40 Days of Awkward Conversations with the Safeway Checkout Clerk

What happens when two people meet at a grocery store? As an experiment, they detailed their interactions for 40 days.

Day 1

day1_c

Sara Lautman

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yeah, I went to Safeway to buy a can of beans. Margaret was the clerk at the shortest line.

What did y’all do together?
She rang me up for the beans and brow-beat me into getting three more sponges than I wanted.

Did anything interesting happen?
I guess getting pressured into buying sponges is pretty interesting?

I originally went to the store just to buy the beans, because there was no food in the house. Then after I got there, I remembered that I also have no clean dishes. So, hence sponges.

My first thought was that maybe I could just eat the beans out of the can and forgo doing the dishes. But then I was like, “No Carl, just buy a sponge and do the dishes like a normal person.”

Shows what trying to be a normal gets you, hassle about buying more sponges. It never ends, I tell you.

Did you learn anything new about Margaret?
I learned that she’s big on saving money. And sponges? She told me the sponges were on some sort of deal, four for $2. I tried to say I just needed one, but she sort of looked me in the eye, like “Why won’t you buy my sponges?”

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
Mostly just annoyed. (And a little hungry.)

Is there anything you want to do differently?
Can I do this with a different clerk?

Additional comments?
Margaret seems like an angry person.

day1_m

Hallie Bateman

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yes, he came in around 3:00. Bought sponges and baked beans.

What did y’all do together?
I ran the sponges through. He seemed to be in quite a hurry but I took my time.

Did anything interesting happen?
I let him know that sponges were on sale, 4 for $2, if he used his club card.

“Do you want to go grab a fourth sponge?” I offered.

He seemed unnecessarily nervous about leaving his place in line.

“No, it’s fine” he said.

I was like, “Are you sure?”

And he was like, “No wait… um, yeah, I’m sure, it’s fine.”

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
He’s environmentally conscious. Or at least he wanted to give me that impression. When I asked if he wanted paper or plastic he slapped his forehead all dramatically and was like, “OH NO! I forgot my reusable bag AGAIN!”
I gave him a look like, sure you did.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
I think I’ve got a very Zen thing going on right now. Like, I’ve noticed after a couple hours of working the register, my mind is just totally blank. It’s amazing. I just watch the bar codes sliding across the sensor, going ‘beep’, and it’s like, meditative almost. Literally no thoughts.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
Am I getting paid for this?

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
I think I could’ve probably had someone get the fourth sponge for him, but it was right before my lunch break and I was, like, really tired.

Additional comments?
My horoscope said today was a 9, which I thought was pretty great until I noticed that there was a 9 in every category.

Day 7

day2_c

Pete Toms

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yeah, I needed to buy Sriracha for the beans. Then I decided to just buy some other stuff.

I’m trying this new thing where I buy my meals daily. It makes me think about what I eat more. Trying to lose a little weight. The other day, a kid on the bus called me “fat fat fat fat,” and then said I had a “fat fart face.”

Does Margaret work every day? She seems to always be there.

What did y’all do together?
She rang me up.

Did anything interesting happen?
When she was bagging my groceries, I couldn’t decide if I should help her or not. It seemed weird to just stand there and let her do all the work.

I decided to compromise and just strike up a conversation with her about the bagging. That just annoyed her. She let out this huge sigh. I only asked that she put the organic vegetables in with the other organic vegetables. It’s not rocket science.

Did you learn anything new about Margaret?
When her register stopped working, she mentioned something about Mercury being in retrograde. So I guess I learned that she’s brainwashed by some cult? I don’t know.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
Honestly, not good. Why does she click her gum like that?

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
Maybe I’ll just try and not talk to her. Or pretend I don’t speak English.

Additional comments?
Is there a reason why they sell so many goddamn kinds of toothpaste? How am I supposed to choose? Why does everything have to be a nightmare? I just want a tube of toothpaste.

day2_m

Lucas Adams

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yeah he was here again, around 4:00. He shops like a British person or something, only getting what he needs for every meal. Pretty stupid way to shop, if you ask me.

What did y’all do together?
I rang up his groceries.

Did anything interesting happen?
As he was waiting in line I noticed him looking for a plastic divider to separate his stuff from the person’s in front of him, but there weren’t any so he sort of casually rested his forearm on the conveyor belt?

It’s like, I’m pretty sure I can tell where yours begins, Carl. Nobody else would buy bunch of super healthy organic stuff and then just be like, oh yeah, I should get a GIANT tub of marshmallow explosion ice cream.

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
He loves pretzel M&M’s. At the last minute he grabbed a big bag of pretzel M&M’s and was like, “I LOVE pretzel M&M’s”. I told him I had never tried them and he was like “They’re SO good.”

I gave him a look like, “I bet they are, fatso.”

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
I figured out how to text during work. I put my phone behind the box of rubber bands on the little shelf under the receipt printer and between busy periods I check my phone. It’s cool but it sucks when nobody texts me back and it’s like, why am I even bothering to break the rules?

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
I can’t believe I have to fill out this survey a bunch of other times. Seriously, do I mark this down on my timesheet?

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
I wish I’d made the conveyor belt go really fast when he was leaning on it. That would’ve been funny.

Additional comments?
Today I said on the mic: “Cleanup on aisle 16” – which, get this, there is no aisle 16!!!! Nobody said anything but I bet they were confused.

Day 16

day3_c

Lucas Adams

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yeah.

What did y’all do together?
We went for a hayride. What do you think?

Did anything interesting happen?
I brought my groceries to the front of the store, and I accidentally caught her eye. It would have been rude to go to another line, because we know each other and all.

She may not care about common politeness, with her gum-clicking. But like Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” you know?

I even tried mentioning that quote to her. But she said that Gandhi never even said that, that it was a misquote. Then she said something about how she likes monopoly. Not sure.

Did you learn anything interesting about Margaret?
I learned that she’s woefully ignorant about what Gandhi did and didn’t say.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
I guess it’s alright. I mostly just feel sorry for her. I wonder if she has insurance?

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
I wish I had bought Cinnamon Life cereal instead of regular Life cereal.

Additional comments?
Someone really needs to do something about global warming.

day3_m

Ryan Ford

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yep.

What did y’all do together?
I rang up his groceries, of course.

Did anything interesting happen?
I was in a pretty philosophical mood so when he paid me I was like, “Isn’t it funny that you can just give me these little pieces of paper in exchange for all this stuff? Like, it’s just Monopoly money, it doesn’t mean anything.”
He kind of laughed so I stopped talking because I wasn’t joking.

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
He entered the wrong phone number for his club card so it went through on someone else’s account. I could tell he realized it right after he pressed enter. He didn’t say anything, so I made sure to say “Thank you, MRS. KENSINGTON” when I gave him his receipt.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
I smoked a bowl in my car before work and it was the best idea ever.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
I’m kinda just like whatever about it.

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
I probably should’ve torn up one of his dollar bills to prove the point about Monopoly money. But I probably would’ve been fired.

Additional comments?
Chocolate covered cinnamon bears are my new favorite thing from the “unlimited employee candy buffet”(aka bulk bins).

Day 27

day4_c

Aleks Sennwald

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yes, she seems to always be there. I hope she’s not stalking me. Although, it would be an interesting thing to say at parties.

“Yeah, before she started stalking me, she seemed so normal. Talked about Monopoly and some such. Then she went insane and cut off all her hair and mailed it to me.”

What did y’all do together?
I’m not even gonna answer that.

Did anything interesting happen?
Yeah. I decided I should try and enrich her life with a little intelligent conversation. Really drop some knowledge on her ass, you know? It’s the least I could do.

So I asked her what she thought of this whole thing with Russia. And she asked me, “Which thing with Russia? The fact that Obama cancelled the summit meeting, or the gay rights/Olympics boycott thing?”

That just flustered me. So I said, “Yeah, like anyone in the Olympics is gay.” Admittedly not great repartee. But I work with what I’ve got.

She really didn’t know what to say to that. And who can blame her? Poor thing. Can’t even think. I wonder if she even finished high school?

Did you learn anything new about Margaret?
She doesn’t seem to know much about where things are in the store. I asked her where tube socks and personal lubricant were, and she had some sort of coughing fit.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
I probably wouldn’t have asked about the personal lubricant. I could see how that was taken the wrong way. (I didn’t need them for the same thing!)

Additional comments?
I’ve always thought that dried figs were a really underrated fruit.

day4_m

Sara Lautman

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yeah.

What did y’all do together?
He came through around noon. I had already clocked out for my lunch break and was just about to put the “lane closed” sign up when he pulled up with a huge cart full of stuff. “I’ll be fast,” he said. I gave him a look like, “Are you kidding me right now?”

But my manager was right there watching, so I let him through.

Did anything interesting happen?
Not really. He just stood there smugly making chit-chat as I scanned his metric ton of groceries, each minute eating into my lunch hour. And of course, right as I was finished ringing him up he was like, “Oh wait, I forgot something — can you tell me where the socks are?” and then he said all quietly, “And personal lubricant?”
I was like, “Excuse me? Socks and what?” I made him repeat it a few times, louder and louder until he turned red and was just like, “Never mind.”

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
Again, way more than I’d like.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
I think I’m one of those people who is always trying to make other people happy, and I end up neglecting my own needs because of it. Kindness is a curse, in a way.

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
Should’ve kept the “lane closed” sign up.

Additional comments?
I don’t know what Carl does for a job. I probably don’t want to know. But whatever it is, I want to go there and ruin his lunch break.

Day 32

day5_c

Dylan McKeever

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yes.

What did y’all do together?
Seriously, no.

Did anything interesting happen?
Well, aside from the fact that I almost died, I guess nothing. My car broke down on the highway, and I had to walk a mile and a half in the scorching sun to Safeway. It was the closest place where they had antifreeze. I checked on my phone. Can you believe Circle-K doesn’t carry that shit?

So yeah, by the time I got there, I was a little out of sorts. I might have drunk a couple Gatorades in line. And maybe one Hot Pocket? Sue me, I’m Hypoglycemic.

She has this very holier-than-thou demeanor sometimes. I was on the phone trying to figure out what the hell my mother did to the car to make it blow up like that (Mother had borrowed it the day before to go to Bridge Club), and Margaret kept giving me the stink eye. Like, I’m sorry I can’t stop what I’m doing to make small talk with you. I know my anecdotes are interesting, but I’m not an anecdote machine, you know?

Did you learn anything new bout Margaret?
I think she might be Puerto Rican? I hadn’t noticed that before.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
Pretty terrible, actually.

Is there anything you want to do differently?
I’d probably have worn less snugly fitting pants that day.

Additional comments?
Eating potato chips when you’re dehydrated is actually really dangerous. You can die from it. My aunt Jennifer read an article about it.

day5_m

Corinne Mucha

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yep.

What did y’all do together?
He bought a bunch of bottled water and tea. He seemed sick or something.

Did anything interesting happen?
He was blabbering on his Bluetooth headset throughout our entire transaction despite that there’s a sign that says “no cellphones” right in front of him. (A Bluetooth is just a cellphone for assholes, asshole.)

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
I learned way more than I’d care to know about him. He was on the phone with what I assumed was his mother. He was like, “I’m not a telemarketer, I’m your son, Mom. How’s your heart today, Mom? Please don’t hang up on me.” When she hung up on him he called his psychiatrist immediately.
I gave him a look like, “Jesus Christ.”

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
Most of this company’s rules are really stupid, but I really stand by the cell phone one.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
Meh.

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
No.

Additional comments?
Speaking of cellphones, my mom wants me to start paying my own cellphone bill, which is so not fair. She still pays for my brother’s phone and he’s in law school. She says I’m a working “adult” so I should pay for my own stuff? I’m only 22! Anyway I’m screening her calls until she relents.

Day 40

day6_c

Hallie Bateman

Carl

Did you see Margaret today?
Yes. That’s why we’re doing this. What is wrong with you?

What did y’all do together?
I’m ignoring that.

Did anything interesting happen?
Well, I was in her line at the Safeway, and she was shooting looks at me like she wanted to kill me. It must be hormones. Or maybe she’s just unable to express herself through words properly, so she has to make threatening looks at people all the time.

Anyway, I went to the self-check, which was only slightly less of a nightmare, Seriously why do they make those machines so hard to operate. It feels like a reverse Turing test. But this really nice girl who works there helped me figure it out. Jean. Gosh, she was so nice and pretty. We talked about my organic tomatoes, and how much better they taste than the hothouse kind. What I wouldn’t give to date someone like her. Oh well. Maybe I’ll go to Safeway later today to buy some almonds or something, and see if she’s working.

But God, I hope I don’t run into Margaret.

Did you learn anything new bout Margaret?
Ugh, not really? That she might have a borderline personality disorder?

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
No.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
It is literally the most pointless thing I’ve ever done.

Is there anything you want to do differently?
I should have used this experience to look deeper into the way I interact personally with another human being. I should have tried harder to connect with Margaret. She’s a beautiful, flawed, complex person, someone whom I would be lucky to know better. And I should have realized that sooner. Lord knows, I’m not perfect. I need more people like Margaret in my life, and more people just generally, to talk and laugh and learn with. In short, I wish I could have used this opportunity to get to know someone else, and in the end, get to know myself.

Just kidding. Margaret is awful. My only regret is doing this at all.

Additional comments?
I really like Sriracha.

day6_m

Jeremy Nguyen

Margaret

Did you see Carl today?
Yeah.

What did y’all do together?
We were in the same building for a while, because he shops there and I work there.

Did anything interesting happen?
He stood in my checkout line for a few minutes, until he noticed the self-checkout registers we just installed. He immediately got out of line and went over to them. I think we were both relieved.

Did you learn anything new about Carl?
He’s technologically inept. Not two minutes after he started to check himself out, he was having trouble. He was getting really exasperated, so one of the baggers went to help him. Later she told me he had tried to scan a watermelon as a lemon.

Did you learn anything new about yourself?
A robot can do my job.

How do you feel about this relationship/project right now?
A robot can do my job.

Is there anything that you want to do differently?
So, so many things.

Additional comments?
A robot can do my job.

Hallie Bateman (@hallithbates) is the art director of The Bygone Bureau. Nathan Pensky (@nathan_pensky) is an editor at The Bygone Bureau.