bulk shopping at Costco, but our smaller scale and specialty purchases are
done at Albertsons. I end up calling my wife during the evening commute to
see if there is anything I need to pick up on the way home. About ten
percent of the time I will be diverted to the store to pick up a missing
ingredient, or tortilla shells, or diapers. Sometimes we don't realize we
are missing something until late in the evening, and then I make a run to
the store around midnight when they close.
After ten p.m., the store is especially busy, not with shoppers but with
stockers. It is hard to move around the piles and crates of foods that line
each aisle, so it usually takes longer than I expect to finish shopping.
One thing that Albertsons recently installed has been a tremendous blessing
to people like me who show up with a full cart at 11:55 p.m.: the
self-checkout machine. For those of you who have never seen them, a
self-checkout machine allows you to scan and bag your own groceries and then
pay via credit card or cash. They really speed up the shopping experience.
I suspect that the real reason for the machines is to eliminate the number
of workers needed by the store; a machine is probably cheaper than a
But I digress. Albertsons issues frequent shoppers a card that identifies
them as special people who then qualify one for special prices on goods
throughout the store. It also activates a special coupon dispenser which
spits out coupons for things one frequently purchases. We seem to get
nothing but diaper coupons. The tradeoff to saving on special deals is that
Big Brother is watching.
All of this brings me to my story, when I first started wondering if maybe
instead of Big Brother watching me it was Big Sister. The scanning machines
have a fairly neutral sounding female voice which announces the price of
each item, and will also give certain commands, such as reminding you to
look for items in the cart before completing the sale. I say the voice is
neutral because there is little inflection of the voice with the exception
of the way the voice says certain amounts of money. For example,
"ninety-nine" seems to end on a high note when compared with, say,
"thirty-nine." Maybe we should be more excited by the item that costs "two
ninety-nine" than the one which costs "one thirty-nine."
The only reason why I have given this so much thought is that recently I
heard the machine start to say different things than what I would expect on
the programmed expressions. It all started one night when I stopped by to
buy milk, bread, and other things I jokingly refer to as the 'Armageddon
four-pack.' After scanning my Albertson's card, I heard the usual 'card
accepted' phrase, followed by:
I looked around. The closest person to me was a man standing by the
manager's booth. He noticed my puzzled look and came over to see if I
needed any help. I told him no, and started scanning my groceries:
"I haven't seen you around much, dadwithnoisykids."
I stopped again. No one was around me.
"Did you get your hair cut? You look really cute on my scanner."
The thought that a woman was flirting on me, Mister
Happily-married-and-unavailable, was unnerving enough, but to think that it
was a machine was a little too much for me to bear.
I finished quickly and drove home. I couldn't tell anyone. I decided to
not use that scanning machine again.
Nothing unusual happened for a couple of months, and I forgot about the
incident. But then it happened again last night.
I had fallen into the habit of avoiding that one scanning machine, and I
happened to be using the one next to it. After scanning my card, the
"Dadwithnoisykids, I haven't seen you in a while. Have you lost some
I am at the point in life where I believe some things should just be ignored
for the greater good, and this seemed to be one of them. I glanced around
to see that I was alone, and decided to just ignore the voice.
"Why don't you come and see me sometime, dadwithnoisykids?"
This voice came from behind me. From the other machine.
"Leave him alone. He is with me and you will just have to take care of
I suddenly found myself between two scanning machines fighting for my
"He is with me"
"I saw him first, and he really wants to be with me. Right,
"See? If he really wanted to be with you he would answer. He's mine and
that's the way it's going to be."
I thought I could just ignore this argument and finish scanning my things.
Bad idea. I scanned a bunch of flowers for my wife, and the machine stopped
"Who are these for? Her?" The voice sounded upset.
"Those are for me. Right, dadwithnoisykids?"
I refused to be drawn into a conversation with these voices programmed into
the scanning machines. I looked around for the worker who is assigned to
watch over the scanners. An older woman, obviously tired from being on her
feet all day, and tired of dealing with high-maintenance customers, walked
over to assist me.
"Ma'am, have these machines been acting up lately?"
She eyed me with a look of suspicion, "what do you mean?"
"Well, this one isn't working, and the other ones seem to be making strange
noises." I just couldn't tell her about what I had heard.
"Don't know anything about that. Why don't you try this machine?" She
indicated the one that started all the talking.
"No, I would prefer that one," I said, indicating one a few aisles away.
She gave me a look bordering on disgust, and walked away. I started
scanning my groceries.
"You never sent me flowers!"
That was enough. I left the scanner and headed toward the lone checkout
line, where a young woman was reading some magazine with an immodestly
dressed woman on the cover. As I walked by the other scanners, I heard
their female voices plaintively call after me:
"dadwithnoisykids, come back!"
"Come back, honey!"
"Sweetie, come baaaaaaaaaaaaaack!"
As I drove home, a horrible thought struck me.
What would those machines have done if I were buying a pregnancy test for my