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Season 7, Episode 14 — Self-Checking Your Onions

I’ve had an ongoing battle with self-checkout kiosks, and Sunday brought everything full circle.

Since they showed up at our local grocery store a number of years ago, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with these machines. Designed to make the checkout process quicker and more convenient for folks like me (especially when we have just a few items and don’t want to wait in line), for a long time, we (the machine and I) couldn’t seem to get on the same page.

I’ll admit, it was as much or more my issue than the machine’s. I’d scan something, and she (I say “she” because the automated voice is obviously female, and rather bossy at that) would flatly correct my technique or the order in which I did things. “Put item in bag before scanning next item,” she’d say, even though I had clearly placed my previous item “in bag.” Apparently, I hadn’t done it quickly or firmly enough, so I’d mumble something under my breath and continue scanning.

Sometimes, however, she wouldn’t let me continue, opting instead to freeze the entire operation by displaying “Calling attendant,” something I hated because I’d have to wait for a store employee dedicated (and by “dedicated,” I simply mean obligated) to helping people like me with their self-checkout deficiencies. That person would come over, punch in some 50- to 300-digit code, look at me like I shouldn’t be let out of the house unsupervised and walk away, but not before reminding me to “make sure you put your items quickly and firmly into the bag after scanning.” In other words, “Scan it and bag it fast, dummy. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.”

I’d politely nod and smile, and then, as soon as the employee walked away, I’d mumble something about him or her under my breath before “scanning next item.”

Over time, however, things improved, and I developed a solid self-checkout game, especially when it came to simple scanning and bagging. But, when it came to “non-standard” items (i.e., things without formal UPC codes that needed to be looked up and/or weighed), I — or I should say “she” — was constantly “calling attendant,” which created an increasingly long line of customers left to mumble under their respective breaths as I fumbled and stumbled my way through what is supposed to be a quick and easy way to complete my transaction.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on, slowly improving from one visit to the next. I learned to search for items by type and name. And when I did, I also learned that “she” could be my friend if I would simply wait for her to tell me what to do next.

“Enter the quantity of scanned item. You have … one celery. Please place … one celery in bag.”

I even mastered the weighing process, which I found required no additional effort or steps from me whatsoever. (Why did I think it would? Did I really think “she” was going to expect me to bring my own scale from home?)

For months, I’d been cruising along, getter better with every visit. I’d even mastered bringing my own bags from home and placing them in the bagging station before scanning.

“Did you place bags in bagging area?” Why, yes, yes I did, and I’m happy to hit the “yes” button to confirm. “Thank you. If you have a shopper’s card, scan it now.”

I’ve gotten so good with the self-checkout, it has gotten to the point that I can anticipate what “she” is going to say next, and I’ll see if I can beat her to the punch. “Enter the quantity …” Already did, and it’s in the bag. “If you have your shopper’s card …” Already scanned. “Place item in bagging area …” It’s in the bag. “Don’t forget to take your coupons and receipt.” What do you call these things in my hand? Ha! I win. Again, and again and again.

Over the past year, I’ve progressed from the hapless, confused guy who holds up the line to the master of the self-checkout. When I’m on my game, it’s like watching a grocery store pit stop, or a well-executed fast break in basketball. Five, ten, fifteen items. Produce, canned goods, non-food items. Simple scans or non-UPC products. Paper, plastic or my own bags. Nothing seemed to rattle me.

Until Sunday.

It was busy at the grocery store, as it tends to be on Sundays and lines were long at the regular checkout lanes. I had about a dozen items and spied an open self-checkout station. I pulled in, placed my bags from home, entered my shopper’s card number and started scanning.

Item one … beep! Item two … beep! Items three, four and five … beep, beep, beep!

I was on a roll. Then, I got to a bag of produce. I looked it up, no problem and the machine automatically weighed it. Then, for some reason, I was distracted. Maybe it was the Mylar balloon tied to a nearby rack or by the overhead music playing. Anyway, for the slightest instance, I hesitated, just long enough to for “her” to bark at me in her automated, flat, robotic affect. “Place your … BOILING ONIONS in bagging area.”

Of course, it couldn’t have been potato chips or wheat bread or shredded cheese. And, I swear, even though that voice – her voice – is computer-generated and with no sense of pace, nuance or inflection, I swear she knew what she was saying, when delivered with the right amount of attitude, could and would get a chuckle from the studio audience.

When I heard the words, I it caught me off guard, which made me hesitate again, causing her to say it again. “Place your … BOILING ONIONS in bagging area.” The second, I swear instead of emphasized the adjective (BOILING onions) she stressed the noun (boiling ONIONS). Immediately, I got the metaphor, and apparently, so did others. Over my shoulder, I heard it. It was a woman’s voice but not automated or robotic. It was human, the woman checking out next to me. “If I were you, I’d put your boiling onions somewhere.” I turned, and she was laughing to herself, but I noticed she hadn’t stopped scanning and bagging. (She didn’t want to be reprimanded either.)

I laughed and obliged both voices and put my boiling onions (and what determines a “boiling” onion from a normal version?) “in bagging area” and moved onto the rest of my items.

It was a brief, funny moment that in the past would have caused me to mumble something nasty under my breath at this inanimate object. But Sunday, it became a light-hearted, funny moment that showed just how far I’ve come since those early self-checkout days.

© 2019 David R. Haznaw

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