a “perfect storm” situation at the checkout line. And like the hapless victims on Gilligan’s Island, my three-hour tour stretched into an eternity when I was stranded in checkout purgatory.

I began to unload my groceries while the couple in front of me haggled with the cashier over a coupon. That happens. No big deal.

Scanning the tabloids entertained me while management was called and the coupon conniption resolved.

At last, it was my turn. Almost.

First the cashier needed to change the register tape. No worries. I’d rather have a readable receipt than a faded ink-smeared one, anyway. But the changing of the tape proved fraught with difficulties for the cashier, whom I shall call “Dante.”

Dante was obviously not feeling well. Pale and haggard, his sad hound-dog brown eyes were puffy and red-rimmed, and he sniffed as he fumbled with the tape.

I’d never seen him before, and with four sons I do a lot of grocery shopping at this store.

“Are you new here?” I asked, once the tape was installed to his satisfaction.

“No,” he mumbled. “Sorry. Gotta do a cash drop.” While my ice cream pooled on the conveyer belt, he laboriously began to count through a large stack of bills in his cash drawer.

That’s when I employed the first Lamaze breathing technique. Drawing a deep lungful of air through my nose, I slowly blew it out of my mouth. Just as I began to fill my lungs again, Dante commenced coughing.

He racked. He hacked. He sounded like Camille dying of consumption.

I wondered if it would be possible to hold my breath the entire time it took for him to ring up my groceries. Surveying my full cart, I decided not to tempt fate. With my luck I’d pass out and he’d give me mouth-to-mouth.

As Dante’s coughing paroxysm subsided he gasped, “Paper or plastic?” I silently pointed to my reusable bags.

Dante grabbed a sweatshirt I’d picked up off the clearance rack, and that’s when I began praying silently. “Please God, let him find the price without having to call for a manager. Please!”

And my prayer was answered. Dante scanned the item with ease. However, removing the security tag posed a problem. He tried valiantly but couldn’t seem to pop the tag off. He summoned the manager. And we waited.

I wanted to resume my deep cleansing breaths, but I was worried about the consumption particles that had to be floating through the air.

At this point, I had no idea how long I’d been in the checkout line. I was pretty sure my 11-year-old had graduated from high school. Heck, I might even be a grandmother. But I resisted the urge to check my cellphone. I did not roll my eyes. I did not emit heavy sighs – I couldn’t – I’d transitioned to the hee, hee, hoo shallow breathing associated with the most painful part of labor. Trust me. I was in pain.

The manager arrived and removed the tag with ease, and after a juicy sneeze, Dante moved on to my grocery items. He flipped and spun my case of root beer multiple times while looking for the UPC code.

Then he attacked the produce. Pausing frequently to wipe his running nose with his fingers, he fondled my fruit with unseemly familiarity.

I wanted to say, “Stop it! Blow your nose! Go home! Use hand sanitizer!”

But mesmerized by the germy spectacle unfolding before me, I chose to concentrate on remaining upright and conscious.

Finally, my cart was empty. Taking a shaky cleansing breath, I slid my debit card and waited for my receipt.

That’s when Dante decided to take care of his nose. From his pocket he pulled a gray, crusty handkerchief. He unfolded it – searching for an unused area.

And then he blew his nose into the germ-laden piece of fabric with gusto and relief. He blew so long and so hard, I thought he would surely pass out.

But no. Slowly and methodically he refolded the cloth, replaced is in his pocket and reached for my receipt.

Handing it to me, he smiled wanly. “Have a nice day,” he said. “See you next time.”

At last I found my voice. “Next time,” I said, “I want an epidural.”

Contact Cindy Hval at Her previous columns are available online at columnists.

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