I’ve had much occasion of late to contemplate the phenomenon of standing in line, primarily because I tend to stand in line a lot when making regular grocery or clothing purchases for my family. In fact, sometimes I just issue a warning to the people behind me that this might take a bit longer than they expect.
You see, I am a magnet for checkout catastrophes: Cash registers sense me coming and spontaneously break down; a person in front of me once had over $200.00 worth of coupons—not groceries, coupons; successive price checks for those ahead of me are de rigeur; and the register ink runs dry as I approach, almost like clockwork.
Apparently I exacerbate all of this by demanding to sack my own groceries which gives the illusion of taking longer, though it doesn’t really or, if so, only by nanoseconds, since clearly I was a professional sacker in another life. But it does have the dramatic effect of embarrassing all of my family members to varying degrees. So I shop alone a lot, which I’ve discovered is perhaps to my advantage.
As much as I detest waiting and work to avoid lines if at all possible by shopping at odd hours, I’ve found that I’ve had some genuinely interesting experiences when I didn’t let anger or frustration get the best of me in those moments.
I stood in line for twenty-five minutes in a half-vacant mall to vote in a makeshift polling place for the historic presidential election in November last year. My daughter, who exhibits far more patience at times like this than I can ever muster even as she evinces none whatsoever in routine conversations about homework, listened in as I struck up a conversation with the elderly woman directly behind me.
We lamented at how bleak the mall now looked, having been the scene of much retail business twenty years prior. We expressed concerns about the economy. She recalled her circumstances in the Great Depression, and she was worried, frankly, about her son’s relatively new business in North Carolina—a store for taking digital photos. We never discussed politics; it would have been unseemly and disrespectful as we chose to honor whatever decisions each had made in preparation for this opportunity to vote.
About 5 years ago, I stood in line for an ungodly amount of time the day after Christmas. It was well after 9/11 and long before glimmers of today’s recession had surfaced. A popular women’s clothing and gift store had notoriously slow computers that required manual inputting of each customer’s name and address. During the approximately 2 hours I stood in line, waiting to purchase some items at half-price, the group of women surrounding me spontaneously formed a community, sort of a shopping support group. The women in line with me were of all different ages: teens with their middle-aged mothers, mothers of young children, grandmothers, twenty-something singles.
There was much laughter and conversations covered a wide array of topics: family, school, church, friends, Christmas customs. People left the line to shop more while others “held” their spots. What makes that happen, I wonder? That people decide to just open up to perfect strangers and treat them as they would good friends. It leads me to believe there is some vast human potential in lines that has heretofore gone untapped.
I was further convinced of this the Saturday before Thanksgiving when I approached the entrance to my favorite big box store where several people had already lined up in pursuit of some hard-to-get electronics. A tall slender woman, probably 40ish, casually asked me if I was there for a Wi Fitness. I explained that I was seeking a video game for my teenage son and was there so early only because I had just dropped him off at a school event—I didn’t want her to think I was competing with her for the coveted Wi. We struck up a conversation around my compliment on her necklace: a strand of sterling silver beads with a Miraculous Medal hanging from it as a pendant.
We quickly cut to the chase, she and I. Upon observing her medal and cross necklaces, I smiled and expressed to her that her medal was familiar to me as I, too, had a special interest in the Blessed Virgin. I was taken aback when her eyes welled with tears. She disclosed that she had just recovered from breast cancer requiring a double mastectomy and chemo and attributed her recovery and restored health to prayers offered to Mary, the central figure depicted on the medal. She wanted the Wi for therapy purposes.
She revealed that she had also prayed to St. Catherine Laboure, the saint associated with the Miraculous Medal, because some years prior she’d had difficulty becoming pregnant. Tragically, a local pharmacist (now behind bars after being convicted of diluting chemo meds for cancer patients) had supplied her weakened meds that thwarted her in vitro fertilization. So, of course, when her daughter was finally born, she named her Catherine Mary.
I shared with her the story of how I got my name. How my parents had longed for more children after my older brother was born but hadn’t been able to conceive after my mother suffered a miscarriage. How they attended a novena to the Blessed Virgin every Tuesday night for years at a gorgeous Gothic style church on the edge of downtown dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, praying that they could have more children. How eight years after the birth of my brother, I was born on a Tuesday, a few hours after the midnight ending Monday, March 17th.
Though my parents would have delighted in having a child born on St. Patrick’s Day given that they are both of Irish descent, a daughter born on a Tuesday trumped all other considerations.
I explained that I named my own daughter a variation of Mary with another name that reflected the names of all of the women in my family. The doors to the store opened at exactly 7:00 and the small crowd filed in. She and I acknowledged the tremendous power of faith before we parted ways. Our entire conversation took place in less time than it has taken me to recount it here.
When I went to purchase the video game, there was some discrepancy about the price advertised and what was ringing up. I asked the cashier to suspend the transaction so the young couple behind me in line with lots of groceries could check out without having to wait for the answer on the video game. I guess that was some small way of paying it backward.