StumpTheChecker

StumpTheChecker
Franz Marc: Fuchse [Foxes], (1913)
"The odd, the British insist, are nearer to God."

Our Saturday larder-stocking excursions have continued in greater earnest since the Damned Pandemic lockdown orders kicked in. These represent the sole opportunity for The Muse to get out into the world, and though we cannot properly call these shopping trips, they provide some sense of possibility beyond talking to a basement wall, her usual occupation through the week. I usually make a couple of trips out to pick up odds and ends, but always alone and inevitably mission-focused, hardly recreational. The Saturday outings serve as our sole socialization, so we've continued them, albeit under extreme caution: Masks, a handy bottle of hand sanitizer, little lingering or investigating involved. We're pretty much in and back out again, following our Stations Of The Cross sequence from butcher to green grocer to supermarket to liquor store to fish monger, then home. Even this small variety in the numbing sameness can approach boring, so we've adopted a few diverting amusements which we incorporate into these days. We might listen to the latest Radio Deluxe podcast between stops because The American Songbook's always a welcome companion. We continue our infinite Slugbug competition, which seems friendly to a point nearing absurdity. We humbly genuflect when in the presence of Parking Karma, when The Gods provide a parking place nearest a store's front door. We most enjoy our ongoing game of Stump The Checker, though.

For those not already engaging in this competition, it's another one of those so-called friendly competitions where gaining actual points is never the point.
The game offers small consolations, which seem plenty in this plague season. Almost nobody else ever even knows we're engaging, for it's an almost private competition. Sometimes we'll inform the checker of our true intentions, but harried checkers usually deflect this information. A few join into the underlying spirit of the game and clown around with us for the short checking out duration. Stump The Checker might be interpreted as a cruel kind of competition, for it pits the innocent and likely very skilled checker against everything in their store's entire inventory. Since most stuff in a modern supermarket comes pre-labeled with a Uniform Product Code, supermarkets serve as sub-par fields of play, unless scanning from the produce department. Opportunities to play seem scarcer every day, but a dedicated competitor can usually manage to find something curious and off-label, thereby StumpingTheChecker.

Since there are no points involved, scoring's subjective. Should the checker be unable to identify an object, a point goes to the prospective purchaser. Should the checker not remember the four-digit UPC for the item, and need to refer to their handy guide, the shopper earns a somewhat smaller point. Should the checker misidentify an item, requiring a backing out of a charge, everyone mumbles and stares at their shoes in humble embarrassment. Nobody's trying to lord over anyone in this competition. It remains friendly or it cannot continue, but the ego reward that accompanies a shopper "outsmarting" a checker somehow seems considerable. The Muse and I buy many curious vegetables, apparently the ones an average checker might never see. We advanced far beyond boring bags of frozen peas a millennia ago, and we ain't going back. We routinely select fresh Broccoli Rabe, a veg almost no checker seems able to relate to. Even a leek can throw the rookie checkers. We gladly fill them in, improving our stilted self-esteem in the process.

We might proclaim, "Stump The Checker!," when some confusion appears, for we're definitely noticing. Fresh figs often score a point. The Chicories, in their near infinite variety, never fail to score, for who really knows the differences between escarole and endive? Sometimes, even I stumble when trying to distinguish. Horseradish root always, always, always scores a point, as does Chard. Baby Broccoli is not Broccoli, not even Broccoli spears. Yesterday, in a self-admitted senior moment, a checker asked us to please identify an eggplant. Each little shortcoming serves as a sort of entertainment for us, and I won't suggest that we might not sometimes select something simply for its likelihood of sowing some slight confusion at the checkout stand. We hold nothing against anybody, for we recognize that we'd very likely prove no more skilled at remembering every member of the numbing variety held in continuous inventory. We believe our playing shows a sort of empathy for the endless dilemma facing every checker.

The young upstart checkers, probably working their way through college, often exhibit a supernatural vegetable vocabulary, as do the emeritus checkers, who long ago assimilated every possible variety. There's always one go-to checker, a couple of aisles over, to whom every other checker refers their most puzzling queries. This one can crisply recall every UPC ever designated, and spit them out as if competing in a varsity spelling bee. We see all kinds. The most professional play along with us, seeming to enjoy a subtle taste of self-derision in their work. The very worst moments always come when no-one knows a code or when the machinery doesn't recognize a scanned code. Then, a checker makes a frantic PA System call out to the Produce Manager, who's never anywhere to be found in that moment. Some stores just give away any item the machinery can't recognize. I've carried out free large bags of Morel mushrooms because somebody forgot to update the electronic inventory system.

Usually, Stump The Checker fails to disrupt the system. With the recent proliferation of self-checkout systems, we're often our own contestant and judge, and I can testify that performing in the role of stumped checker ain't necessarily any bed of roses. I head out in search of the ever-absent clerk overseeing the dozen self checkout stations to resolve my problem, which usually arises because I cannot guess how the store has mislabeled something. Traviso, a mild form of Radicchio, ain't lettuce, whatever the inventory control specialist might insist, though it might be my fault for selecting it when I knew for certain I would be the one attempting to check it out. The Muse and I judge our satisfaction in terms of how stumped our checker became, for our novel selections strongly suggest that we've transcended the rest of the shoppers, a rabble of Pepsi drinking donut eaters we barely acknowledge as fellow humans. We carry no Uniform Product Code on us and we insist, regardless of what our social media brothers might say, that we're neither uniform nor a product, not for anyone, not even for ourselves.

We often, now, simply stuff our checked-out stuff back into the cart unbagged, bagging it in the parking lot so as to not subject our fellow shoppers to our potentially infectious shopping bags. This convention makes the checker's job much easier, proving that we're not completely heartless. We might, through necessity, shop in supermarkets, but we're imagining ourselves in that grand shopping plaza in Vienna or Budapest, selecting from some transfiguring selection of veg. Shopping these margins reassure us that we have not yet caved and crumbled beneath our thoroughly modern so-called civilization. We creep through the frozen food aisles, usually avoiding them, and try to stay along the margins of the store's million-plus offerings. We receive some not insignificant validation that we're actual persons, a rare sensation when cloistered in sequestration, when we StumpTheChecker. The odd, the British insist, are nearer to God.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved








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