Use The Farce
The handful of days before the winter holidays are usually a shopping challenge as people crowd into supermarket aisles to buy all the excess items they need with which to stuff themselves via elaborate feasts.
This year in the UK the shopping mayhem has been exacerbated by the sudden isolation of the UK, thanks to the brainless Prime Minister going on television to boast about how the UK has “the biggest, the best” genomic analysis capability “in the world” and how this miraculous capability has now uncovered a variety of coronavirus that is more readily transmitted than the previous version.
Not surprisingly, the rest of the world reacted in a very predictable manner and shut down all transportation links from the UK, effectively leaving it stranded and cutting off the supplies of food that everyone (including brain-dead Brexiteers) relies upon. This resulted, again very predictably, in British people panicking and rushing to strip the supermarket shelves before starvation sets in.
Early this morning I set off for a few supplies I’d not already bought much earlier: a couple of toothbrushes, some hand-soap, some deodorant, and perishables like milk and orange juice. The supermarket logistics team had done a creditable job of restocking the shelves overnight and so the hundred or so frantic shoppers present were slightly less panicked than otherwise they would have been.
Now, when most people are acting en mass with their frontal cortexes fully shut down, there’s an opportunity for those who can keep their heads. As I strolled casually up and down the aisles I noticed all the signs of a true Master practicing her craft: an old woman, aged anywhere from seventy to ninety, doing everything in her power to obstruct as many people as possible.
Her opening gambit was simple enough, but there’s no shame in deploying an old reliable classic. Placing her cart (trolley in Brit-speak) perpendicular to the direction of the aisle and stooping forward so as to occupy the remaining space on one side of the cart, she slowly and with excruciating care inspected each and every onion she was considering buying. This simple act, performed with the delicacy of a true expert, ensured that everyone else had to turn around and seek another aisle in order to get to the checkout area — and this, in highly predictable fashion, resulted in the turn-arounds banging into those still heading optimistically up the aisle, which generated no small measure of embarrassment and ill-will among men (and women).
It was this classic opening gambit that enabled me to know that I could learn much from her. Just as Luke in the execrable Star Wars movie seeks out the oldest and wisest Jedi from whom to learn the Ways of the Force, so I too found myself drawn to the oldest and wisest old person from whom to learn the Ways of the Farce.
One cannot be a Truly Annoying Old Person unless one spends years studying and practicing The Ways of the Old.
Discretely, I followed her for the next ten minutes, eagerly absorbing all the lessons she so casually taught. After she left the vegetable aisle (naturally not actually putting even a single onion into her cart) she slowly eased her way up the tea & coffee aisle. Although small and although her cart was of no greater width than that of any other shopper, as if by magic she managed to occupy the entire width of the aisle and thus created the shopping equivalent of a traffic jam in her wake.
She would stop unpredictably to inspect some item resting innocently on a shelf and behind her everyone else would thus also be forced to halt. The moment someone attempted to ease themselves past her she would, seemingly without being aware of their presence, move her cart and herself just enough to prevent them from passing.
The next aisle was sauces and condiments. As she was quite short, it was natural of her to interrupt a middle-aged man and ask him if he could be of assistance. Would he be kind enough to reach up and pass her down the tomato-pesto sauce? Being English, the man had to oblige.
Carefully the old lady inspected the label. Then, just as the man was about to move away, she asked him to hold the jar for her while she fetched out her reading glasses. Reluctantly (for I suspect he knew he was being played) he agreed and for the next seventy-three seconds (I timed it surreptitiously) she made great show of seeking her reading glasses in her handbag. Of course they were actually in her left-side coat pocket.
Glasses in place, she began to study the writing on the label of the pesto jar, tut-tutting whenever she discerned an ingredient of which she disapproved. As the man was still holding the jar, he was trapped. Finally, after a lovely show of consideration, she looked up at the man and said in the sweetest old lady voice imaginable, “No, I don’t think so dear. But thank you anyway.”
And off she shuffled, leaving the man holding the jar while the queue of shoppers behind frowned above their masks and seemed to blame him for the hold-up.
I was enthralled. It’s not often one finds oneself observing a masterclass in Old Person’s Annoying Behavior. She was playing the entire supermarket in the same way as YoYo Ma plays the cello: with masterful insouciance.
I continued to follow her in the sort of mystical rapture one experiences only once or twice in one’s life. I could feel Old People’s Power flowing into me from the simple act of watching her.
When it came time to pay for the seven small items she’d amassed in her cart, I knew my fate was to queue directly behind her and learn yet more of the Ways of the Old. All the other queues for the checkout registers were three or four deep. The old lady had chosen her queue with the wisdom and cunning one would expect of a Master: she reached the conveyor belt without having to wait. Now the Grand Finale was about to play itself out before my eyes. I was so excited I had to remind myself to breath calmly; my heart was racing and my palms were damp with expectation. Not since watching the Royal Shakespeare Company performing Twelfth Night have I been so eager to see a performance.
With excruciating delicacy she reached down into her cart (making it clear to anyone watching that she was far too old for such feats of gymnastics) and lifted out a small box of teabags. This she placed on the conveyor belt, shuffling alongside so as to orient it precisely before the checkout clerk could reach for it and scan it. She performed this act with each of the seven items in her cart, thus turning what could have been a minute’s work into a five-minute virtuoso performance.
I was expecting the classic Looking For The Right Change, but she was truly a master of her art. Instead of going immediately into the penultimate routine, she picked up the box of teabags and squinted at it. Then she went though the where-are-my-reading-glasses routine, knowing that the checkout clerk wouldn’t have had line of sight to observe her first rendition and so to all intents and purposes the routine would be fresh. Once the glasses had been located and placed on the bridge of her nose she proceeded to inspect the box.
“Oh dear, no,” she said. And then I nearly swooned. Whether intentionally or by some sort of unconscious cosmic necessity she actually uttered the words, “these aren’t the teabags I was looking for.”
I had to use every ounce of my self-control to restrain myself from bursting into spontaneous applause.
A three minute interlude followed while an assistant was dispatched to try to find the correct box of teabags based on the very (intentionally) confusing and contradictory description provided by the old lady. Eventually the harried assistant returned with four different boxes in the hope that one would turn out to be what was wanted.
Slowly and carefully, with great precision, the old lady inspected each and every one.
Finally, with a show of resignation, she deigned to accept one of the four that were proffered. “Oh well,” she sighed, “I suppose this one will have to do.”
As this final item was scanned, surely it was time to enter into The Closing Act?
But no! Once again she demonstrated her effortless mastery of The Things Old People Do To Drive Everyone Else Totally Insane: she began to inspect the price of each item displayed on the checkout screen.
“Are you sure that’s right, dearie?” she asked, pointing to the price of the small lettuce she’d bought. “I think it said something different on the shelf.”
Once again the hapless assistant was summoned and then dispatched, this time to check the price of the item as displayed on the shelf.
After a mere eighty-one seconds the assistant hurried back and informed the old lady that the scanned price was indeed correct. “Ah well, no harm in checking,” was the response.
I swear I could almost see the hint of a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth.
No matter how excellent and satisfying, every play must reach its conclusion and every performance must come to an end. And so it was that she entered into the inevitable Looking For The Right Change In My Purse routine. In the hands of an amateur this is merely tedious, but in the hands of a master it can be pure poetry in motion. And so it was with the old lady. With impeccable timing she milked every moment yet never over-played her hand. There’s a fine line between being seemingly clueless and being obviously intentionally obstructive. She came very, very close but never crossed it.
By the time her checking-out performance was over, she’d managed to take eleven and a quarter minutes to purchase seven small items. I couldn’t help myself. “Bravissima!” I cried.
She turned and I could see she was, for the first time, taken by surprise. Our eyes met.
“May the farce be with you,” she muttered.
And then she turned and shuffled off to block the exit for the next five minutes.