Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Murphy’s Law in action

South Africa has a number of large supermarket chains and, like in America, there is often one or two of them anchoring certain of the local malls. Here in Cape Town, Pick ‘n’ Pay is one of the dominant chains (where I do a lot of my shopping), Checkers is another (which I perceive as being a bit downmarket), and Woolworth’s is the premier “luxury” food shop, the place you go for the best quality produce and exotic cheeses. This morning I planned a trip to Woolies, with a stop at the nearby Checkers for some packaged goods. It did not go well.

I drive an SUV. Clearly aware of the prejudices against the vehicles and those of us who drive them, I try to be particularly circumspect when I drive and park, taking particular care to align my behemoth properly in the space. So, can anyone explain to me why, when I emerged from the supermarket this muggy, sweltering morning with a trolley full of perishables and a miserably aching ankle, the space available to open my car door was slim enough to give Nicole Richie pause? And, since I’m built more along the lines of the “before” pics of Kirstie Alley, getting into the car was a bit of a challenge, particularly with that sore ankle. And the cause of this inconvenience? Another gargantuan example of the automaker’s art? Would you believe, a VW Citi Golf, parked catawampus in its space, making ingress to my car…and egress from the parking space…an exercise in white-knuckled creativity?

The sore ankle was a large part of the problem, since the car is right hand drive and I must support my not inconsiderable weight on it as I fling my left leg and haunch up into the driver’s seat. Having my manoeuvring space compromised by the Piggy Parker next door made it all the worse. So why did I come out shopping if my foot is still so sore, you ask? Well, it wasn’t particularly tender when I left the house and, had my experience at Checkers gone according to plan, it would have been fine at the end of my excursion. But things at Checkers did not go well…and I never even made it to Woolies.

One of the things my husband says he loves about me is my practicality. I tend to plan things out…even such mundane things as shopping trips. My plan was to arrive at Checkers at opening time, dash in and pick up a few things, and get out before the store got crowded and the lines at the cashiers got long. From there to Woolies for a few things only Woolies carries, and then home in time to catch the latest instalment of All My Children (several years delayed from the US). But you know what Murphy said…

I hadn’t planned to buy produce from Checkers, but on entering the store, I saw a terrific display of white seedless table grapes (Hubby will only eat seedless grapes), so I grabbed a bunch and bagged them. I’m planning stuffed peppers for dinner this week, and the peppers looked to be in good nick…and there were fresh apricots, loose so I could choose my own (the pre-packaged punnets always contain about 50% unripe and sour!). Now, one of the ways that South African supermarkets are different from American is that loose produce must be weighed and the bags sealed shut and tagged in the produce department…the fruit is not weighed by the cashier at check out. To this end, there are scales and employees manning those scales at every produce department in every major market in South Africa. Or at least that’s the way it is supposed to be.

Once I had my fruit bagged, I headed for the scale. A young man in a red T-shirt with a Checkers logo on it was busy hefting a huge plastic bag onto the scale…and I mean huge…the size you’d ordinarily need a small wheelbarrow to move about. The bag was leaking copious amounts of sticky wetness all over the scale, the stand, the floor…and it stank something awful. It was easy to deduce from the smell that the bag contained decaying produce, most particularly rotting grapes. When he had hefted the nasty goo-dripping bag onto a nearby trolley, he turned to me expectantly…and I looked pointedly at the disgusting mess on the scale.

Correctly interpreting my glance, he looked for something to clean the surface of the scale with and grabbed a plastic bag from one of the rolls of bags in the produce department. Of course, his efforts to wipe it clean succeeded in only smearing it around so he tried another tactic…a larger wad of plastic bags. I looked around for a “regular” produce department employee…they usually wear turquoise blue uniforms and aprons…but nobody was around. I did, however, spot a different scale. Unfortunately, the young man couldn’t make this scale work at all. My foot was starting to get tired, for I had been on my feet nearly 15 minutes by this time, and had barely begun my shopping.

To my left was the produce department, brimming over with employees, but not a produce department worker in sight. I asked a deli worker if she could help me, and she grabbed a “cleaner” (grocery stores have regular employees whose only job is to roam the store and make sure it is clean, mopping here, collecting refuse there, etc) and asked the cleaner to find someone to help me. Eventually she found someone, but she could not make the scale work either. She beckoned me to the other scale but I balked. “It’s filthy,” I told her. “I don’t want to put my bags on that thing.”

Sure enough, she found the scale in the same sticky, stinky condition as before. She dashed off to find something to clean it with while I, hobbling now on my sore foot, crept over to the scale…only to find, by the time I got there, that a line had formed! By the time I got to the scale, I was third in the queue and she was weighing the produce of another customer! Eventually I got the bags weighed and tagged and I headed off to the packaged goods section of the store for some things I knew Woolies didn’t carry.

By the time I was finished with my shopping, I was weighing whether or not my foot would stand the trek down to the Woolies at the far end of the mall or not. I had to stand in a queue to get a cashier (something I had hoped to avoid by arriving at the store early…my plan thwarted by the fiasco in the produce department), but finally it was my turn and when she rang up the total, I handed her my Visa card. She put the card through and a message came up on her terminal screen: “verifying transaction”…machine-speak for verifying my credit card had enough headroom to charge a few hundred rand worth of groceries. Problem is, two minutes later (an eternity in nano-second driven machine time), it hadn’t verified…or rejected…my card. The cashier pushed a button to resubmit the transaction for approval and a little blue window popped up on her screen: her credit card terminal was off line. So what does she do? She keeps me standing there for fully another five minutes (while the queue behind me grows and grows and grows…) as she repeated tries to resubmit my transaction on a machine no long functioning. Just as I figure out what she is doing, she rings for a supervisor who comes over, reads the “off line” message on the screen and tries to submit my transaction for approval on a machine she knows is off line and non-functioning!

To give her credit, she didn’t make multiple attempts, she just wrote down the total of my purchase on her hand, grabbed my credit card and said she had to use a different terminal, then walked away. With my credit card. And so I had to hobble after her…in a direction away from the exit where my car was parked…to complete my transaction.

By the time it was done and I had my credit card back and my groceries bagged, my foot had started to swell. I checked the time and All My Children had already started…I was woefully behind schedule, every step on my right foot was like a sabre stabbing me from the heel to the knee, and I hadn’t even been to Woolie’s yet. Hobbling out the door, pushing my trolley in front of me, I headed for the parking lot, only to find the little VW snuggled up to my driver’s door like a lover.

Murphy was right.

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