Ended up checking myself in the checkout line

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There’s a lesson in this story, and I’m not sure what it is. But the story goes something like this:

Being a hard-wired penny-pincher (it’s genetic — I had a Depression-era mother of Scottish descent), I was thrilled to get a Safeway coupon in the mail offering $10 off a $50 purchase, as well as free soup.

Oh, Safeway — you had me at “$10 off.” But free soup too? And not just any crappy canned stuff, but real soup made fresh at the deli? I’m in.

I stopped by Safeway on my way home from Davis last week, hastily collected $50 in purchases and headed for the checkout aisles, scooting into the shortest one. Sadly, shortest doesn’t always mean fastest.

The holdup was a young woman with WIC vouchers, and an even younger clerk who didn’t know how to process them. He got through the milk okay, but was stumped by her carton of eggs. Who knows what federal red tape was crumpled — wrong color paper, incorrect serial number, T’s dotted instead of crossed — but this meager carton of eggs brought everything to a grinding halt.

As they fussed over the vouchers, I piled my groceries on the conveyor belt, hearing the woman apologize for the hassle but adding that she really needed those eggs. The befuddled clerk called for assistance over the loudspeaker, and the poor thing looked like she wanted to fall through the floor. The second clerk arrived, and while the three studied this conundrum, I glanced over the woman’s remaining items in front of mine on the conveyor belt, noticing assorted junk food, like boxed pastries and two huge bottles of cheap grape and orange soda.

The grumbly, impatient part of me kicked in first: Hmmm. You’re on WIC, and with the little bit of money you do have, you’re wasting it on expensive crap that has no nutritional value.

Then the practical part of me chimed in: If you’re short on cash and WIC won’t buy your eggs, put the pastries back and just pay for the dang eggs!

And wasn’t I feeling so very superior right about then?

Suddenly it occurred to me that a person in line behind me might look down at my items and think, “Hmph! Post Shredded Wheat — supporting the evil corporate machine! And the carrots — not even organic! Paper towels instead of cloth! Cretin.”

And wouldn’t she be feeling very superior right about then, too?

I took one mental step back from the whole scenario, and though, “Wow… check me! Participating in the judgment chain! Total karma foul, Missy.”

By this time, a store manager arrived to work the WIC snag out, and was shaking her head sternly. No way, no how, was this gal getting eggs with that voucher. The woman looked upset, and again said she really needed those eggs and had no more money, and then it hit me: Clearly, she needed the “junk food” as much as the eggs. But why?

Did she have a child at home with a fever and the stomach flu, and the only thing he can keep down is orange soda? Or a mother dying in the hospital, craving a bearclaw? Or maybe her dog just died, or her husband just left her, or she just got laid off from her crappy minimum wage job, or she starts chemotherapy for breast cancer on Monday, and screw it, she just wanted some comfort food?

Wow. Who am I to assume I know anything about this woman’s situation, and why she needs all those things?

Check me, indeed.

I glanced down at my $7 bottle of organic blueberry juice that, no, I don’t need but love and, therefore, am buying, and realized it probably won’t taste as good knowing about the poor woman who went home without the eggs she needed. Moreover, here’s a fellow American trying desperately to make ends meet, and a federally funded program denying her a dozen eggs, while the same government has plenty of cash to bail out Wall Street CEOS and fund a third war in the Middle East and, well, that just tears it.

“This is crazy,” I snapped. “Just ring her eggs up with my stuff!”

The woman started apologizing and telling the clerk to just forget the eggs, and I quickly assured her that I wasn’t angry with her, or the clerk, even. I was frustrated with the entire scenario. I told her I’ve been short of money before too. It’s OK. Let me get the eggs this time. Someday, you get eggs for someone else. She looked at me, blinked, and suddenly relented, thanking me sweetly, and I told her, “It’s not from me. It’s from the universe.”

Problem solved. The rest of her purchase swept along, and she went on her way. As the clerk checked my items, I confirmed that the eggs were charged to me.

“Oh, we found a store coupon for free eggs. We didn’t charge either of you.”

Hmmm. A double-reverse gift from the universe, maybe? Or maybe a triple-reverse: When I got home, I realized that in the midst of my checkout annoyance, I forgot to give the clerk the free soup coupon, which is what I went there for in the first place.

And here’s the kicker: I had the soup for lunch the next day. Worst. Soup. Ever.

As I said, I know there’s a lesson in this story. I just don’t know what it is.

— Follow Debra DeAngelo on Twitter. Links are posted at http://www.edebra.com and http://www.wintersexpress.com. Find Debra’s columns online at http://www.wintersexpress.com, http://www.edebra.com and http://www.ipinion.us

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