They say that in some cities, a chat with the checkout operator is the only conversation some people have all day. An automated checkout not only takes away jobs, it silences the small talk that holds back the grave: “Have a nice day.”
At least, that’s the theory. I like self-service, even though I feel guilty because of the employment thing. There, but for automation – and probably age discrimination and overqualification, too, let’s face it – might I be, come the day my job is automated away. Standing all day, swiping tins against the bar code reader with a satisfying “bip” and stuffing things into too many bags because nobody wants their cat food and their yoghurt to touch. I figure I’m getting practice. It’s like the way putting together flatpack furniture with an Allen key lets me pretend I am a skilled tradesperson.
It’s nice, though, isn’t it, to do the job yourself. The traditional checkout may be the last place one can have one’s existence acknowledged by a human, but it’s not a place for conversation. Sometimes you don’t want to muck around explaining what kind of pears these are, when you’d rather quiz the teenager at the till about her Instagram eyebrows and whether or not she wears those false lashes to school. Or the bag kid about their oh so not-Anglo name and features. Where are your parents from? Are you Hazara? Did you come on the Tampa? What was that like? Can you remember it? What’s it like growing up here between two cultures? What are your goals in life? It’s frankly not appropriate. Besides, I like putting my cat food and my yoghurt in the same bag. Nobody needs that many bags.
Self-service is never entirely a one-person affair anyway.
I place my bag on the narrow counter beside the machine. How green and responsible I am, I think, shoving my hands around in it in a desperate attempt to make it stand up ready to receive my meagre goods. It teeters uncomfortably.
“Unexpected item. In bagging area,” says that lady. (You know that lady. She welcomes you to every supermarket in the land. I picture a young white woman in a dark recording booth, cans on, eternally repeating her catchphrase, “approval needed”. She has a monopoly right now, something I think needs addressing. We might like the option of a male voice. Or one that says “please put your items in the bagging area” in Gagana Samoa or Te Reo or Urdu or French.)
I take my bag off and put it on again. Nothing happens. I look around for help, see none and decide I can surely sort this out myself. I repeat my action. This time the self-service screen asks me whether I have my own bag. I do. To confirm this, I must now touch the screen.
Touching the screen at my supermarket used to be a dangerous act. A couple of years ago they installed a new floor that, while shiny, somehow caused customers to become electrical conductors. We were getting zapped all over the place until they put special anti-static chains on the trolleys to earth us. To this day I can’t reach for a tin of tuna without inwardly flinching. Same goes for the first screen touch.
But it goes off without a hitch this time and my bag is placed.
“Unexpected item. In bagging area.”
This time a kindly young staff member is at my side immediately, swiping their special bunch of keys and pushing a few buttons to allow me to proceed. I’m an old hand at this and I ask them to stick around for a second while I swipe through my wine.
I am 52 years old and my days of being asked for ID for alcohol purchase are long, long gone, but every time, I kind of wish they wouldn’t push the “date not needed” button with quite such certainty. I got ID checked when I was 40 you know. Young people of today are dyeing their hair this colour. I could just be prematurely aged from all this cheap-ass wine.
Liquor purchase safely stashed, I continue, putting through a tin of salmon. Now the self-service station questions the weight, and with it, my integrity. It implies that I’m lying, that somehow I have replaced the tin of salmon with a tin of much more expensive salmon, or caviar, or an entire roast chicken. Once again, the key-swiping staff member comes to my aid.
I make my final purchase, a small tray of celery.
Key-Swiper looks sheepish. “It’s because it’s on special.”