Checkout ordeal humiliating

   In an almost-forgotten class on American history, we covered inflation, the illustration being that after the Civil War, the currency ballooned so much that people practically needed a wheelbarrow full of money to buy a loaf of bread.
   Doubtless, the buyer would still be wondering, “Will this be enough money?”
   Several years later, I got a practical application of the principle when I took my youngest son, Benji, to the new McDonald’s in town.
   Twenty-five years ago, in the nascent days of direct deposit, we’d walk to a bank, deposit most of the check and draw out a bit of spending money, this era antedating debit cards as well.
  So I fished out a twenty to pay for two fish sandwiches and accordingly received about nine bills back: a couple of fives and several ones. Seeing such a wad of bills, Benji, then about 4, surmised that I’d be wise to spend even more money “because every time you give them one bill, you get back a whole bunch more.”
   Later that year several of us took a trip to a place called Anapra, built on a landfill and completely surrounded by Ciudad Juarez, which adjoins El Paso. Once across the border, I converted a twenty to Mexican currency, and though they charged for the exchange, I left there with many bills and pocketfuls of change. Again, this prompted the-more-you-spend-the-more-you-get-back reasoning of my third-born.
   Despite Benji’s urging, I did not go to buy a wheelbarrow or even go to haul in a hand basket.
   We had gone on a mission trip to help a struggling parish perform cement work and light construction. The enclave of Anapra had no running water, quite primitive electricity and sparse utilities. Most houses got their water from barrels brought in by trucks and mounted on roofs, with a hose attached.
   Instead of long hot showers, we sponged ourselves off with water that dripped out of a barrel.
   A group of 20, we ate in an open shelter, cooked on a wood stove and carted our leftovers to a nearby sty, putting the occupants in hog heaven.
   One afternoon we dropped our shovels to join the parish in an impromptu service a distance away. We boarded vans, and in our haste, some of us left our money at the work site. Thus, when it was time for the offertory, I shoveled in all of my money — looked like a fortune but amounted to less than $20. Others gave what they had in their pockets.
   The grateful minister later explained that our offerings were perhaps six times more than what they usually take in and such a generous collection would tide the parish over for weeks. How much more would have gone into the collection plate if all of us had brought our billfolds and purses? We outnumbered the village’s congregation by far, and I noticed an elderly couple putting in a couple of small coins. In those days, inflation had gripped Mexico so tightly that the 10-centavo piece they donated may have equalled about a tenth of an American penny.
   So mercurial were currency fluctuations that even in the same town, people often shopped around to determine which bank or money exchange was more generous — or less greedy.
   Contrast that with the utter confusion an American faces in places like Denmark, whose currency, though quite steady, requires division by six, but not quite. When we visited Copenhagen, the world’s third-most-expensive city, behind Oslo and Tokyo (depending on whose survey you read), prices appeared in Danish kroners, not American dollars, so a Big Mac with fries, which went for about $10, was advertised for 58.75 kroners.
   As one who loathes holding up the checkout line, I would generally keep every coin and bill handy, hoping I’d have enough. When told the amount I owed, in Danish, I’d spill the entire inventory of Fort Knox, hoping it would suffice and that the checker would take only what was needed.
   Once, amid some 30 coins arrayed before him, the haughty checker took one coin — a small one. Mission accomplished, except for my residual embarrassment.
   When our son Stan moved to Denmark, he vowed to master their currency, as Danes don’t appear to cater to, or be patient with, Americans. So it became a like-son, like-father experience, which he wrote about in his blog just recently:
   “I remember standing at the counter at Seven-Eleven. The girl at the register told me the amount, in Danish. No problem — I looked at the screen to get the price, and then … and then I looked down at a big pile of various coins in my hands … and I realized that it would take me at least 30 seconds to find an appropriate amount. And 30 seconds is an eternity in Seven-Eleven when six people are waiting behind you.
   “So I looked at the girl, smiled sheepishly, and offered her everything. I extended my cupped hands, full of Danish money — probably around $200 for a $3 purchase — across the counter. She plucked out the proper change and smiled at me encouragingly, as if to say, ‘Someday you’ll learn to use money like a BIG person!’
   “Now I can quickly whip out exact coins and verify that I’ve gotten the correct change. I hadn’t thought about the humiliation of Seven Eleven in a while, but yesterday I was reminded.
   “My brother Diego is here, visiting me for two weeks. We were in the grocery store, and I was planning to pay for his Coke. But I got distracted. When I turned around, I saw him, ahead of a long line, looking sheepish and extending his hands — full of strange coins — across the counter.”

One thought on “Checkout ordeal humiliating

  1. Art

    I can feel Diego’s embarrassment. My friend Vince, who visited Italy, once ordered a pizza, which he said tasted horrible. But compelled to pay the piper, he spilled a bunch of coins on the table, as the cook-waitress kept flicking her hand, signalling she needed more. So he complied. She finally appeared satisfied. He left, not having any idea how much the pizza cost him.

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