Many of you who read this no doubt are the recipients of an Iowa public school education. I'm sure many of you who currently live in Iowa know that statewide (even in Ames) your children receive the highest quality public financed schooling in the nation. In many other states, the same quality of education can only be found at certain school districts in posh suburbs and at private schools where the tuition eclipses a year at the University of Iowa. Elsewhere in the country, students are unleashed onto society inadequately prepared to function in the simplest of activities such as entering into commercial transactions. Below you will find an example of how such students can grind a busy city to a halt.
Faced with meeting a friend at a Mexican restaurant and the knowledge that partaking of said entrees would no doubt involve the ingesting of onions or beans, I quickly walked to the neighborhood grocery store to buy the strongest mints I could find. Grocery store is not an accurate term, for it evokes images of one ambling through a market run by a "grocer" with whom you would make frequent contact. In most cities these images of the mom-and-pop store have gone the wayside of "Sam the butcher;" replaced instead by "Corporate Mega Chain Store #745," a sprawling tribute to excessive selection.
The modern grocery store has become a post office, video store, dry cleaner, one-hour photo lab, ticket broker, florist, restaurant, brothel and pharmacy. Equipped to be your one public accommodation destination on the way to your abode, the Grocery Store now funnels a plurality of a city's populous though its checkout lanes between 5:30 and 7 p.m. Central. Armed with the knowledge that mints would no doubt be strategically placed in the impulse item confection troughs in each checkout lane, I set forth to the Grocery in the midst of its busiest hour.
Getting into the store is a task of monumental proportions. To gain access to the store, one must effectively dodge the "concerned citizens" seeking to get enough signatures on a petition to force a November vote on a referendum seeking to ban all modern transportation in a city where it takes 45 minutes to get anywhere by speeding car. If one successfully dodges the wannabe politicos, they must then tell some pimple-faced Cub Scout where he can stick his 5-pound bucket of unpopped popcorn. After all, if the neckerchief-clad youths really wanted to move some units, they would put narcotics in the corn like the Girl Scouts must do to their thin mint cookies.
Upon finally gaining access to the store, I immediately recognized that I was not dealing with the suburbia's Grocery Store version 7.1, complete with automated checkouts designed to eliminate that human contact which belies my tale of woe. There was no automated soft female voice to remind me to scan all of my items before placing them in my bag. Instead, I found myself faced with the plight of the somewhat antiquated city grocery store, circa 1989, with registers staffed by embittered peoples upset with the fact that minimum wage meant that if the store could legally pay them less to work there, it would. With no bonus structure incentive to do one's job efficiently, every que was backlogged with teeming masses of people holding quickly browning meat and ice cream soup.
I quickly chose the lane that read "Express Lane 15 Items Or Less – Cash Only." As a high school graduate of the Iowa public school system, I understood this to mean that one could use this line to pay for their goods should their cart or basket possess no more than 15 items. The concept of "Express" by its very nature connotates images of an abbreviated stay in the store. Surely, during its busiest hour of the day, the wise manager of the store would place his most competent and able-bodied worker on the express lane to facilitate the "express" portion of shopping.
Ahead of me in line I found a young woman who presumably is a byproduct of the dismal Kansas City, Missouri School District. She was met by a similarly young shop clerk, who up to this point, had slowly preformed her duties with absolute disinterest and questionable competency. By some karmic stoke of luck, it turned out that the two Mensas knew each other and had so much to catch up on since they had not seen each other since graduation. While striking up small talk, the clerk proceeded to scan the young woman's purchases, which far exceeded the maximum of 15.
The suddenly friendly clerk could have quickly whisked her acquaintance through the item-scanning process but instead decided to remark about the great deal you could get if you bought spoiled meats. Apparently, if the meat is fully brown in hue before you leave the store you can get an instant coupon for a dollar off. With that comment, the young woman lumbered at a sloth-like pace towards the back of the store. Minutes later, she emerged with a second package of hamburger that faced spoliation within the hour. The rancid meat, along with the coupon for instant savings, were entered into the computer.
After having halted the throws of commerce, the clerk told the woman that her items totaled $34.16. For some reason of strange bewilderment, the woman informed the clerk that she only had $17. It was not a situation where you think you have a $20 bill in your wallet only to realize a couple seconds late that you must have ordered an extra lap dance before passing out the night before. Instead, this was a woman who did not need to consult her purse to know that she was carrying exactly $17 when she entered the store – or at least knew this fact before getting into the express line to run her large number of items through the checkout scanner.
"I only have $17.00," the woman said.
"Well, what do you want to put back?" The clerk asked.
At this point I was stuck. I was trapped in the middle of this line as the patron and clerk played some sort of reverse "The Price is Right," scanning off unnecessary items until she reached her available funds. The woman was forced to make choices between the items she wanted and the items she truly needed. Much to my shock, the hamburger that had already wasted 10 minutes of my life was the first item returned.
The members of the line shouted out options to the girl. In bold defiance, it was determined that all items of nutritional value must be returned leaving only the following items: Two large jugs of imitation orange drink, a couple boxes of Lunchables, potato chips and a dearth of candy bars.
We finally reached a total of $17.34. Unwilling to part with a single Three Musketeer's bar, the woman quickly darted off to the parking lot to try to borrow 34 cents from somebody. At that point, everyone in the line began tossing change at the clerk who was annoyed that the rest of us in line might try to interfere with this attempt to compete a commercial transaction.
These type of encounters, which are far too typical in the city, make me misty eyed for the Fairways and Hy-Vee's of Iowa where there is, relatively speaking, "a helpful smile in every aisle." At those stores, the fresh-faced kids wearing neckties were always capable of making change and preformed their jobs with a competency and a work ethic that the disenfranchised and under educated youths of the city fail to comprehend.
Many people poke fun at Iowans. They call us "Idiots Out Wandering Around." They tell us that we live in the heartland, because there obviously aren't any brains there. However, the standardized tests don't lie. People that graduate from the Iowa school system leave with a greater aptitude to function in society than almost anywhere in the nation. Iowa children are instilled with a work ethic and take pride in their tasks. This is why Iowa is the nation's best-kept secret. It's why, although now transplanted, I'm proud to be an Iowan.
Sean Dumm comes to HTO/Hawkeye Illustrated from PlanetHawkeye.com, where he posted a semi-regular collection of editorials and satirical commentaries -- most of which were intended in jest. Some of it was supposed to be funny. All of it is designed to make you think.
Sean is a graduate of the University of Iowa and currently resides in Kansas City.
To enjoy some of Sean's past columns (most of which were meant to torment Iowa State fans), click here.