Says so on the t-shirt

Someone I know once said of her annoyance over people who wear Che Guevara shirts without knowing who the man was. Upon reading her statement, I asked myself whether -I- really knew who Che Guevara was (despite the fact that I don’t own a shirt with a print of his face on it) and realising that I didn’t, hopped over to Wikipedia quick smart.

It seems that there are lots of people out there who wear things that they don’t know the meaning of or what they represent. Tattoos are a common one. I asked one customer what their tattoo symbolised – they had a chinese character inked on their bicep. They shrugged in response and said they didn’t know, which made me think of that joke about a man getting a tattoo which meant “I f–ked my mother” in some other language.

The Che Guevara remark came to mind last week when I served someone who could have easily been mistaken for a member of the West Coast Eagles (plus or minus the drugs). He was about six foot, well-built, and had one of those faces the average male would give an eye tooth for – or want to put a dent in. Given all this, I paid him little heed. And I’m not just saying this for Boyfriend’s benefit. Bronzed football-types just don’t do it for me.

Aside from the initial greeting, I didn’t say a word to Mr. Alpha Male. The supermarket is usually full of noise, the sound of other checkout scanners beeping, people walking, other movement and rustling, banging. In spite of all this, the immediate space around me somehow feels deathly quiet when I’m not talking to anyone.

While I waited for the credit slip to print out, I glanced at Alpha Male and my gaze came level with the writing on his shirt. On his shirt was one of those generic designs like that on a basketball or football jersey: a double-digit number (It’s never just an “8”, it’s always “08”) with a word of some sort above it. Alpha Male’s shirt read “Osaka”.

When Alpha Male had finished scrawling his signature on the slip and I went through the motions of checking the signature and printing out the receipt, I couldn’t resist testing whether “Osaka” meant anything to Alpha Male. So I asked him about it.

A shrug and a crooked grin. ‘I’m not sure what it means.’

‘I think it’s a city in Japan,’ I replied carefully. I suppressed the urge to make a comment about people who wear shirts bearing words and images they know nothing about.

Another easy grin. ‘Oh, okay.’
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You’ll never catch me wearing a top or other item of clothing emblazoned with a word that I don’t know the meaning or significance of, no siree.

But that may have something to do with how I don’t wear clothes with words on them.

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Shopping for blood

A woman is holding up the queue taking a long time to rummage through her hand bag. Behind her, a small elderly lady looking a little worse for wear sighs. The woman looks back and apologises for causing the delay. The elderly lady says it’s alright, but follows up on her words by leaning her elbow on the conveyor belt and resting her head in her open palm. She’s that short.

When the woman finally pays and leaves, I joke to the elderly lady, ‘I was afraid you were going to fall asleep on me there.’

The little lady sighs again and says in a little, weary voice, ‘Shopping just makes me so tired.’

I give a sympathetic look. ‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that… would you like a bag for this meat?’

A little bit of Britain

What a difference a week makes. Previously, I had written that my brushes with fame at the checkout have largely been confined to ageing ex-rockers and fame in the second degree. This week, I am pleased to announce, I served a former Australian Idol finalist and watched on as a guy from the BBC show Little Britain filmed a segment at my supermarket.

Firstly, the Idol contestant. When I first noticed her in my queue I had a vague suspicion that she was from Australian Idol. She didn’t quite match her TV simulacra, however. No, she wasn’t shorter in real life; she was prettier and had bigger breasts.

As I served the person before her and finally the Idol-lookalike herself, I drew up a list of signs hinting at her identity.

Yes, she was the girl from Aus Idol:
– She was married (wedding band on ring finger)
– The physical resemblance (minus the boobs)
– Her voice

No, she wasn’t:
– Lack of children’s products. When she was on the show, I remembered, she had a small child and was constantly talking about him/her on air.
– The boobs
– The fact that she was in Perth. I could have sworn that she lived over East or in Melbourne or somewhere.

When I processed her items, I debated with myself whether I should come right out and ask her if she was on Idol. It was only towards the end that I scraped up the courage to speak up.

‘You know,’ I said casually, ‘You look a bit like a girl who was on Australian Idol a year ago.’

‘Heh,’ she replied, the faintest of smiles crossing her face.

The mystery was wrapped up when she paid. Luckily, she paid using credit, or else I might have never had her identity confirmed. When I compared the credit slip she signed with her credit card, I exclaimed, ‘Emelia. So it is you.’

Another wary smile. ‘Yeah.’

I desisted from any other gushing about her celebrity and didn’t ask for her autograph. When she was gone, however, I couldn’t help but smile smugly. I had written about when I would meet someone famous at the checkout. Now, and sooner than I’d thought, I had. It was yet another event to write about, and it came in a none too untimely fashion.

After meeting a celebrity, one might be tempted to brag about one’s fortuity. Not me, however. I resisted the temptation.

Well, I resisted for three customers following the encounter, at least.

The fourth customer was a young, friendly woman. She seemed open to conversation, so I asked her, ‘Have you watched the show Australian Idol before?’

My question came out of the blue, and she responded with surprise. ‘Sorry? Oh, I haven’t been here for very long and I’m not sure what that is.’

It figures that the only person I ask would be from another country, I thought. ‘Where are you from?’

‘Croatia.’

‘Don’t you have a Croatian equivalent of Australian Idol? Like, Croatian Idol or something… Australian Idol is a singing contest.’

She brightened. ‘Oh, yeah, we have something similar to it.’

‘Well, I just met someone who was on our version of Idol a year or so back.’

‘Ah.’

Following the incident with the friendly Croatian, I didn’t tell anyone else about my encounter with the former Idol contestant. Well, maybe I told one other customer. And Boyfriend. And Insider. But that was it.

So, Little Britain Down Under, at my supermarket. It all started when a group of people passed through the checkouts and entered the store. One of the people had a professional camera mounted on his right shoulder. Another was holding a fluffy uni-directional microphone on a pole. Another was black with chiselled features and he wasn’t holding anything. Flanked by them was a man of average height, lumpy stature, and skin as white as vanilla marshmallows. He was wearing a red shirt and his high forehead was obscured by a baseball cap. A fifth man followed them, who turned out to be the person in charge of the whole group.

From the moment they walked in they drew curious looks and followers. When the camera started rolling, the onlookers kept at a respectful distance and watched on as the guy from Little Britain (the stout, alabaster one) strolled down aisles and made commentary on items, adding some to his shopping basket.

At my checkout, my view was constantly obscured by a thick pole at the front of the next checkout along. Also, the bodies and heads of the crowd surrounding the film crew also blocked my view. I chatted with customers about the unexpected distraction and willed someone to tell me to close up so I could join the onlookers and watch the filming myself.

Most of the people I served seemed disinterested in the filming. One man, however, said that he’d watched the show a couple of times and noticed the crew in action.

‘I can’t really see anything from here,’ I said. ‘Is he [guy from Little Britain] as ugly in real life as he is on television?’

‘Oh, he’s even uglier, I think,’ he responded.

When I finished my shift I joined the masses of people watching Little Britain being filmed. At one point, I was squished into a shelf of biscuits as the crew passed through the aisle. I had been standing nearby and hadn’t realized that they were moving along in my direction.

As far as broadcast entertainment goes, Little Britain in action wasn’t particularly exciting. It was kind of like watching the Queen on the can, a famous person doing something completely ordinary. For all the people gathered there, you’d think that the Little Britain guy was reciting the Gettysburg address. Instead, he was pointing out biscuits and saying things like, ‘Oh, these are Pods. They’re like cereal. These are Snickers ones, with caramel and things. You can’t get these in Britain.’ (Pods go into the basket).

By the conclusion of the filming, the guy had collated two baskets’ worth of confectionary, biscuits, and other snacks. He proceeded to the checkout where an amused checkout girl eyed the guy as he upturned the two baskets and dumped his wares on her counter, items spilling freely onto the floor. I was thinking that if I were on camera (the checkout scene was being filmed), I would treat the incident with less derision, and offer the actor a big customer service smile as though everything was perfectly normal.

The confectionary, biscuits, and snacks collected by the Little Britain crew came to over $150. And yes, they did pay for it and leave holding three plastic bags stuffed with the goods.

As for the reason behind their presence at the supermarket, as it turned out it was something organised by head management. Block mount posters of Little Britain were on hand for the cast member to sign, ‘To be sold on eBay for charity,’ the store manager stated.

The horde of people who had consistently followed the film crew throughout their half-hour long misadventure mostly consisted of supermarket employees, a couple of whom were holding Little Britain DVDs to be autographed. I considered buying a Little Britain DVD for the actor to sign, which I would also sell on eBay, but decided that that would be sinking to new levels of immoral behaviour. While the other items to be signed were either done out of love for the show or to benefit charity, my intentions were strictly self-serving. So I decided to take no action.

A form of indisputable proof is the photo, and many photographs of the event were taken. A group of supermarket employees gathered around the Little Britain actor for a photo, and another female from the cash office who had already taken almost a dozen photos of the actor stood next to him for a private photo session of her own. I’m also visible in one or two of the snaps, but not as an intended subject. I’ve never seen Little Britain, so I’m not a fan. Plus I’m not all that tight with the other employees so I didn’t see a reason for me to pose with all the others.

Like most people I am intrigued by fame. Recent brushes with celebrities seem to indicate, however, that I’m more of a quiet spectator then a squealing fangirl. Or, in the case of a collective of fans, perhaps the quiet spectator who gets trampled by a starstruck mob. Still, I do wish I’d had my camera handy when Little Britain came to town.

Scoping the electorate

March 1st marked the autumn of the opposition leader Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon. On March 2nd I canvassed opinions on the issue of his meetings with Brian Burke from my checkout.

Upon telling him about this, my father asked suspiciously how I managed to grill people on their political leanings. I should have probably said that I set up a ballot box at one end of the checkout, but instead I told him what I actually did.

I brought up the subject of politics casually whenever I handled the newspaper a customer happened to be purchasing. I would say, as if for the first time that day, ‘I think the headline story today is Kevin Rudd’s fall from grace.’

And from there, utterances about politics followed.

In the past, when I’ve talked with customers about politics, they often gave very vague responses about the political situation. They make short generalized statements about politicians and re-hash soundbites from the nightly news. I re-hash what I’ve heard as well, but given my AM radio listening compulsion, I tend to have a bit more material to draw upon. So it was a surprise when I interviewed one woman yesterday who seemed to be very clued in to the world of politics.

Not only did she hold firm opinions about who she preferred (Rudd, and wasn’t fazed by the recent information that had come to light about his involvement with Brian Burke), but further on in the conversation she also added that she had friends who are state government insiders who say that WA’s premier, Alan Carpenter, is ‘A very honest chap.’

Then, in a slightly less desirable turn of events, she turned to the customer behind her and began discussing politics with her, ignoring me completely.

It really sucks when that happens.

The customer behind her was slightly less knowledgeable about politics but, like me, was impressed that she knew people who were government insiders. Now, this may be anything from Alan Carpenter’s secretary to the person who vaccuums the state parliament house, but it was nevertheless exciting. This customer also was nonplussed about the Burke news that had come to light and said that we needed ‘A new face’ in the leadership role. However, she also confided that she supported Natasha Stott Despoja, which prompted a few comments from me about her.

The person behind Ms. ‘We need a new face’ looked positively bored by our conversation, so I put her down as being in the “Undecided” camp.

A third person I spoke to was fervently a Howard fan. To them, I said, ‘The leadership doesn’t usually change hands unless the PM or President really screws things up.’ And they agreed.

A fourth person seemed disinterested. Not so much disinterested in the topic, just uninterested in talking about it with me. But he did mutter that he supported Howard.

Overall, I think the results from my poll fairly accurately reflect the results from polls conducted by the media on a much larger scale. An almost 50/50 split between Rudd and Howard, with one undecided.

Perhaps closer to the federal election I will place a ballot box beside my checkout.
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P.S. On other occasions I’ve discussed with customers their attitudes towards extended trading hours and daylight savings. The mood over daylight savings was largely negative, with most angry that the three-year trial in WA of daylight savings had been forced upon us, against our want – as indicated by the previous referrendum held over the issue. And on the topic of extended trading hours, those working in retail didn’t want hours to be changed while mere shoppers/nine-to-five, Monday to Friday workers wanted hours extended. No huge surprises there.

Pleading the fifth

A large black man walks into the supermarket and shortly after starts shouting at someone. I ignore the shouts, but a couple of customers waiting in line watch him without any attempt to be discreet.

This goes on for a while, a shout here, a pause there, drawing silent onlookers, and then the man storms past my checkout with a blonde woman in tow. The blonde woman looks a little coked out and she is holding two plastic bags which are half-full and an enviro bag from our rival supermarket. As she passes between two security gates, the red lights flash and beeps ring out across the store.

The pair peer over their shoulder at the commotion but don’t stop to have their bags checked. In fact, they snicker as they continue walking away.

Gates still beeping, my eyes meet those of the operator in front of me. We look at each other with half smiles on our faces and shrug, deciding to take no action over the incident that has just transpired. The couple are too far away and besides, we have customers to serve.

Just then, on the rolling soundtrack, a recorded message plays. ‘Customers, in accordance with the conditions for entering the store, please allow your bags to be inspected. We thank you for your cooperation.’

I have seldom been witness to such great moments of irony.

Almost Famous

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve served someone who shared their name with a famous country singer. Well, I haven’t served anyone who was a celebrity in their own right, though from the grainy shots I’ve seen in tabloid magazines of people like Heidi Klum and Jennifer Love Hewitt at supermarkets, in time I may just have my brush with fame.

But for now, I’ll have to settle for two degrees of separation and former minor rock stars.

Today, I served a burly man who said that he was from New Zealand. Upon answering yes to his question of whether I knew of the film Whale Rider, he told me that he was ‘From there’. I could only assume that he meant he was from the place where the film was set and that he wasn’t delusional and under the illusion that his life is a film, a la Adaptation or Stranger than Fiction.

Jokingly, I asked whether he knew Keisha Castle-Hughes, the star of Whale Rider. Without changing expression, he replied carefully, ‘Yeah, I know her.’

‘Really? That’s interesting,’ I said, grinning slyly.

‘Well, I last saw her when she was really little.’ He waves a hand at around knee level to show how small she was. ‘I’m friends with her father.’
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A few weeks back, I had a very interesting conversation with a man I served at the beginning of my morning shift. I’m constantly surprised by how greater things can grow from mere small talk, and this was one of those occasions where talking about the weather can sometimes lead the person you’re conversing with to telling you about their time in a rock band.

Well, I did say sometimes.

It all began when I said how fortunate it was that it would cool down by Sunday because I was attending a music festival that weekend. This prompted the man to ask whether I played any musical instruments, to which I replied that I dabble with the piano and the bass guitar but I’m not particularly stellar at either. I added that I sing better than I play.

Then I returned the question. And it opened up a Pandora’s Box. The man, as it turned out, was in a band for seven years. He was, apparently, the lead singer and played rhythm guitar. (Boyfriend later argued that it is very rare for rhythm guitarists to also be the lead singer and insisted that he was pulling my leg.)

Further questions revealed that his band composed a few original tunes but mostly played covers (‘We covered around two hundred songs’). They played at various functions and clubs, and even opened up their own club, entertaining there most nights of the week. Thinking of all the nightclubs I had seen in the city open up and disappear or re-vamp themselves six months later with a new name and a lick of paint, I said that nightclubs don’t often have a very long life span. In response, he said that contrary to popular trends, his club lasted many years.

Everything he said was in past tense, with a certain hint of nostalgia, so I asked why his band disbanded. Ruefully, he told a dramatic story about how one day on stage he had a mental blank. He couldn’t remember what song they were meant to be playing and how to play the song on his guitar. He had to ask the drummer to remind him. It was then, he intoned, that he realized that he didn’t want to be in the band anymore. They were playing up to six nights a week and he was burned out. Things had become almost robotic for him, he was operating on auto-pilot. Very simply, he’d lost his passion for making music.

‘…And I haven’t touched a guitar since,’ he finished.

Yes, it was a very grand tale.

I’m undecided about whether it was a true story though. I see no reason why he would have made anything up, and why he would have gone to the trouble of weaving lies for a humble checkout operator. But, I guess I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Not simply because I like to think the best of people, but because it was quite a nifty ol’ story.

Oh, that old time of rock and roll.

The name game

Here are some interesting statistics for you:

Approximately two-thirds of the people I serve make payments using EFTPOS. A further half of this group pay by credit.

Three-quarters of the time, processing credit transactions is uneventful, but occasionally (that is, a quarter of the time), I find details that are worth filing away for future reference, for moments like this when I can write about them.

All checkout staff are required to match the scribble customers make on the credit slips with the scribble on the back of the customer’s credit card. Up until two weeks ago, I used to conduct only random checks (i.e. checking three-quarters of the time). This negligence, if you would like to think of it that way, was often due to time constraints.

Two weeks ago, however, a woman I served told me that she had her credit card stolen not too long ago and that because a checkout operator had not compared the signature on her card with the slip that was signed, the thief stole a lot of her money. She then gently chastised me and asked me to properly check everyone’s cards in the future.

Scared into compliance, I have since taken the time to examine signatures on every card that comes through me. And I haven’t even pretended to check on any occasion either – you can’t really pretend to conduct a thorough inspection without actually doing it.

In my time on checkouts, I have seen a great variety of signatures. Some have been microscopic, others so large that only the centre third was visible on the relevant strip on the back of their credit card. I’ve processed elegant signatures, messy ones, and ones written in languages other than English.

None, however, were as ridiculous as one customer’s, whose signature was comprised of a bunch of loops and a figure eight repeated over itself about eight times over. Now that was pure silliness. I had to cough back a snicker.

My father has a peculiar way of asking people to sign documents. He puts the sheet(s) in front of them, points to the appropriate place, and says, ‘Can I have your autograph?’

Every bloody time, he says ‘Autograph’ instead of signature. Every time.

I don’t say anything, I just place the slip in front of customers and they seem to know what to do from there. Signing is the easy part, it seems. Working out what buttons to press and which way to swipe the card is the tricky bit.

Today, I may have processed my strangest credit transaction yet. The customer was an elderly woman, amiable and good-mannered. The transaction was as normal as any other up until it came for me to compare her credit card with the credit slip.

Now, I only looked at it for a brief second, just long enough to make sure that the squiggles and curves of both signatures resembled one another, but I could swear that the name she had signed and the name on the back of the credit card was Victor.

I looked up from the card and the slip and met her eyes. She simply smiled benignly so I proceeded with the rest of the process.

As I stuffed the credit slip into the til, placed the pen in its usual spot, and waited for the receipt to be churned out, I recalled an old movie about a gender-bender, a movie I haven’t watched but whose poster I have seen. It’s called Victor/Victoria. At the time, I couldn’t remember who it starred, but in looking up the details now the film was released in 1982 and features Julie Andrews in the lead role.

It is possible that there are females wandering about who are called Victor, but until now I had yet to meet one.

On another occasion, I served someone who had the exact same name as an old primary school friend, but that’s not as interesting as the case of Victor. More interesting than the school friend coincidence, someone else had the name of a popular country singer. The name escapes me; country’s not my thing. But again, there’s nothing subversive about that.

I’ve yet to actually serve a transsexual – as far as I’m aware, anyway. But when the time comes, I do hope that they’ll pay by credit.