Periscope Depth

darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there

The weather reports for Friday escalated from flurries to a few inches to a snow emergency in a matter of hours. I stopped by the Shaw’s in Porter Square to pick up a few things in case I got snowed in. Then I started remembering groceries that I needed, one by one, and soon ended with a full cart. I’ve been trying not only to eat healthier but to stock my pantry with a wider variety of food. Having one healthy entree in the fridge still means I’ll go for a burrito if I want variety. But having chicken, salmon and flatbread pizza to choose from keeps me eating right.

I got in line behind an old man who also had a full cart. As I watched, he unloaded at least ten gallons of Coca-Cola (several 2-liters, several four packs of 18-oz bottles), at least twenty-four vanilla pudding cups, several bags of “Orange Slices” gummi candy and a small plastic basketball hoop. The cashier rang it all up; the bag boy loaded it in paper sacks. He pulled his wallet out, lips shaking, and swiped a card through the reader.

“It says it’s not allowed,” he said.

He tried swiping the card several more times. The cashier spun the card reader around to face her. “You pushing the button for credit?” she asked. He was. While she tried manually entering that card, the old man produced another one. “It’s a Home Depot card,” he said. “So maybe it only works for the Home Depot. I don’t know.”

The cashier twisted her mouth around after punching in the card. “It doesn’t recognize the card,” she said.

The old man tried swiping the first card – a Sears credit card – three more times. Each effort involved him fishing it out of his wallet, running it through the machine, punching in answers (“Credit? Yes”) with trembling fingers, and waiting. Each effort yielded the same response.

We stood there in that civil quiet: the old man, the cashier and me.

The bagger had gone on to service other checkout lanes, leaving a grocery cart full of fructose in the front. The old man put his wallet back in his jeans and pushed the cart out of the way. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Those are all the cards I have and I don’t have my checkbook.”

“Maybe it’s -”, the cashier said. “Kara?”

The manager came over. But the old man was trying to make a quiet exit. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Sorry to make you bag all that.”

“No, it’s okay,” the manager said.

“Sorry; sorry.” He left.

One minute later, while I was fishing in my pocket for my loyalty card, he came back. “Could you set that to the side?” he asked the manager, pointing at his laden cart. “For like twenty minutes? I’m going to go call the people and see what’s up with this card. Because there should still be … I should still be under my limit on it.” Then he left again, this time for good.

I wonder what that stage of life feels like. When the world is so full of petty frustrations that you just want to gorge on things that taste sweet. When you don’t know from one day to the next if the cards in your wallet will pay for what you want. Or, even worse, the day where you know deep down that the cards won’t work, but you hold out hope that something’s happened. Some accounting error, some jinx in the electronic machine, and everything you want is yours. Maybe he was scared that if he showed up with bread and milk that he couldn’t pay for, someone would step in and try to pay for him. He wanted a bunch of snacks, but he also wanted to make clear he was an adult. Just an error with the credit card. Happens all the time. Sorry to trouble you.

“He said he was sorry we had to restock it,” the cashier was saying to the bagger. “I’m like, don’t be sorry for us.” She shook her head.

You could see the trains of thought following everyone’s eyes: the manager, the cashier, the bagger. All wondering what had brought the old man to that point. Wondering if they’d fare better at that age, when they tucked a gray plastic hearing aid behind their ear and their lips shook. Not me, though. I’m not worried about getting to that point. I’d never show up in a grocery store and try to buy a cartful of things I couldn’t afford. I’m too allergic to shame. I’d just sit quietly in my apartment, not being a bother to anyone.

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