I want to talk to you about shopping, those tiny exchanges conducted under strip light.
Buying stuff is the coal-face of human material desire, the location of our drama about value and fairness. It’s a simple and ancient idea, the swapping of one thing of value for another of (what we deem to be) equal value.
Buddha and lots of other enlightened beings tell us not to do it, but most of us do; we buy shizzle. We buy shizzle we don’t need. Singing fish, unwearable hats, items that go from gift to thrift store in days.
There’s the ‘necessary’ shopping, for food and pants, and then there’s ‘trigger shopping’ (for me, books, can’t resist the buggers). Then there’s what I call ‘human’ shopping where we’re telling stories with our purchases: the new suit that reveals the first job interview in 10 years; the size 10 dress indicating small victories in the gym; the pots and pans for the kid who has just left home; the newly weds sheets; the funeral flowers; the fresh set of acrylics that give away a creative surge.
One of my favourite jobs was working in a health shop that smelled of patchouli and lemongrass. People would wander in like walking wounded and all with stories. Shell-shocked new dads looking for something to stop the wife crying, old men and their goiters, a lot of beleaguered eczema.
So, it will come as no surprise to discover that I hate self-service tills. To me, they sum up the cold, hard, robotic vision of the future predicted in the 1950s. The self-service process offers no warmth, no humanity – for heaven’s sake, human experience is not binary.
Self-service scales are more sensitive and spiky than a dopey end-of-season wasp. The SKU codes on items are unreadable, and loud accusatory alarms go off if you try to purchase a bottle of wine or condoms. Then, there it goes, “There’s an unexpected item in the bagging area”. Except there isn’t.
You shuffle your skin-thin plastic bag around a bit, as if re-jigging your items will somehow calm the hissy-fitting machine. You try talking to the till, escalating from reasonable to exasperated within thirty seconds. You wait to be rescued by someone in polyester, but help is busy manually inputting the SKU code for a fellow customer’s kumquats.
I think perhaps it is the Ghost of Redundant Shop Assistants Past setting off those scales. Or an incumbent fly. More likely however, is that the unexpected item in my bagging area is simply the unbearable weight of words unsaid, pleasantries unshared.
Once you have extracted the lottery of coins from the obscurely-positioned change tray and fended off the vomiting of vouchers, you may think as I do, “Fuck you Robo-Till and your cold, steel heart.”
I just want someone to chat about the weather with. I want someone to say… ‘Oooh I love these too .. I ate them when I was pregnant with my first’ as they pass my jar of gherkins through the scanner.
I want snippets of lives freely offered and freshly packed. I want a mutual exchange.
Give me a human, give me a human story any day.