Call me naive, but I never realized that such a thing as deli counter kiosks existed until just this week. Seriously? Kiosks. For the Deli. In the grocery store? Is the drive to obtain freshly sliced sandwich meats and perfectly tossed yellow potato salad so strong within the people of the North that they must contain their urges to bum rush the deli counter by using electronic kiosks? Evidently, this is so, because the grocery store I go to the most has such a thing. I guess this system is in place to keep your experience at the deli counter civilized. Because apparently, without the kiosk, chaos and terror would surely run rampant as crazed housewives claw over the bodies of their peers in want of that perfect pound of salami.
This cold cut is capable of bringing grocery store deli counters everywhere to their knees. (Photo credit: bbc.com)
I mean, who knew?
And this is why I sometimes feel out of place here. In the South–or at least, in every grocery store I’ve ever been to in North Carolina–there are no kiosks. There is just the counter, where you stand. Patiently. Quietly. Waiting until the people ahead of you are done. And then you slowly move up, browsing the display of meats and prepared side plates, until some little old lady from behind the counter politely, quietly, asks you what is it can they do for you. And then you politely, quietly, order your meats. And the process continues. It’s a cycle of politeness that works because the people have enough self-control to wait their turn.
But one thing I’ve learned about the North since moving up here is that people are damn serious about their fresh deli meat. Damn serious. Like, you don’t get in-between a woman and her thin-sliced ham and oven-roasted turkey breast OR ELSE SHE WILL CUT YOU. Except I did just that. Oops.
“You’re lucky she was nice,” said the little old lady behind the counter. My skin prickled with uncomfortable-ness, because this hobbling deli counter lady was fixing me with a stare of sympathy. I could just hear her thinking poor, simple creature as she handed me my cold cuts and asked what I’d like next.
I had waited my turn like I assumed everyone else had done before me. When the counter cleared, I stepped up, pretending to be interested in the turkeys and chickens behind the glass. The store wasn’t that busy; it was still kind of early. I had showered, but I was in track shorts and a shirt, and I hadn’t bothered with make-up. I just wanted my deli meats so I could finish shopping and go back home.
When I began rattling off my order to the Counter Lady who acknowledged me, I knew something was wrong. She was giving me a strange look. And she seemed hesitant. So I thought maybe I was going too fast for her. I immediately slowed myself down. “I’d like…half…a pound of…baked…ham…and white…American…cheese. Half…a pound.”
She still seemed stuck. Like I was speaking a foreign language. As I was debating whether to repeat myself or just write it down on a piece of paper, she finally shook herself out of her trance. “We have Virginia baked ham on sale,” she said.
Virginia baked ham is a bit on the sweet side, but I was desperate to get something out of this impossibly slow woman, so I said sure. At this point, I’d pretty much given up on my cheese. It would be a miracle, I thought, if I could even get my turkey or salami. Meanwhile, my fingers and hands started to shake. They do this when I get uncomfortable. I became aware of a shopping cart squeaking behind me.
“Excuse me? Um, excuse me? You don’t have a number?” It took me a second to realize that the woman with the squeaky shopping cart was talking to me, and that it was not her shopping cart squeaking, but the two year-old sitting inside of it. This girl looked to be in her twenty’s, like me. She had long, curly black hair, pale skin, and tattoos all up and down her arms.
I stared at her. A number?
“She doesn’t have a number,” Tattoo Mom said to Counter Lady. “You’re supposed to get a number. Do you have a number? She skipped us in line.”
No no no! I thought to myself. I don’t skip! I wait my turn like everyone else!
“Did you get a number?” She was like a broken record, but every repeat of the refrain became more frantic than the last.
I think by this time we had established that no I did not have a freakin’ number. But when I tried to say this, it came out kind of like a grunt. So I shook my head, mumbled no, and stared wildly around the store hoping that this mystical, magical number would ascend from the heavens and into my hands.
Tattoo Mom nodded to the little baskets on the deli counter, and insisted that I needed a number. I had no idea what to do. But I got the gist that these magical numbers maybe resided in the little baskets, so I plucked one out and clutched it to my chest like it was a life raft and I was a double-amputee afloat in the middle of the ocean without my contacts.
Tattoo Mom looked at me with sympathy. “It’s okay, really,” she said. The aggression with which she had approached me melted away. She backed off. I sighed with relief. I still had very little idea what was going on, but my heart was pounding, my cheeks were burning, and I was certain that I had just scarred myself for life. I would be too terrified to ever come back to the deli counter, because apparently there was a well-oiled system in place to which I was not savvy.
I had just condemned myself to an existence of pre-packaged cold cuts, and the future became bleak.
Go water and filler and salt! (Photo credit: about.com)
Once the fact was out that I had ordered my meat without having a number, Counter Lady seemed to feel sorry for me as well. After that, she was on point. She handed me my ham and promptly said, “how much of the American cheese?” I was even able to order my turkey and salami too!
But, I was well aware of Tattoo Mom watching me. Judging me. And so was the two-year old. As if things just couldn’t be left well enough alone! After the whole awkward encounter, THE TWO YEAR OLD HAD TO ASK WHY WAS I GETTING MY COLD CUTS BEFORE THEM.
“Because we were skipped in line,” Tattoo Mom told her. And Judgmental Toddler regarded me with that same look of pity, BECAUSE EVEN SHE KNEW ABOUT THE KIOSK SYSTEM.
A TWO YEAR OLD.
Thankfully, another Counter Person became available to help out Tattoo Mom. All Tattoo Mom needed was some cheese, and after she got her damn cheese, she left. I felt weak at the knees, as if I had just gone through a police interrogation. I was so happy that Tattoo Mom and Judgmental Toddler were gone. I can handle the scorn and pity of a woman my age, but Judgmental Toddler was just too much. At that point, I just wanted to cut my losses and run. I wanted to go home. I wanted to curl up in a ball on the couch and wonder what had gone so wrong with my life that I was getting the pity of a two year-old.
But then Counter Lady asked me what I’d like next, and I decided that I had made it this far, and that–number or no–I was going to get my freakin’ meat. I ordered my half pound of salami with a sigh of relief. I was done. I was free. I would grab this last pack of meat and run away like baby Simba after the stampede.
The look says it all. (Photo credit: Inmagine stock)
And that is when Counter Lady looked at me with her eyebrows raised and told me how lucky I was that Tattoo Mom was nice. “Most people here aren’t that nice,” she added with a grave sigh. I could only squeak out an agreement as I clutched my basket to my side in an attempt to hide the shaking. Surely my face was the color of a ripe tomato. But Counter Lady smiled kindly, and then pointed to the kiosk at the end of the counter.
“You get your number from there,” she said. “And when you hear it called, that is when you come up and place your order.”
Oh. Oh. Ooooooh. I finally saw it. After almost two months of going to this grocery store, I never noticed it before. The Kiosk. The Kiosk. The King of the Deli Counter. The All-Mighty Number.
I glanced at the slip of paper in my hand and everything clicked. You go to the kiosk. You get your number. You wait for it to be called. And when you are done, you put your slip of paper in the basket on the counter.
So now I knew. In my panic, I had grabbed a slip of paper from the basket for discarded and used numbers. No wonder Tattoo Mom had looked at me with such sympathy and pain in her eyes. No wonder she had backed away. She didn’t think I was just a rude and impatient customer. She thought–nay! She knew that I was just dumb. Plain. Dumb. And she felt so bad for my simple-mindedness, that she couldn’t even bring herself to be belligerent about the fact that I had skipped her in line.
Counter Lady knew. And so did Judgmental Toddler. I was dumb.
In a desperate, last-ditch attempt to redeem myself–at least in Counter Lady’s eyes–I hastily and awkwardly explained that I had just moved here. That it was my first time at this store (a lie, but at this point, I was not above lying). I thanked her for letting me in on the customs of the locals. I bid her good day, and I ran for the safety of the spice aisle. My last shred of dignity nearly abandoned me at the check out line, where I saw Tattoo Lady appear from the aisle beside mine, heading for the registers. I immediately pretended like I needed bread and went in the opposite direction. But still.
One good thing resulted from this encounter. Well, two really. I got my cold cuts, and I figured out how to appropriately approach the deli counter for next time. I just managed to avoid a life of pre-packaged sandwich meats. That deli counter almost beat me down, but somehow, I escaped with just enough of my dignity in tact to keep shopping. I filed the experience away as just one of the many that had showed me exactly how out of place I really am in this whole new world of Yankee-dom.
And the sad part is, I didn’t think I was that out of place. Yet, I am evidently so out of place, that a two year-old is more capable of ordering at the deli counter than I am. Guys, can my life really get any more pathetic than this?
I’m more than a fish out of water. I’m a beluga whale in Sea World–not in my natural habitat, but home nonetheless. Stay tuned ya’ll. Maybe this Yankee state will rub off on me yet.
Deli counters be damned.