It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry. Sadly, other than the two dozen cans of emergency tuna I keep around in the event of Armageddon, my cupboard’s bare. Since I’m sick of tuna salad sandwiches, I decide to go the supermarket and buy food with a little more variety.
With my stomach grumbling, I arrive at the grocery store. After I find a cart with the proper non-squeak wheel alignment, I make a beeline for the deli counter. Experience has taught me to always hit the deli first. Why? Because after the checkout line, the deli counter is the most time consuming part of any shopping trip. The line for luncheon meat is usually populated by legions of cantankerous old people who think advanced age excuses them from getting a ticket and waiting their turn like everybody else. In addition to cutting in line, Methuselahish customers regard their cold cuts with an almost religious seriousness, causing interminable delays as they demand half a pound of free samples and then berate the overworked counterperson for not slicing their orders of compressed mystery meat thin enough. Whereas some people are connoisseurs of wine, cheese, or twenty-five year old scotch, you can usually count on the average New Jersyite over the age of seventy-two to be an authority on olive loaf.
If I sound rather bitter I have good reason to be. When I graduated from college in 1990 the country was in the grip of a recession. Unable to find work in my field and my graduation money depleted, I was forced to take a job at a local deli. The job, quite frankly, sucked ass. My coworkers were a bunch of psychologically maladjusted polysubstance abusers, the boss was a jerk, and, because I was the new guy, I had to come in early every morning and make the tubs of coleslaw, potato salad, and tapioca pudding we put out fresh every day. As I was slaving in this saturated fat carbohydrate hell, I promised myself that, when I got a real job, I’d never work in the food industry again. Funny how life doesn’t do what you want, huh?
It was the elderly customers, however, who drove me up the wall. Clutching their sheafs of coupons and always anxious about money, they’d yell at me whenever I sliced one ounce over the amount they ordered and then demand to eat it for free. Because I was sick of their shit, I became quite adept slicing off the exact amount of meat and cheese a customer ordered. But sometimes accidents happen. Once, when I was cutting bologna for an old man who kept loudly insisting I wasn’t slicing it thin enough, my hand slipped and the rotating blade of the deli slicer shaved off half a millimeter of my lower right thumb joint, Let me tell you, that’s a sound you don’t forget,
As I was bleeding like a stuck pig all over the old man’s cold cuts you’d think he’d ask me if I was okay or offer to help me. He did nothing of the sort. Instead he yelled, “I’m not gonna eat that!” and then screamed at the store manager to get someone else to fill his order. I ended going to the ER, lost a day’s pay, and got a tetanus shot to boot. After several months of dealing with crabby deli oldsters I was ready to put every old geezer I encountered on an iceberg and float them out to sea. Since verbalizing such ageist genocidal thoughts can get you into hot water, however, I decided to keep my dark imaginings to myself.
Luckily, the deli at the supermarket I patronize today has a computerized ordering system. If the line is too long you can input your order using the touch screen and them do the rest of your grocery shopping while the counter people slice your order. The system even pages you on the overhead speaker when your order’s ready. It saves time and, best of all, because it’s a new fangled computer thingamabob, old people shun it like its a Medicare copay.
Today, however, is my lucky day. There’s no one in line at the deli and the three counter people on duty all work to fill my order. I’m so happy that I start a conversation with the woman slicing my half pound of Swiss cheese.
“This has got to be the fastest I’ve ever gotten in and out of the deli in my life,” I say. “Where are all the customers?”
“It’s only one o’clock,” the counter lady, an older, thin, chain-smoking looking woman, replies. “We get busy around three.”
“That’s when the old people come, huh?”
The woman smiles. “Yep, my favorites.”
“I worked in a deli once,” I reply. “They always drove me batty.”
“If I hear another person ask me to ‘slice it thin’ one more time,” the counter lady replies, “I’ll lose my mind.”
“Somethings never change. Do they?’
“Has the new computer system made life easier for you?” I ask.
“Are you kidding?” the counter lady replies. “It’s made life worse.”
“Really?” I say, surprised. “How?”
“When we get an order from the computer it’s exactly like you took a number and waited in line,” the counter lady explains. “Only you aren’t waiting in line, you’re doing the rest of your shopping. The old people don’t understand that. They get angry that they have to wait while we fill orders for people who used the computer system.”
“Senior citizens aren’t usually a technologically friendly group.”
“You said it mister,” the counter lady says, smiling ruefully. “The seniors say we have to take care of the’“real people’ in line first.”
“Still trying to cut in line,” I say.
“Yep,” the counter lady says. “I’m getting on in years myself. But I don’t use my age to jump int the front of the line.”
“That’s because you’re young at heart,” I say.
“Thank you, sir,” the counter lady says, handing me my cheese. “That’s sweet. You have a nice day now.”
“You too, sir.”
I depart the deli area and finish my grocery shopping. My empty stomach is now making loud noises. I’m looking forward to enjoying a nice sandwich and an ice cold beer when I get home. When I get to the checkout area, however, my heart drops. There’s only one register open and several elderly people with shopping carts brimming with stuff are already waiting in line.
Almost twenty years have past since I’ve worked at the deli. I’m forty years old, my parent’s are senior citizens, and I like to think that I’ve evolved into a kinder, patient, and gentler person. Who am I kidding? Because the teenager manning the register is inexperienced, the line moves at a glacial pace while he scans coupons and ineptly explains to the geriatric customers scrutinizing each and every item on their receipts that no, they haven’t been ripped off and all their coupons have been counted.
As my stomach starts making squealing nosies I try taking my sixth grade nun’s advice and offer my suffering “up to God.” I also think about asking God to take out the seniors ahead of me so I can get home and make myself a sandwich Since those prejudiced sentiments might piss off an entity who’s older that time itself, however, I decide against beseeching the Almighty to smite the old timers and silently stew in my low blood sugar rage.
After what seems like a millennium, I get out of the store, throw my groceries in my car, and head for home. In addition to being famished I also have to take a wicked piss. As I’m driving down the street, a little old lady driving an automotive gunboat made in the early 1970′s sails though a stop sign and swings in front of me. As I brake to avoid hitting her, I can hear my groceries being food processed by inertia in the trunk of my car. I wonder if the eggs survived. When I release my tight grip on the steering wheel I notice the small scar the deli slicer put on my right thumb eighteen years ago.
Maybe karma’s punishing me for that whole putting old people on icebergs thing.