At the grocery store I found myself standing behind an elderly man in the 15 item limit checkout line. (In the interest of full disclosure, I had 16 items. I was thinking we could count all five yogurts together.) This guy was way over the limit, and his bill came to $179.
I wasn’t in a hurry, and he seemed a little out of it, so I didn’t really care that he was clogging up the works. He went through his wallet and handed the clerk $140 in twenties. When she told him he needed more cash or he needed to pick some products to return he seemed at a loss. She kindly went through his bags suggesting some things he could do without, mostly items that he had multiples of: cola, granola bars, crackers, ice cream, frozen veggies.
He generally accepted her suggestions, till she came to the $17 shrimp. He insisted he wanted to keep the shrimp. They were at an impasse, at which point the cashier rather casually asked if any of us in line would care to make a donation.
I stretch my grocery shopping dollar as far as it will go. I shop the sales. I double my coupons. I’m not afraid to buy a bag of candy corn in early November. Red and green M&M’s in January? No problem. Conversation hearts after February 14? Actually, you’ve got to be careful there. Those things get stale fast. But jelly beans after the Easter bunny is vacationing in Hawaii, having completed his annual deliveries? Bring ’em on.
I looked in my cart and saw numerous items from the markdown shelf, assorted boxes and cartons that were slightly crunched but still in good shape: a box of granola bars for a dollar, some cereal for two dollars, a slightly dented can of pineapples for 25 cents, some discontinued organic crackers for 30 cents.
Something about buying him $17 shrimp when I was buying the cheap stuff gave me pause, and as I was pondering the situation the lady behind me quickly ponied up her credit card and paid for the remaining discrepancy in the man’s bill. I also saw the clerk re-bag most of the items she had removed and surreptitiously re-insert them in his cart. As he headed toward the door the cashier commented that he comes through her line regularly, always with more items than he can afford.
I still don’t know what to make of it. A good-hearted but slightly demented old man with more appetite than cash, or a shyster pulling a scam that worked well in the past?