tiny mouse lives inside my brain. Usually, he spins around on
his little mouse wheel, powering me through the day, keeping the
operation running smoothly. But sometimes, he gets stuck and starts
to nibble at one particular idea - one of life’s troubling
little mysteries. He chews on it and chews on it, slowly eroding
my capacity to think of anything else.
Lately, we've been wondering why there are no rules for the grocery
store's express lane. Yeah, it says "12 items or less",
but what’s an item? How do we count a six-pack of beer or
one bag of three tomatoes? Fourteen bottles of the same hot sauce?
In a buy one, get one free scenario, does the second one count
toward the total? The supermarket people should give shoppers
some guidance. Otherwise, feelings get hurt. Fights break out.
Well-meaning shoppers wind up on the "People's Court."
Nibble, nibble, nibble. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.
The other day, I'm standing in the express lane, and this woman
in front of me has a cart full of Meow Mix. Like 10 bags. Then,
she starts unloading a hand-held basket packed with yogurt, the
kind where the fruit sits on the bottom.
I realize this is my opportunity. To test the system. To stop
the nibbling. To get the tiny mouse back on his wheel. "Excuse
me, but I think you’re in the wrong lane." Her head
swivels like an owl. "See the sign?"
"I only have two." She has gobs of makeup on. Gobs.
In the circus clown or Tammy Faye vicinity. Her curly hairdo is
"No, you see, I have two items. A jar of mustard and a package
of condoms. You have ten bags of cat food and twenty containers
of yogurt with fruit at the bottom. That’s thirty items."
The woman turns red and shakes a Dannon at me, but the checkout
girl butts in.
"Hold on. Can’t we settle this calmly?" She’s
about 17, Italian or Hispanic. "On" comes out "awwwn."
"It's two o’clock in the ehhhfternoon, plenty of empty
lines. Since I already started ringing this lady up, sir, why
don’t you scoot over to lane six there and be on your way."
I steeple my hands. "Look, I'm not trying to cause trouble,
but she’s violating the most basic of grocery-shopping tenants.
What if there were no empty lanes? Would you reprimand her for
flouting the rules?"
The cat lady rolls her eyes. The checkout girl smacks her gum.
But I am unperturbed. It’s not often you sense you’re
making history at the time you are making it. As I fortify my
position between the Twix bars and the tabloids, I realize I may
be the first shopper in history to take a stand against an express
lane violator. It’s one of those situations you dream about,
when you are absolutely right, and everyone else is absolutely
wrong. And no matter how many slings and arrows may be aligned
against you, you are going to fight to the death.
"This is how society slips," I say. "One transgression
at a time. Sure, this seems insignificant now, but what if, across
America, people pull up to the express lane with carts full of
cat food? Or all the nation’s grocery clerks look the other
way when someone counts thirty-seven cartons of low-fat cottage
cheese as one item? The next thing you know, people will use four
dryers at the Laundromat to dry three sweaters and a pair of jeans.
They'll talk loudly during movies. They'll park their SUV’s
in compact spaces. Then where will we be?"
A few shoppers and a manager-looking guy gather around us, emboldening
"People already do those things," the cat lady sneers.
"See, it's already begun. Do you really want to be the joker
that topples the whole house of cards?
"Who you calling a joker?"
The manager guy glides in. His eyebrows could be planted in my
front yard. "What's the problem?"
I clutch his shoulder, check out his name tag. "The problem,
Sid, is she has enough cat food to feed a zoo full of cheetahs,
enough yogurt for a squad of cheerleaders. I'm simply stating
the case, for the millions of silent shoppers, that this is unacceptable."
The gallery claps. I swell with pride.
"I see your point, sir. But since Maria’s already ringing
up this customer, can I take care of you over here?"
It's obvious, and a little disconcerting, that Maria and Sid have
been studying their Xeroxed guides for dealing with difficult
Suddenly overcome by frustration, I reach into the back of my
jeans and pull out a Glock 9. I wave the gun, speak German. "Auf
dem Boden!! Auf dem Boden!!" On the floor!! On the floor!!
Okay, I'm making that up. I don't have a gun, and my German is
rusty. I might say "Lick the Floor!!" or "On the
cucumber!!" or something.
What I really say is: "I have a better idea, Sid. Why doesn't’t
Maria check me out first, since my shopping cache is within the
legal limits. And you can check out the cat food lady in the regular
line where she belongs."
Sid flattens his comb-over, huffs. "Fine." He puts his
arm around the cat lady, offers some Friskies coupons or whatever.
Her defeated expression makes me want to do an end zone dance
—you know, wiggle my knees, point to the sky.
I feel hands patting my back. "Way to go, guy." "Power
to the people!"
Maria smacks her gum. "Cash or charge?"
I slap a ten down. She glances sideways. "There are twelve
condoms in that package, you know."
I wink, scoop up my bag, wave to the customers as I stroll toward
the automatic doors.
The sun is a spotlight, brilliant and high. I don my sunglasses,
take a deep breath. I am sublime.
As I turn the key in the door of my Honda, a huge SUV pulls into
the next space, marked "Compact."
Nibble, nibble, nibble. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.
~ * ~