Thursday, November 13, 2008

L is for Lemmings Locked in Line

If you’ve ever seen any of those old disaster flicks from the 1970’s—think Airport or The Towering Inferno, or in the case of Baby Bear, whose catastrophes usually include water, The Poseidon Adventure—then you have an idea of what it’s like taking all three of my autistic children grocery shopping: Each person has his or her own subplot or drama that intertwines with the others’, all spiraling through a seemingly endless trail of destruction.

Naturally I prefer to go grocery shopping when they’re in school. During the summer months, if Mr. Lucky was deployed somewhere, I would stock up on—nay, horde as many groceries as I could fit into the pantry and refrigerator (one of those big freezers out in the garage would have been nice), simply to minimize trips to the Air Force commissary. But they couldn’t be avoided altogether.

In such cases, we’d go first thing in the morning, right when the commissary opened and it wouldn’t be as crowded. More often than not, it’s very crowded; I’ve since found that Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon is like the base commissary on any day of the week.

Aggravating matters is what happens—or doesn’t happen—at the head of the maze (described in previous blog entry) leading to the cash registers.

A supervisor will stand at the head of the line, watching for when one of the registers is ready for another customer. She will then direct the person at the head of the line to that particular checkout.

“Number Eight is open,” she says, and he pushes his loaded cart to Checkout Number Eight.

A few minutes later, the customer at Checkout Number Twelve places the last of her groceries on the rolling belt, and pushes her cart forward to the opposite end of the checkout.

“Number Twelve,” the supervisor will say to the next person in the maze line.

This does nothing to speed up the checkout process. The result is that over the years, many susceptible commissary patrons have been brainwashed, like religious cult recruits or Manchurian candidates, into never leaving the maze for an open checkout until they’ve been directed to do so by the supervisor.

The problem worsens when the supervisor finds something more worthwhile to do in another part of the commissary. The whole winding line screeches to a dead halt, like that scene in the Disney/Pixar cartoon, A Bug’s Life, where a leaf flutters to the ground in the middle of a column of busy marching ants, disrupting the column and effectively splitting it into two. The ant who suddenly finds himself at the head of the newly broken second line is paralyzed with panic, and doesn’t know what to do until a senior ant happens by and guides him around the leaf, until he can link up with the end of the first line, and the bug’s life returns to normal.

Every time I go to the commissary I get stuck behind two such bugs, usually an older couple—we’ll call them Ike and Mamie—part of the extensive retired military community which, at our local base, far outnumber active duty personnel.

No sooner do Ike and Mamie reach the head of the maze than the supervisor is called away to deal with some other, more earth-shattering crisis—someone’s can of cat food won’t scan properly and the cashier can’t punch in the price manually unless both she and the supervisor insert their keys into the register and turn at the same time, like the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Ike and Mamie are left puzzled and totally bereft of initiative.

“I don’t see her anywhere,” says Ike. “Yet there are at least three checkouts that look open.”

Then pick one! I silently seethe.

“I don’t know, dear,” Mamie dithers. “I’m worried about the Rocky Road melting.”

Then get your Rocky Road to the nearest available checkout! I want to yell. Meanwhile, the line has grown out of the maze, and is stretching all the way back to the deli. “Excuse me,” I say, “but what do you think would happen if you went ahead to that checkout anyway?”

Ike strokes his chin. “I don’t know.”

Mamie shudders. “I’m not sure I want to find out.”

“My kids are about to start World War Three,” I say. “Do you mind if I go around you and risk making a mad dash for it?”

Mamie grabs Ike’s arm. “Don’t let her do it.”

He sternly shakes his head at me. “If you were a young single fellow with no one waiting for you back home, I might tell you to take your chances. But you’re a woman. With children. I can’t in all good conscience allow it.”

You’d think there were watchtowers manned with searchlights and armed guards, ready to shoot and kill anyone who dares to make a run for the nearest available register without the blessing of the supervisor lady. This is the United States of America, and most of the commissary patrons have risked life and limb for the freedom to fill their carts with groceries and proceed to the checkout of their choice. Yet here they all stand like frozen lemmings.

Meanwhile, I have to keep the Crown Prince and Baby Bear from breaking out of the maze and racing each other to the nearest door marked “EMERGENCY EXIT – DO NOT OPEN – ALARM WILL SOUND - WE ARE NOT KIDDING - YOU WILL BE IN BIG TROUBLE IF YOU PUSH IT!”

But what child of mine can resist?

Once my darlings do succeed in setting off the alarm, it gets everyone moving—except Ike and Mamie, who don’t want to lose their place at the head of the maze. As the sirens wail amid flashing red and orange lights, I duck beneath the cart expecting to hear machine-gun fire and explosions, and the voice of Alan Rickman booming over the P.A. system, “T minus thirty seconds and counting.” The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse could gallop by through a shower of blazing meteors, reduce everything to a smoldering ruin of ashes beneath a sky choked with obsidian thunderclouds, and I swear Ike and Mamie would still be standing there, wondering if the supervisor lady will return anytime soon to direct them to a checkout, and fretting over the fate of their melting Rocky Road.

Call this my third argument for wanting to pick my own checkout, instead of getting clogged up in the maze.

More recently, the supervisor lady has been replaced by a huge, high-tech device that hangs over the head of the maze. It flashes the number of the next available checkout, and a voice (not Alan Rickman’s) announces, “Next, please!” It strikes me as being very Big Brotherish, and I don't think it makes the line move any faster. People still must be told when they can proceed to the next available checkout.

At least we don’t have to worry about it wandering off like the supervisor lady and my children.

1 comment:

Phyllis J. Towzey said...

The line flow system sounds like a classic example of over thinking, lol.