David Foster Wallace delivered the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, an enlightening meditation on empathy which involves, in part, supermarket check-out lanes. The content deals mostly with the problem and importance of empathy. I strongly recommend that you listen to it.

A supermarket checkout lane encounter today reminded me of that speech and of a principle summed up nicely by a Pynchon nugget from Gravity’s Rainbow (1973):

Proverbs for Paranoids 3. If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.

Here’s what went down:

It was one of those Saturdays in wintertime Boston in which people who work during the week are zooming around, trying to get all they can get done while the temperature is still above freezing, the roads and sidewalks are clear, and folks who know better are weekending in warmer climes.

I woke late, and I began my errands during that pre-lunchtime frenzy I try to avoid, getting to the supermarket at 11:30am. From the perspective of the aisles, sure, I could have predicted what the checkout lines would be like. Folks in the aisles were blocking the way with carts. Some were monitoring cell phones for grocery lists or for texts which interrupted their, and by extension my, shopping. Some were paralyzed by the staggering number of non-peanut butter spreads available on the sandwich aisle. I could have guessed the lines at checkout would be long based on the aisle-blocking indicator. However, it didn’t change my game plan: yogurt, sandwich buns, veggie patties, and a couple of sale items I got suckered into.

Five items.

During the course of shopping, I kept noticing a driven-looking elderly lady with sunglasses on, let’s call her grandma, leading a young girl around the store. The young girl was pushing the cart. It looked like they were having fun together. I was warmed by seeing them shopping together.

When I arrived at checkout, I found my way to the end of a line, not noticing the approach of grandma. Now at the wheel of the cart, she nosed the cart in front of mine, claiming by an edge the spot in line I thought I was getting. Her cart was full. As a reminder, I had five items. Normally, I’d simply ask her politely if she’d let me go ahead, relying on the presence of her granddaughter to encourage compassion. Her granddaughter’s face was applied almost adhesively to the glass of a smartphone. Grandma by not looking at me seemed to say that she knew exactly what I wanted and that I wasn’t going to get it. I knew my request would probably come out gruffer than I’d like, so I eyed my options:

I could get behind her [a couple of other people had already done so], or I could get in the line one over which was longer even than grandma’s lane, or I could go to self-checkout. I went to self-checkout.

There were two self-checkouts open, both for people with 12 items or fewer. (I refuse to say 12 items or less). Both self-checkout lines had what appeared to be hapless customers in them, people who had been struggling for a while.

One self-checkout was lit up with that flashing light which stops transactions until management arrives to clear an error. That and headcount told me to choose the other self-checkout: one person and no light in the self-checkout I chose, and three heads and a flashing light in the other one.

However, once in line, I saw that the one person in line ahead of me was a clueless dude with a cart filled to capacity, and he seemed new to checkout altogether. As in, maybe he didn’t know what money was? Meanwhile, I noticed the three headcount in the other line belonged to a cute couple with only a few items followed by a single person who looked like he was already listing in his head the steps he’d take when he got to the computerized register they provide us. The manager cleared the error for the cute couple while I was stuck behind clueless dude, and the other self-checkout saw the cute couple and the other guy clear their line with other people queuing up behind them as they efficiently completed their transactions.

I was still waiting in line behind clueless dude when they opened a new line three away from me. People from behind me in line and people who hadn’t yet begun to wait in line rushed there, sticking me still in line behind clueless guy.

Grandma walked by with granddaughter in front of my self-checkout and shot me what looked like a triumphant look as she left the store. It probably wasn’t, but it felt like it. I was getting more and more frustrated.

Then the store opened another line two away, and people started bolting from behind me to that line. I saw a woman in sweats with a few items and a dude with a grey cap on with two items on go to that line from directly behind me. As I walked over there, new people filled in behind me, where I had been in line. Clueless guy finally completed his transaction, without me noticing, and was making his way out of the store.

I asked the guy with the grey cap: Hey, I was in line ahead of you there. Mind if I jump ahead here?

No you weren’t, he said.

I said: Sure, you were just behind me in line.

He said, you don’t know that.

I said, Yeah, I saw you. I was pretty calm, but he was getting angry.

I appealed to him: Look, I’ve been waiting in line a long time, and I’d appreciate —

I don’t give a shit how long you’ve been waiting, he said.

What did you say? I asked.

I don’t give a shit how long you’ve been waiting. He said this, tightening his frame like a threatened animal does.

In my mind, I had a perfect response. It was one which would make him feel terrible about who he was and what he was doing walking this earth, but I didn’t use it. I was figuring out which line to go to next, when the guy in line beside me offered for me to go ahead of him. I did, and I left the store ahead of grey cap, while grey cap had, apparently, gotten stuck behind a person who was paying with a check. Yes, an actual written check: the kind which requires you to pen the amount in numbers and then in cursive letters.

Here’s where I’d like to talk about systems:

Grocery stores could enforce a single queue with a rope barrier. Using the rope barrier, as I’ve seen at some department stores, only the most brazen of line jumpers would move ahead of a customer. The rope barrier would convince people they were being given the next possible place in line. As they worked their way through the queue, they would find themselves at the end of the queue waiting for one of the open registers to light up for them. The queue could feed into 1 register or 6, depending on how backed up the line got and how well-staffed the store was. However, the store would have less time per customer to sell us high-margin items like magazines, candies, soft-drinks, and batteries. Also, the additional queue space, especially if they lined it with high-margin impulse purchases to negate the opportunity cost lost by candy-lined little lines, would presumably take away from floor space they rent to other vendors, allowing those vendors to stock their shelves with so many types of alternate sandwich spreads that your mind kind of melts while you look at it, leaving you and your cart completely obstructing the bread and sandwich aisle. Vendor shelf-space rent is a sure thing; it is not guaranteed I’ll pick up a tabloid (“Oprah is from Venus!”) or a candy bar (“Cavity-Filling Caramels!”).

The obvious culprits here are, of course, Mr. I-don’t-give-a-shit-how-long-you’ve-been-waiting and Grandma dare-you-to-ask-me-to-move. I don’t want to take away from their culpability. They feel entitled by an unfair system to a place in line they didn’t earn. It’s kind of like when a white man, who, by virtue of race and gender, has had all kinds of historical boosters working in his favor (in the past and in the present) sues an employer who fired him for his writing an unprofessional email and claims that the employer discriminates against white dudes. This guy feels entitled to his spot in line, even though, if he were truly a systems person as Google needs to keep on staff, he’d know he didn’t deserve that spot. He got the spot, yes, and he probably worked hard for that spot — but deserving implies a fair system, and there has never been a fair system at that level. The illusion of a fair system at the level of employment at a major firm is what keeps some people going. It also keeps some people insisting that the heirs billionaires deserve to inherit money without taxes, leaving the schoolteachers, the restaurant servers, and the mailmen to pay for the police, the military, the public schools, and the courts. All this is predicated on a fair system in which anyone can succeed, one which does not exist and which becomes vanishingly less likely to exist with aggregation of power in the hands of so few.

Imagine now a system in which not only does the supermarket leave the check-out lines as status quo for their benefit, but also customers who arrive first in line [while others have been shackled in the back, making the food] can take up residence there and charge rent for other people to use the lines. If supermarkets added this, they’d be making their systems more like the system so many people claim is fair now. Not quite, but more like it.

Back to the supermarket: the system is the true culprit. Yes, the obvious culprits are still culpable for their own behavior, but we should keep focus on the true culprit: the system which is not set up fairly.

We in the system can behave with empathy, like the guy who let me step in line ahead of him, or we can behave without empathy. The problem is me, or the grandma, or the man with the grey cap thinking we are earning our spot, that we deserve to be where we are.

We are buying inexpensive groceries in a country only an enlightened perspective would call a shithole while people born in other countries, even in our own, are suffering for our greed and inability to see outside ourselves.

Meanwhile, the system actually benefits from me and grey-cap arguing, for me leaving the store fuming about grandma and grey-cap.

Conveniently, it has me asking the wrong questions so the system doesn’t have to worry about the answers.

Resident of Frogpondia.

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