Monday, August 30, 2010

Scene from a Checkout Line

Today I found the shortest line at the grocery store, like I always do, like everyone does. George Clooney's character in Up in the Air knows which security line at the airport to choose by profiling the passengers. There is no virtue in getting stuck in the slowest line.

I had four items: cherry tomatoes, two kinds of lunch meat, and cheese. Easy in, easy out.

I clearly don't profile as well as Clooney. The line I chose was the shortest, but I was there for a long time. There was a group of four in front of me. An older woman, a pregnant young woman, her younger sister (about 12 years old) and a baby boy, the son of the pregnant young woman. Each of the women wore head coverings and long skirts. Only the young girl spoke English.

The check out lady was tired--tired of working, tired of problem customers, tired of life. And she didn't pay attention as the young girl tried to explain that she needed to swipe their wic card before she rang up their groceries. She had done this before, often. But the checkout lady ignored her and when the wic card was finally swiped at the end, there was a remaining balance of $25, and our family of four had no money. The young woman said they would have to give back what was not covered on the card. Evidently, this was not clear by simply looking at the receipt.

By this time there were several other customers behind me in line. This would not be pretty. The woman directly behind me saw the trouble clearly. She was immediately exasperated, clearly disgusted with the way this family was slowing us all down. She scooped up her items and looked for another line. The cashier told us all that this could take awhile and that we should find another place to check out.

My eyes were on the young girl. She had been in this situation before. She was stuck between her older companions speaking her native language and an overtired cashier who clearly wished that her family had selected another check out line. I decided to stay and was determined to be patient.

The young girl was amazing. She calmly showed another receipt that itemized what they could purchase with their wic card. Calmly, she pointed out to the cashier where the mistakes had been made, but the cashier was confused and in little mood to help. The girl looked up at me and calmly said, "this could take awhile, maybe you should find another line." I smiled at her and said I was in no hurry. I wanted there to be one non-anxious person in the middle of all of this for her.

A manager came to help and after listening to the cashier's incoherent account of the episode, finally turned her attention to the girl who again flawlessly explained the predicament. The manager went through each item on the receipt. People lined up behind me and left, lined up and left, lined up and left while this unfolded. There were sighs and frowns. The girl looked at me again as if to say, please find another line so I won't feel bad about slowing you down. The old woman looked at me curiously. I smiled at them both.

I considered just paying the difference for them, sending us all on our way more quickly. But I wanted this young girl to experience victory and I was willing to wait. The manager quickly lost patience working through the register tape. The credit card swipe on the line next to us was not working and that cashier was asking for help. She voided the entire transaction in our line, which meant this family would have to start checking out all over again.

The girl looked at me and said, "you should go to another line." "I'm not in a hurry, it's fine," I told her. "These things can be complicated and you're doing your best." I could see her shoulders shrink, the tension ease. The manager took a long time at the other register. Finally, the girl asked the cashier, "why can't you check this man's groceries while you're waiting." The cashier had clearly not considered this. "I guess that would be ok." And she checked me through.

I was so impressed with this young girl. She stood straight, head high, hands on her hips. She was confident, persistent, patient, insistent, and smart. And all of this in a young girl's costume, a cheap dress and scuffed shoes. As I walked past the family, I looked in the old woman's face and told her, "you have a very smart girl here." The old woman smiled, though I'm sure she didn't know what I said. The girl looked at the ground.

We were all caught in this snarl. A snarl of impatience and bureaucracy and bigotry and poverty, and all of this was caught on the shoulders of this girl. And I thought about how often this must happen for her, how seldom it happens to me. The powers are aligned for me, but not for her. And patience seems like a small gesture over against it all. But today, it was what I had.


Joseph said...

Lovely story.

Seeded at newsvine: Scene from a checkout line

Anonymous said...

I have tears in my eyes. Thanks for the reminder.

Redlefty said...

Dude; this one's gonna get some responses!

Very tangible and simple example of what missional can look like. I hope that girl takes those moments as encouragement to let herself continue to shine through when it would be easier to give up.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this story and your example of patience. I posted a link on Facebook.

Greg McKinzie said...


Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

Thanks, Mark. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

Steve Robinson said...

Beautiful, simply beautiful.

Matushka Anna said...

So, so true.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this story. I found the link from Steve's blog. I think I'll be back more often.

Adam Sheehan said...


Came over here from S-P's blog.

This is instructive for those of us who work with customers and clients everyday.

It is a reminder to not treat people like "cases" or "transactions" that need to be closed quickly.