She arrived at the checkout just as I arrived at the one beside it. She dumped a box of Medium White Wine heavily on the conveyor belt, and looked round with a sort of cheerful defiance.
Odd things, checkouts. They are the last places of interaction in the modern supermarket and therefore probably doomed. Already their automated cousins have replaced a lot of them. And even the automated cousins will become redundant, for electronic surveillance will soon be such that it will know what you have taken from the shelves and will charge you accordingly without you having to do a thing or interact with anyone.
Unless that is you are one of us who have already been left behind by wireless technology and who have no hope of ever catching up. We will be detected even as we approach tomorrow's supermarket and the doors will shut on us and there will be no one for us to complain to as the virtual tattooist inscribes across our forehead in letters that every scanner can read but that are invisible to an eye of flesh and blood, LEPER.
We will be condemned to shop in dingy little backstreet dives where they still accept the last few torn and filthy notes in circulation and the range of goods available to us will dwindle with our numbers until the dingy shops and we alike just fizzle into nothing to the regret of nobody. 'Twas ever thus. Time moves on and generations with it. But for the meantime we still have checkouts.
They are places of transaction but there is an imbalance of experience between the people transacting. On one side is the customer who will do it once that day. On the other side is the cashier who will do it several hundred times that day. To the customer, therefore, it feels like a human interaction to which the rules of courtesy apply.
To the cashier it doesn't. But the cashier is nevertheless obliged by the rules of commerce to pretend. Hence the "how has your day been so far?" It is phatic communion, noise without meaning, but the customer takes it as a question, and one that is hard to answer.
Perhaps it was designed that way by the overlords of commerce, because by the time that you have mentally sifted through your day and weighed the tiny griefs and worries against the momentary unexpected pleasures in a bid to reach a just assessment of the whole, your groceries are scanned and packed and all that is required of you is just to feed your soul into the electronic gizmo and be off.
Often as I bring my basket to the checkout I wonder whether I've achieved uniqueness, whether anyone in the history of shopping has ever assembled the exact same selection of goods - Bulgarian cow's feta, three beetroot, two beef schnitzels, two bottles of Eaglewood Cabernet Sauvignon (a snip at $8.99) and a 36 Quantum dishwasher tablets. If not, it says something about the limitless random world in which we say we live, although what exactly I couldn't tell you.
I also like to look at other people's baskets because each is a partial autobiography, and far more honest that a written one. Nobody lies with their groceries. So when the woman at the next checkout dumped her box of cheap wine I was interested.
"That's dinner sorted," she said, loudly. I snorted with laughter.
She added a sausage of cheap dog roll.
"And that's the dog sorted too," I said. It wasn't funny, but I wanted to show that I was with her rather than agin her.
"I haven't got a dog," she said. "That's for the seagulls."
I laughed again. Surprise is the first, although by no means the only, ingredient of laughter.
"I'm serious," she said, "they go crazy for it. Best $6 of entertainment you'll ever get."
"You feed the gulls dog roll?"
"Sure. All the chip shops and the takeaways have been closed for weeks. The gulls are starving. Didn't you know?"
I wasn't sure whether I was having my leg pulled. She was giving it out hot and strong. My groceries had been scanned.
"So you feed them dog roll in the street."
"Not in the street!" she cried. "I mean I wouldn't want to be known as the crazy gull lady, would I?'
I'll miss checkouts. They're theatre.