Monday, May 16, 2011

16 MAY 11: Wal-Mart Math

The Saturday night run was dreadful for me - only about one lap around the lake at Idle Hour Park. Why my stomach gained about five pounds in weight when I drove from Columbus to Phenix City, I have no idea....

The exercise was followed by a trip to the Phenix City Wal-Mart to get something for dinner. A nine-inch deli sandwich costs only $2.50. Maybe this explains why Blimpie is at the back of the store, while the deli items are near the front door.

I took my Chicken Philly Cheesesteak sandwich to the "20 items or less" checkout lanes at Wal-Mart -- except I walked behind one with a number blinking. That meant it was closing, and closing one shopper ahead of me. It probably was my fault - because I felt compelled to double-check one of the shelves, to prove my pastor didn't err when he mentioned Smuckers making peanut butter.

So I moved to another "20 items or less" lane to my immediate right, and found something which immediately didn't look quite right. A young man had his cart filled with plastic bottles. They were all the same thing - bottles of "Similac Sensitive" baby formula. It reminded me of another pastor's quip long ago: it's similar to mother's milk, but lacking.

But that wasn't the thing which fixated my attention. I counted the number of bottles in the cart, and there were 26. Yet he was in a "20 items or less" line. And there were NOT bottles from the Shakur family - you know, two-pac or four-pac.

Those 26 plastic bottles were as single as I am - and so I found myself with what Dr. Laura Schlesinger used to call a "moral dilemma." The young man in front of me clearly was violating the 20-item limit. Should I say something to him about it? Should I use a backdoor approach - perhaps asking if he was a math major in college?

I wound up with a good five minutes to quietly develop my strategy, as the 20-item line advanced very slowly. There's a reason why Wal-Mart doesn't call them "express lanes," you see....

As we waited in line, I remained silent - admittedly rejecting a faster option to my right, the "self checkout" lanes. All I'd have to do was scan one sandwich, and insert a five-dollar bill in a slot. But the way the evening was going, the machine might have broken down after concluding my bill was counterfeit.

So I developed my plan while waiting in line. I said nothing while the cashier helped the person ahead of the young man with 26 bottles. I said nothing as he put the bottles on the checkout counter. This was all about timing - in this rare case, not speaking until it's one step of your turn.

When the cashier turned to the young man with 26 bottles, I spoke up to her. "Before you start, I'm appealing for a ruling. This man has 26 bottles in a '20 items or less' lane." Remember, this was the Phenix City Wal-Mart. Columbus stores probably have a few of those 100 extra police officers on duty for moments like this.

"You can go in front of me," the young man quietly said. Yes, I could - but other people were in line behind me.

"I'm leaving it up to you," I said to the cashier. I went in this direction to put things in her hands, and not have a personal confrontation with the man. Those old "People's Court" warnings were in the back of my mind. And besides, the man's calculator simply might have gone haywire.

The cashier seemed stunned by my words, and said nothing for several seconds. Suddenly she was forced to play referee at 9:15 on a Saturday night. Finally she asked the young man: "How many bottles do you have?"

"Twenty-six," he said quietly. I'm not sure if this admission qualifies him to work at an accounting firm or not.

This confession brought several more seconds of thought. Finally the cashier rendered her decision. "I can't turn away any customers," she concluded - and she started scanning the 26 plastic bottles of formula. At that late hour on a Saturday night, I knew better than to demand an immediate appeal to a bank branch.

(The moment reminded me of a classic "year-in-review" parody by Miami columnist Dave Barry. He claimed a ruling on how to count multi-pack items at the express lane came from a divided U.S. Supreme Court.)

The young man pulled out what appeared to be a WIC voucher to pay for all that Similac, which slowed down the checkout even more. I quietly waited, accepting the ruling of the chair cashier. Thankfully I'd read the sandwich wrapper, which recommended heating it 90 seconds in the microwave once I returned home.

When my turn finally came, I explained my actions to the cashier. "If I had mentioned it to him in the line, he probably would have told me it was his blankety-blank cart and I should mind my blankety-blank business." Besides, his plastic bottles certainly were more lethal in a fight than my nine-inch sandwich.

"I'm just doing what I'm told," the Wal-Mart cashier told me. But a man behind me in the 20-or-less line was a bit more upset.

"You can report it to the manager, to get things changed," he suggested to the cashier. "D**nedest thing I ever saw." Wow - he must not watch Home Box Office, either.

But the Wal-Mart cashier insisted she was merely following store rules, by not turning a customer away. "That's not my decision. That's Sam Walton's decision." Isn't that amazing? His rules haven't changed, 19 years after his death.

I took home two lessons from this memorable Saturday night shopping trip. First: you can unload all you want in Wal-Mart "express lanes." Twenty-or-less can mean 26, and probably even more. Second: Chicken Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches have more cheese than meat, leaving their fat content ridiculously high.

Let's see if the weekend news left anything quite as memorable:

+ An evening thunderstorm knocked out power and left damage across Columbus. I saw two trees apparently blown down in South Commons Sunday evening. It couldn't possibly have come from hordes of riotous baseball fans attending tournaments at Golden Park....

+ The Ledger-Enquirer reported Stewart County has emerged as the top area for expanding Fort Benning. If this becomes reality, imagine the implications it will have. Modern tanks from Benning could be challenged by exploding anvils from Westville.

+ WTVM reported 81 Russell County teachers might not return next term, because of uncertainty with the Alabama education budget. Somehow I get the feeling Governor Robert Bentley won't be quite as generous with numbers as Wal-Mart cashiers.

+ Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed the controversial immigration reform bill. Some civil rights groups already are calling for a boycott of Georgia-grown produce. For some reason, Deal's staff responded by forcing an Atlanta television station to boycott the bill signing. [True!]

+ WBOJ-FM "88.5 the Truth" afternoon host Garrett Lee won a local tryout for the new music competition "X Factor." Hmmmm - did his "X" come from ancient Greek?

+ Disney on Ice ended its annual appearance at the Columbus Civic Center. This year it presented "Toy Story 3" - filling the parking lot with families driving Infinitis and beyond.

+ Russell County was eliminated in the semifinal round of the Alabama high school baseball playoffs by Spanish Fort. If Alabama had an immigration bill similar to the one Nathan Deal signed, this could have turned out very differently....

+ Instant Message to the organizers of Arts in the Park: Lakebottom Park isn't the only one in Columbus, you know. You could rotate this event to other parks across the city. Or would that mean you'd have to put up with "Family Day in the Park" every few years?

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