You'd think, at the ripe old age of 66, I couldn't learn too many new things, but last week I did.

I learned a rule about bagging groceries that I'd never heard before.

Now, before we get started I need to issue some disclaimers. First of all, this happened to (and was told to me by) the other person who lives at our house — who must remain nameless, in order for me not to be stabbed to death with a butcher knife in my sleep.

Secondly, the supermarket where it happened must remain nameless because the last time I mentioned a specific store name on this page of the newspaper I got in trouble with the people upstairs who issue and sign my paychecks. (For the record, though, it is a different company.)

OK, with all that understood, we return now to the “incident,” in which the aforementioned shopper (let's call her “Person A”) set a modest assortment of groceries items on the conveyor belt, along with one of those reusable grocery bags that you bring from home, and proceeded to the little shelf where obedient shoppers stand to write checks, dispense coupons, etc.

The first thing the checker checked and put in the bag was some peaches. As other things came down the conveyor belt and then piled up, Person A was asked if she wanted a package of meat put in plastic.

Good idea, said Person A, suggesting that she just put it on top of the peaches. More stuff came down the belt and then the checker didn't want to put any more in the half-full bag.

Can't you just put the stuff in there with everything else? Person A asked, adding that maybe the peaches should have gone in later, so as not to be — you know — smashed by the rest of the groceries.

“I always bag everything in the order it comes off the conveyor belt,” said the checker, apparently attempting to leave the impression that whatever happens to these groceries is your fault, not mine.

This was the grocery bagging rule I'd never heard of.

In my vast experience of buying things, paying for things and even helping bag things (at some markets), I'd never heard of anyone doing their bagging simply in response to what comes down the belt and when. Often, what you see happen is the checkout professional, having done this a lot more than you or I have, will set things aside, knowing this might go in the bag later, something else might go in sooner — you know, using common sense.

There was no room in this person's method for common sense.

As Person A stared at her checker, wondering what might become of this standoff that seemed to be building up, the checker could do nothing but stare back. Finally, exasperated, the checker asked with a great deal of attitude in her voice, “Well, do you want me to rebag everything?”

Now, this is where Person A and I are extremely different.

I like to think I would have said, “Yes, please. Start over and do it right. And when you're done, I'd like to talk to your manager, because I cannot believe, in my heart of hearts, that it is the policy of this grocery chain to bag everything that comes down the belt strictly in the order it arrives at your fingertips, no matter what.”

On the other hand, I might've said nothing whatsoever, because I'm a wimp who often lets people walk all over me.

But Person A said, “No,” and she rebagged all the stuff herself, worrying that the shoppers lined up behind her were going to blame her and not this anal retentive grocery checker who somehow never seemed to learn to do her job in a way that is not offensive.

When I began this, I referred to a grocery “rule” I hadn't heard of. I was, of course, being facetious. I never thought for a minute it was a rule condoned by this company or any other. I know good and well it's a nonsensical policy dreamed up by a hard-headed, lazy employee who I would be willing to bet is known to everyone in her store and disliked by most of them. Person A began her account of the incident by describing this particular checker to me and asking if I remembered her. I did, because we've had other experiences with her. She gives off an aura that seems to say, “I don't like any of you customers, I don't like doing things to help you — and if you give me any lip I will roll my eyes, sigh heavily and, if I have to, I will snap at you as well.”

That attitude is especially noticeable these days because virtually every grocery company is tripping over itself to be nice, to accommodate their customers and to go out of their way to be helpful. Person A's theory is that the arrival of a couple of Wal-Marts in the southwest suburbs of Portland has put almost everybody on their best behavior.

Even throughout the rest of this same store, employees are going out of their way to be nice and to make our grocery shopping a pleasant experience. With one minor exception, it seems to be working.

(Former managing editor of several community newspapers, including the Woodburn Independent, Lake Oswego Review and the Times papers, Kelly is chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.)

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