Dan Mackie: When Supermarket Self-Service Goes Bad

As if there weren’t enough to be worried about, now there’s a new malady: Supermarket Self-Service Performance Anxiety.

The onset was like this: On Tuesday night, my wife asked me what I wanted for dinner.

“Let’s get a little steak,’’ I suggested, surprising myself that the default answer — “I dunno’’ — didn’t roll out of my mouth.

Although consumption of red meat gives me bad dreams involving clowns and cardiologists, I occasionally like some steak. We buy a small one and share it, and I encircle my piece with veggies like a meeting of a nutritional support group.

We drove to the supermarket just down the road in West Lebanon. We bought three things: a steak, a Paul Newman chocolate bar (profits help kids and dark chocolate is good for your heart, which may be food science or the science of wishful thinking) and a microwavable pack of rice.

When we approached the front of the store, the long line to the registers made me gulp. “Oh, boy,’’ I said.

“Is it like this every Tuesday?’’ a man asked.

“The line moves pretty fast, though,’’ a woman said, conjuring the spirit of Pollyanna.

There was some reason for hope — the single line at the store only looks longer than six or seven separate lines, although it is a little alarming when you’re standing back near the digestive aids. You don’t want to ponder them too long.

As we moved ahead, we were seduced by the siren call of the self-service lines. Although I don’t like to use them, since they are not “job creators,’’ I set my principles aside if I have only one or two items. I know that my father, in the unionized sector of heaven, disapproves.

I got a taste of what was coming when the young man in front of us set off the error lights when he put a bottle of iced tea where the sensors couldn’t sense it. “Place scanned item in the bagging area,” a robot voice commanded. He obeyed, but the machine kept raising objections. Once the process is out of joint, it seems, it can’t be set right without a manager waving a magic card in front of the machine.

Anyway, he was making the scanner boop, and shuffling things around, and getting ever more error messages. “Please wait for assistance,’’ the robot voice demanded.

The young man turned toward us and said, “sorry,’’ and was practically sweating. You could see he was a decent person who wouldn’t make a dozen people behind him wait if he could help it. “Sorry,’’ he said again when he was finished.

Our turn.

I scanned my first item and the booper booped, but no price information appeared on the screen. Uh-oh.

I booped all three, placed them in a bag to the right, and the error light above us started flashing. We waited a couple minutes — an eternity — and a harried manager came over and flashed a card in front of the scanner, which soothed the error light.

“What should I do?” I asked.

“You’ll have to scan them again,’’ she growled, with the steely eyes of a cop directing a 10-mile traffic jam.

I took my items out of the plastic bag and started again with the booping. The error light flashed immediately.

“Now what did you do?” someone behind me said, with a humorous tone, although I could sense some disapproval, too.

I could feel shoppers waiting, sighing, rolling their eyes, shufflng their feet, and judging my purchases — who needs a candy bar with a steak?

The manager had disappeared. My wife went to look for her, and I waved my arms like someone marooned at sea calling for the Coast Guard. Finally the authority figure came back and I made the mistake of speaking.

“I didn’t do anything,’’ I yammered, like a 5-year-old pleading his case. “But the light came back on.”

“It’s because you moved the bag,’’ she said, accusingly, and waved her card and turned her back on me.

We scanned our three items as fast as we could. We hurried so much that we pressed the wrong options on the screen once, my wife leaning in and “helping’’ me with the job. “Sorry,’’ she said to the people behind us, when we finished and headed for the front doors, our eyes trained on the polished floor, which only reflected our shame.

Outside, a woman who’d seen our plight said, “Those things don’t always work.’’ The shopper looked happy and gracious and relaxed.

She’d gone through the regular line. She could take the high road.

The writer can be reached at dmackie@vnews.com.