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  • Staggering out the supermarket yesterday, totally floored by the new, I stopped right outside the entrance and the harsh words “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” just came blurting out. There were very few people near me but I must say they were rather as startled as was I. I stood in peopleless space on the walkway.

    My first temporary job was as a cashier for one of South Africa’s leading supermarkets. Back then in 1979 in Pietermaritzburg, it was still in embryo: the entrepreneurs seeking workable systems, regulating trading hours, squinting at profit/loss ratios, etc. to find the keys for an on-going concern.

    Whatever they were up to didn’t bother us in the least.

    Seven tills lined up in a row, demarcating Not Paid and Paid with Pay. The tills were what most people would deem antiquated (yes, they still had a handle in case of emergencies) but mostly worked properly all day. Shifts were just 2 a day – seven to 12, 12 to seven; no rocket science knowledge was required; a padded stool for the butt when the legs felt weary and the pay rate not too shabby either (from a student’s point of view).

    We only had to pick up the item tumbled from a basket, punch the purchase amount into the till (okay, we sometimes had to search real hard all around to find the price tag), slide it backwards towards the packer and pick up the next. When all the items were done, we would hit the subtotal button, smile beatifically at the customer and declare in angelic tones the cost to their pockets. Accepting the sacrifice, we would punch the figure in, zam the total button and wait for the final tally. Took long enough and one could work out the denominated change so that when the drawer tinged open, just whip and slide it out, slam the drawer closed and hand this pittance back over with the slip, which by now had gyrated its way out the slot.

    Most of the customers were friendly and we smiled and laughed, talking all the while, also adding our two cents about prices; some were reticent (yeah, those who slide the money across, their hands flitting away when you reached for it. We didn't say much to each other but the smiles were still there) and generally everyone had a good time during the ordeal (from a customer’s point of view).

    Oh yes, there were those days when our fingers were never enough and we spent so long trying to figure the correctness of the muddling change that the boss would appear, seeking reason but the eyes said it all: Are you robbing us blind?! Let me see!

    Overs and unders. Cash-ups were stressful, everything had to balance to the till slip recon. Long stories short in this department, I started an Overs/Unders cache (under the counter jar type of thing)(okay it was in a baggy) and if my till was over (double-checks on the double-checks before I did) the overs went into the baggy and vice versa when under. All in all, panned out well, no-one the wiser. It was never a lot anyhow.

    I felt that the stories I had written recently have been rather daemon-etched in the dark so I walked to the supermarket to grab a yoghurt (somehow that bacterial concoction lifts my spirits) with the intent to let it work its wonders and bring a lightness back into play. Reaching Pay, I slid the item onto the surface with a cheery "hi". The cashier's hand nudged it towards the fixed scanner, the till beeped acknowledgment and the led-lit amount flashed on the screen. I asked "how much?" anyhow as is my want to acknowledge that their attendance on me is appreciated, noticed and to eke any response from them in turn.

    Given the verbal exactitude as displayed, I fished some cash, for a change, out the wallet and handed it over. I didn't hear the till ping; neither did the cash-drawer shook open. I looked up and watched the bills quietly being fed into a slot, like the ones at airport parking tick kiosks! The till hummed and ha-ed a bit, made up its mind and promptly spat out a till slip, which was handed long-fingered to me. I was so bemused by this action, I stood there mouth agape. I looked to the cashier, eyebrows raised in "and the change?" kind of way. She understood my confusion and pointed to a large red container bolted to the ledge of the counter (a replacement of that little metal T-bar plate used to balance cheque books on) just in time to think I had hit the jackpot. The coinage clattered clinking into a little tray lining its bottom. I gingerly took a step towards it, outwardly laughing and voicing my silliness for not having known about it before, reached out to gather and wallet them, talking nonsense words purely for affirmation that I was actually there. I felt so unsettled, so estranged, I nearly left without my purchase.

    Walking out, actually stumbling in circles out, stopping to turn back, spinning about to continue; not seeing anything, not looking at anything particular, especially not at the Pay zone, my sight as blanked as my mind; the synoptic charge malfunctioning, defunct.

    The overwhelming sense of not being there, barely even acknowledged as a shopper, let alone as a person. And all because of another attempt to squelch thieving and overs/unders out of existence.

    But the size of the accompanying billboarded "I won't touch you" left me staggering.
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