Completely checking out at supermarket self-serve

January 08, 2004|By Dan Rodricks

THIS IS what I get for breaking a New Year's resolution four days into the new year - the loss of 40 bucks, feelings of stupidity and guilt, rage against the machines and utter disappointment in my fellow man.

Pretty good, huh? A four-in-one deal.

Who could ask for more?

Look, I don't feel sorry for myself. Things like this happen. Sometimes you're out there, roaming city and suburb like everyone else, and, in a matter of minutes, you become the naked star of your own reality TV show. It's like being a victim of a Jamie Kennedy Experiment. You feel Punk'd.

This started with my resolution to never use self-serve checkouts at the supermarket.

I made this resolution on the instinct that the big chains are trying to replace human beings with these machines while offering no discount - not even an extra mango - to customers who do the work themselves.

In a moment of weakness last year, I decided to give the self-serve checkout a try. The experience was stressful, with customers behind me watching and waiting. I overcharged myself for bagels, and at one point the female voice from inside the machine loudly said, "Please move your bananas!"

It was embarrassing.

So I resolved again to keep away from the self-checkout lines.

And what happened?

Jan. 4, 2004, I was in a supermarket in Howard County with a friend. We were shopping for first-aid items - including a 2-pound bag of frozen peas to use as an ice pack - for an athletic injury.

It was midmorning, and customer traffic was moderate. We were in a rush. My friend suggested the self-serve checkout.

This friend, Elia Mannetta, walks around with a cell phone plugged into his ear, and he runs his life out of a gadget in his palm. He likes technology. I like it less. But at the moment, use of the self-serve checkout seemed to make sense, and a New Year's resolution does not carry the weight or guilt of a Lenten fast. So I went along.

I used a debit card to make an $8.14 purchase and, having no cash in my wallet, asked the machine for $40 back.

And it did as requested.

And I left the store without the cash. I, like, totally zoned and forgot to take it.

I discovered this about three minutes later, as I was pulling my car out of the parking lot. I believe there was an audible expletive uttered in the car by the driver.

I parked immediately and went back into the store, trying to remember which of the five self-serve checkouts Elia and I had used. I felt like Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life, retracing his steps through Bedford Falls, looking for the Bailey Bros. Savings & Loan's lost money.

I looked in the money-return tray of each checkout - no cash.

I went to the customer-service counter to explain what had happened. Two store employees were helpful and sympathetic, but no one had turned in my $40.

If honesty hadn't happened by then, I figured, it wasn't going to happen at all.

The person who had my cash still might have been in the store, or walking their groceries across the parking lot. He might have been watching me, the way Mr. Potter spied on Uncle Billy as he rummaged through the trash cans.

I felt like a dope, of course, and a little worse when I thought of someone keeping that money instead of making an effort to give it back.

I didn't want to see the money appear so much as the honest person returning it.

Over the years of writing this column, I have reported on small and large acts of honesty - people returning wallets and cash they found on the street or in a parking lot. About eight years ago, there was the story of Loyola College student Laurie O'Connell, who returned the $6,000 she found in the street to the immigrant Russian couple who had saved the money for a car; one of them had dropped a handbag with the cash after cleaning a house in North Baltimore.

For a time, about five years ago, readers were constantly calling and writing with stories of such honest deeds, expressing genuine awe that anyone at any time would do anything but keep found money for themselves.

Even people of modest means, who could have used the cash, made an effort to find its rightful owner. There was hope for Western civilization. The heart warmed. The spirit soared.

I had no such luck on Sunday. Honesty did not appear. C'est la vie, mes amis. But, look, if I'd kept my New Year's resolution, then I wouldn't be pining for a display of honesty.

I am going to steel myself against these supermarket machines. I want human cashiers who hand you your change and chase after you in cold, windswept parking lots when you leave your milk behind.

Until they can design machines that say, "Hey, mister, you forgot your 40 bucks" as easily as they say, "Please move your bananas," I'll have nothing to do with them. Mark my words.

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