The closest I came to working at a supermarket checkout was a thousand years ago when I had a summer job in a cheap book store. The books were cheap because they had been remaindered - publishers had printed too many, couldn't sell them and fobbed them off in bulk to middle men who then opened discount book shops. The one I worked in was called The Discount Book Shop.
I hoped for restful literary employment. I didn't get it. I was the only male on staff and somehow I was always the one who lugged boxes up from the basement. Books are heavy. Bad literature kept me fit.
The main interest of the job was the customers. I was 17 or so. The customers were adults. And unlike the books they were an education.
Male customers fell into three broad types. Most bothersome were the older men who gravitated to the art and photography section where there were numerous large format books with titles such as The Nude in Western Art. This, of course, was long before the internet so men had to leave home in search of spiritual uplift.
They would stand turning the pages and engrossed in a way that would gratify any author until I was dispatched, as the one male staff member, to move them on. Some went immediately, shuffling out of the shop in haste, bent almost double by their shame. Others just didn't care.
If I tried to take the book from their hands we'd end up doing a little tug of war with The History of Anatomical Photography. I had to threaten them with the police to move them on. They would be back next day. Lust leaps perennial in the male. Did then; does now; will tomorrow.
Of the men who didn't openly peruse the books of flesh - though no doubt wanting to - some were simply mute and transactional. They'd bring a book to the counter, pay and leave with the absolute minimum of words exchanged and no change of facial expression.
Dull but no problem. Worse were the self-appointed wits. They saw in you a captive audience for their attempts at jokes. The jokes would be about as humorous as cholera, but it's a staple truth of retail that the customer who thinks he's funny is funny.
Most of the customers, however, were women and it seemed to me that what they sought was connection. Few were readers. They just hoped to find a posh-seeming present for a niece or nephew, and had been pulled in by the word discount. They often asked me for advice on what to buy and, if I lent a listening ear and made the slightest effort to help, within a minute or two they'd tell me everything about the niece that they were buying for, the problems she'd had with her father or the drink, her medical misadventures.
And with the least encouragement one thing would lead to another and they would tell me of their own wayward husband, thankless son. The three great themes were men, misfortune and money.
Almost all of the women seemed thwarted or wounded in some way. They bore a grief about with them, one that they'd talk about with honesty and frankness in a way that men would never think of doing, at least to long-haired 17-year-old assistants in a book shop.
At 17 we know we'll never become our parents. We won't make the same mistakes. We won't compromise. We won't fold. We won't, in short, age. And then we age.
At supermarket checkouts I know I have become Mr Jocular, the self-appointed wit and humorist. In my defence I am partly trying to forestall the "how has your day been so far?" which I have never found a way to answer. But in the end there is no defence.
In Countdown today I made a feeble crack or two as the woman rang up my few items. She smiled politely. Then,
"That'll be $19.97," she said.
"Ah 1997, now there was a year. What were you doing in 1997, if you were even born, that is?"
"1997, I was giving birth to my first child, my daughter."
"My god, I'd never have believed it. You have a 23-year-old daughter!"
"No. She passed away 10 years ago. In a house fire. Eftpos?"