The Checkout Line

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“Have you ever tried their chicken?”

We were at Walmart, my wife and I, standing in a checkout line from hell. It seemed we would never get through the line: the lady who couldn’t find her credit card; the gentleman who wanted to use two credit cards; the couple who wanted some items charged to one invoice, others to a different invoice, cash for one and credit card for the other. And, of course, there was the woman who debated the price and a supervisor had to be called. Frustration was settling in.

“I don’t think their chicken is as good as the ones at Wegman’s Grocery.”

I realized she was talking to me: the lady behind us in the checkout line. She was pointing to a display of fried chicken near where we were standing. Having a stranger suddenly speak to me is always a bit startling and I sensed a teacher was speaking; class had begun and my mind was swirling, trying to be prepared for the lesson to come. Knowing she needed a response, I stumbled out, “No, I haven’t tried the chicken, but I suspect it would taste good if you’re hungry.”

“You’re probably right, but it’s too much for me,” she smiled. “I live alone and couldn’t eat all of that.”

The lesson had begun. She was approximately my age and had just shared her aloneness. I envisioned that coming to Walmart was a way for her to see people and to have occasional conversations with strangers to help her feel a part of society. Whether feeling alone or lonely, we all need contact with others and today was my turn. I was about to reply when she said, “I put my cart behind yours because your cart didn’t have many items.”

A coincidence no longer; she had picked me and had also just told me of it. Was it really because our cart had few items that she was in our line? Was it that I am a person near her age? Did she see a compassionate face in me? Or was there another reason? Her comment caused me to realize that there may have been an additional lesson for me in a similar encounter that I wrote about a few months ago. My priorities had now just changed; whereas I had been feeling stressed and anxious to get through the checkout line, I now knew my priority needed to be there to listen to this woman. We talked idly of cabbages and kings and the price of tea, nothing significant yet her smile had brightened noticeably.

The line had begun to move and as we passed a display of candy for Mother’s Day she exclaimed on the size of some of the boxes. That generated a few comments on the joys of chocolate, the curse of calories and how prices have risen over the years. The stress and sense of urgency that had consumed me just minutes ago was now history; I was enjoying her words. By this time, my wife and I were actively placing items on the counter and paying for them. I gave the woman a polite goodbye and she did likewise. The lesson was over.

The lesson had ended, but what did I learn? For one, life is in the present and we need to embrace every minute, not allowing ourselves to become stressed from simple acts of others. This was also a reminder to respond to opportunities in life. I could easily have ignored the woman or given a cursory response. My talking with her put smiles on both of us. I have a tendency to avoid interpersonal situations and need to grow in that area. Her reaching out to me took courage, as she had no idea how I would respond. I admired that in her.

So, how did I do? I would give myself a C or a C minus. Yes, we talked, but I missed a key opening. When she mentioned the Mother’s Day candy, there was an opportunity to discuss her children, her family, her hopes for Mother’s Day. In short, I missed the experience of touching her thoughts, a skill where I am challenged. Regrettably, life does not allow a “do-over.” Maybe next time I’ll do better. Yes, I will do better.