21st Century Shopping by a 20th Century Man
Sometimes I wake up and wonder if I’m living in a science fiction movie or something. I mean what happened to the world we once knew?
I’m standing in line at the grocery store when someone behind me says, “What are you doing, pal?”
“I’m sorry?” I say, and turn around.
A large man in a shiny gray suit, holding a newspaper and a bag of oranges, is, at first glance, not, as I had assumed, talking to me, but talking to himself, it seems. Staring straight ahead. A little bit crazy or something. I try not to stare up at him, but he doesn’t notice me, anyway. Probably part of his illness. But then I notice it: there’s a gray clip on his ear with a blue flash, like something out of an old Star Trek episode) and he’s talking into thin air it seems. I get flustered, turn back around to the sideview of the person in front of me, a girl who’s placing items from her cart onto the conveyer belt while talking on her pink cell phone about Roger and what a great time she had last night, and she’s saying “Oh, you should have been there, Kathy, he was so bombed, we were doing shots of Goldschlager – you know the stuff with the little real gold chips in it ...” while the cashier scans each item past the glowing, all-knowing light imbedded beneath the surface at the end of the conveyer belt ride, and bags up the items – a red tube of Pringles potato chips, three styrofoam containers of Maruchen Instant Lunch with Shrimp, a plastic bag full of pink plastic shavers, a box of McCafe coffee pods, a box of cherry Pop Tarts, and several cardboard boxed microwave Nature’s Way 2 Minute Meals. “Twelve ninety seven,” the cashier says, but the girl keeps on talking without looking at the cashier. The girl unzips her purse and pocketbook and pulls out a green card which she slides into the bottom of the card reader. Still, she is talking to Yvonne, the girl on the other end about Roger and, now, Darrell, “He’s whack, you should see him, girl!”, not once looking at the cashier, who looks about twelve, who glances at her nails and says “Cash back?” and the girl on the phone says, “Hold on, Yvonne, one second,” then gives the cashier a look like How dare you interrupt my conversation, then says, “No. Thank you,” then goes back to her conversation, electronically signs her name on the little screen with her finger, and throws her plastic bags into her plastic cart.
When it’s my turn I put my items on the conveyer belt which pulls them forward toward the bright shiny eye which reads the code – but my items seem out of place in this strange new world – carrots, broccoli, an eggplant, a hunk of steak, a carton of milk. All with the appropriate tags with the appropriate codes on them, until...until the tragedy arises. The cashier lifts the thin plastic bag containing the eggplant.
“What’s this?” she says, her eyes blank.
“What?” I ask.
“It doesn’t have a sticker or a tag. You must have forgotten to put your sticker on the bag. What is it?”
“It’s…” I say, pausing for a moment, thinking she’s joking, that she’ll just start laughing, the camera guys will appear out of nowhere to tell me this was all a setup (like Candid Camera or, what’s the newer show, yeah about ten, twenty years ago, Pranked! I think it was called), that they wanted to see what my reaction was, but the camera men don’t come out, and the girl doesn’t crack the slightest of smiles. Her eyes are dead, serious, and dull. “Well?” she says, huffing, looking at the line growing behind me, gesturing towards it, towards them, the people standing there, many of them having conversations of their own with the air or other people on the ends of their Raspberry, Chocolate or Lime cell phones, when I open my mouth to say...., but then her phone rings and, without skipping a beat, she says “Hey, Jeremy, what’s up? No, just doing the cashier thingy for a little bit...I’ll be off at eight....come pick me up then, okay, pretty please?,” closing her eyes and squinching her lips up in a smile like a baby, then saying, “Cool, peace out. Back at ya.” Then she snaps shut her telecommunication device (me half expecting her to say, “Uhura out,” or something like that) and the smile’s gone and she’s staring at me again with these icy gray eyes, saying, “Well, buddy, what is it, do you see the chaos you’re creating here, or what?”
In the parking lot, when I get safely back to my car, I feel dizzy, take a deep breath, grab onto the bumper of my blue Dodge Neon. It’s some sort of plastic material. Not like when I was a kid, when bumpers were solid, metal. Just feeling the cold plastic beneath my fingers, getting down on the hard asphalt, down on one knee, stroking it, trying to make some sense of it. Then, getting hold of myself, and standing upright again, scanning around the parking lot quickly, an older, frail-looking woman with white hair packing her plastic bags into the trunk of her Miasma, glancing at me for a second with what looks like fear, then back to her task, stacking the bags in her trunk. But they’re not bags like they used to be, they’re plastic, and they don’t stack nicely, neatly. They’re shapeless, hardly any substance to them. She glances again at me quickly, and moves back a step, behind the other side of her car. I smile and wave weakly to show her I’m of no harm, to let her know I was sorry I was looking at her, that she was staring at me, but at least we were seeing each other, or at least trying, and I walk towards the driver side door of my car. I throw my plastic bag onto the passenger seat, turn the key, turn the radio on and hear someone talking, talking (and they call this music now!) in angry sounding rhyme -- not singing, singing sweet sounds, or even words of protest, back like they used to do.
As I drive home I notice them everywhere: a boy with a green backpack riding his bicycle, probably coming home from school, smiling and pedaling and talking on his cell phone; a woman with a fake fur collared jacket, walking her white poodle, and gesturing in the air to a person who can’t see these gestures at the other end of her phone; a young woman driving her car, looking down in her lap, texting; a man in the crosswalk looking down at his device (lucky someone didn’t run the light!). And how many more people staring down at the little screens in their hands like they’re robots, following the commands of their leaders which appear on the small screens, none of them looking ahead, not seeing what is clearly in front of them?
And, as I drive, I wish for a time machine, some sort of black hole to open up in the middle of the road for me and my car to fall into, to take me back to the simpler, saner days, when the world made some kind of sense.