The register does all the thinking as my arms feed it the number sequences on a series of tuna fish cans, the bottom of a cereal box, the back of a ketchup bottle. My hands never stop moving—when they are not swiftly passing items by the scanner, they are reaching over it to type the number codes into the keyboard manually, for the scanner cannot read numbers on oddly shaped or textured items. Even in typing, I am not thinking, only tapping fingers as they are pre-programmed to tap. And when there are no more items, I press the “Subtotal” button; collect, flatten, and drawer cash from the customer; hand him back the amount of change which the register so knowingly instructs me to, all with equal mindlessness.
“Hi, how are you?” I’ll ask one customer, one of my pre-defined functions.
“Your total is…”
“Have a great day!”
Throughout these interactions, my eyes remain unfocused, gazing out at the other human-register entities in the distance, looking to the customer in just occasional requisite glances. The only noise I hear are the mockingly monotonous construction-vehicle sounds that the register repeats every time I feed it a code: 4 – 0 – 1 – 1 –
5 – 0 – 5 – 7 –
2 – 0 – 2 –
“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO TO MY GRAPES?”
A few moments pass before processing that these words are coming from the woman in front of the register, and yet another few to understand that she is directing them towards me.
Me, the robot – incapable of unplanned human interaction, programmed to do only certain specific actions with certainty and precision.
Apparently, I’ve just severely malfunctioned.
I look up to the woman, observing her gentle pale skin change to a fiery pink color, her neatly curled brunette hair springing up and down erratically, her cool blue eyes flaring with rage. “I had those grapes tied!” she yells, pointing at the grapes, which have slid right out of the untied plastic bag that they are in, only to be crushed by an oatmeal container. “You fucking untied them!”
“I’m so sorry,” I cough out.
The old man at the end of the register, one whose existence I hardly ever notice except when he is not there bagging for me, interjects. “I can get you another bag, maam.”
“I don’t want another bag; this was the perfect size!”
“I’ll get you another bag of the same size,” says the bagger sincerely.
“You’re not the problem, don’t pretend to be the solution!” she shouts, turning back to me. “I’d like to speak to your manager.”
Alert: System failure.
I jerk my hand up, pointing his direction.
She walks over towards him.
“Hi, how are you?” I blurt out to the next customer in line, scanning his box of cereal and apple sauce and container of yogurt, trying to return to my mechanistic routine. But I’ve accidentally swiped the yogurt twice, requiring a void out from my manager. My manager who is now listening to the grape woman’s screaming.
As I see her fuming and shouting, him nodding and looking over to me, her leaving the store in a huff and him now walking towards me, droplets form at the top of my forehead. My hands clam up, my breath becomes heavier. What is happening to me?
“Hey Dave,” says my manager, approaching. “So that customer just wanted to give me a couple notes about your performance here.”
“I’m sorry sir,” I say. “It was a mistake, it won’t happen again, I promise.”
My manager nods a few times. “Relax, man. You’re not a machine, no one’s expecting perfection. Just gotta ease up a bit, you know?”
“Of course, sir,” I say. He walks off.
I wipe the sweat off my forehead, having expected a much worse outcome.
You’re not a machine, no one’s expecting perfection. Just gotta ease up a bit, you know?
The words repeat in my mind.
I think of the woman, probably still seething at her steering wheel as she drives out of the lot. I think of myself, first accidentally crushing the woman’s grapes, then finding myself short of breath and sweating profusely. Ordinary human expressions of emotion.
1) You’re not a machine.
2) No one’s expecting perfection.
3) Just gotta ease up a bit, you know?
“Sorry about the delay, sir,” I say to the next customer in line, forming a friendly smile on my face.
“You swiped my yogurt twice, remember?”
“I was just – I’ll call him over again – ”
“Friggin’ incompetent,” he mutters.
I take a deep breath. You’re not a machine, no one’s expecting perfection. Just gotta ease up a bit, you know?
Now I just need to figure out how to download that last part.
Daniel Kahn is a writer and software engineer. He went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he studied “Dramatic Writing,” and currently resides in New York City.