When you’re having fun

Audrey estimated there were two hundred and ninety-nine shoppers in Costco besides herself. All trying to check out at the same time. All ahead of her.

Synchronous behavior, group think, group dynamics, herd mentality, lemming mentality… Audrey had gotten in line all the way back in the cracker aisle, wondering why she didn’t just turn around and shop some more until the crowds had gone. She’d be there just as long and spend more money, but at least she wouldn’t be stuck in one spot. It’s like seeing the freeway all jammed up ahead of you, she reasoned, so you take the nearest exit just to get off. It takes just as long to get home because you’re on the surface streets, you get stuck at traffic lights and probably use more gas, but you feel more in control. You’re in motion.

Pam Wells/The Pullets

Some people are better prepared for interminable waits than others, Audrey observed. They chat with other people in line, and maybe they’ve brought someone along to amuse them for this very reason: a contingency friend. Or they talk on the phone, check email, send email, go online—could you stand at the back of the line with an empty cart, order your groceries online and have them ready for pickup by the time you got to the register? Probably not.

A man next to the granola bars was reading a book. Now, that was smart. There was a time Audrey never went anywhere without a paperback in her purse. Then something had happened… kids had happened. Woe to the mother who stands in a checkout line reading a book if she’s brought her kids along. On the other hand, instead of tearing out her hair, she might be an island of calm, lost in a Southern courtroom or an Egyptian tomb, while little Dooley and little Dudley were playing street sweeper with mummy’s new hairbrush. And maybe Dooley and Dudley would find their own little islands of calm…

As Audrey crept forward in line, her thoughts drifted to another of Phil Margolin’s books, After Dark. Something the main character said in an early chapter was bugging her and she couldn’t wait to find out if it was a clue to anything later on. This character, a young attorney named Tracy, compares law to mathematics, saying that law imposes order on society the way that math imposes order on science. Uh, hello! Law might impose order on society, but math can’t impose order on science or influence it in any way. Math describes science, helps to understand it. This Tracy character says lawyers are guardians of the law. Does that make mathematicians guardians of math? What does it mean to the story? Will Tracy’s faulty thinking get somebody killed?

“Ma’am, any boxes today?”

“Sorry?” Audrey came out of her reverie.

“Do you want any boxes?”

“Yes, please.” She began to unload her cart onto the conveyor. “I didn’t expect the line to go so fast.”

On the way home, Audrey stopped at a red light and watched the orderly progress of traffic. Maybe law happens naturally whenever people live together and don’t want to run into each other. Who needs lawyers? It was harder to imagine a society without mathematicians or writers.

©2010 Pam Wells