I used to read Popular Mechanics magazine when I was a kid, and I have to say that the future looked pretty bright from the vantage point of my bedroom window. Each month, the magazine would highlight the colorful details of space age technology, promising a twenty-first-century lifestyle that would be easy and efficient. Looking back from the catbird seat of 2016, we already had it pretty easy in 1966 and in some ways, easier than we have it now.
Allow me to explain:
After my mom went grocery shopping, she never had to push a cart loaded with bags of groceries out to her car. The cashier rang up her items, while a man wearing an apron, a crisp white shirt, a bow tie and a paper hat bagged the groceries. The bags were then placed in tubs, dropped on a conveyor belt, and whisked outside to the front of the store. Mom would then pull up in her car, hand over a few numbered tags, and a man loaded the trunk with our groceries. Pretty easy, right?
She would often stop for gas on the way home from shopping, and a chipper young man in a uniform would greet her, pump the gas in the car, check the oil, wash the windows and check the tire pressure. He would do all of this for the grand sum of twenty-nine cents a gallon and we got S&H Green Stamps, which were eventually redeemed for toasters and other fine appliances. How is that worse compared to now? We were already living in the easy breezy future in 1966; we simply didn’t know it.
I mention this because there have been some changes to a few everyday tasks that have given me some options I never considered, two of these being scanning my own groceries and not pumping my own gas.
I started driving in the early 1970s, and even then, attendants still pumped gas. Always. There were no exceptions to this rule. One would pull into a gas station and run over a hose, which would double-ding a loud bell inside the garage. This bell would alert a mechanic to stop working on cars and come outside to pump gas. I can’t imagine how aggravating that must have been, but that was the system. I’m not sure when it became the norm to pump one’s own gas, but it’s become one of those routine everyday tasks that we’ve simply accepted. Let’s face it, though; nobody wants to do it and nobody wants to do it at all if it’s cold or raining or if one is wearing nice clothes, which will now smell like an oil refinery all day long. We have all come to accept that if we want gas, we have to pump it ourselves at a place that sells pizza, donuts, lottery scratchers and submarine sandwiches.
As it turns out, there are two gas stations not far from my house where they don’t sell groceries or lottery tickets; all they do is pump gas. You pull in, stay in your car, and somebody will actually pump the gas for you and not charge any more than the place that provides plastic gas mitts. I almost feel guilty having this done for me as if I’m some sort of fancy sultan who has someone peel his hard-boiled eggs. A friendly greeting occurs, gasoline goes in, legal tender is exchanged, and off I go. I love it. There are a lot of things I will do myself, but if I can get out of pumping gas, I’m all over that—but this service is by far the exception to the rule.
Some retail stores have taken the notion of doing-it-yourself to an entirely new level with self-checkout stations. The first time I saw this option, I actually got excited about it because there were no lines. There’s a reason for this. There were no lines because scanning one’s own groceries is much worse than pumping gas. The places with the scanner gun aren’t so bad, but if I have to swipe items over the glass, this is where it all falls apart.
“Welcome. Please scan your bonus card,” the disembodied voice said as I parked my basket on the shelf. How did it even know I was there?
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have a bonus card,” I replied, expecting the machine to start a conversation with me; perhaps talk about the weather or ask how I’m doing, but that wasn’t the case. Luckily, there was a non-robot attendant nearby who zipped over and scanned a master bonus card, which caused me to silently question two things: Why do I need a bonus card at all if they’ll provide one, and if the attendant is standing around at a special kiosk waiting to help people, why isn’t she scanning groceries? What do they expect me to do next? Butcher my own meat?
So now that I had the proper card scanned, I could begin.
“Please scan your first item,” the voice said. So I did and heard a satisfying “bink” telling me that I did it right. The voice then told me to bag my item and scan the next item, but as I was fumbling to open a single plastic bag—which was pegged on a rack with a thick wad of plastic bags with enough combined static electricity to power a small city—the scanner picked up the bar code and scanned the same item again.
“Please scan your next item,” the machine said.
I stood there staring at the machine, not quite sure how to go back in time to correct the event and a little leery of whatever butterfly effect this would cause if I could. So I stood there, all squirrel in the headlights, unsure of what to do. Fortunately, the attendant saw what had happened and came over to deduct the item. “All set,” she said. All set? Really?
“Please scan your next item,” the machine said impertinently, so I did, carefully and with precision, as if I was replacing a heart valve rather than swiping a bunch of celery over a piece of glass. I continued this exacting process until all my items were scanned and bagged, which took a total of ten minutes for six items. I swiped my card three times before I finally swiped it the right way, answered “no” when asked if I had any coupons, and waited for my receipt. When it finally came out, it was at least three feet long and kept going until it curled up on the floor. They didn’t throw this much paper at the Kennedy’s when they drove down Broadway. I tore it off, wound it around my hand as a medic would do with a bandage, and shoved it in the bag. On the way out of the store, I passed by the next evolution of DIY madness—machines that accept deposit containers.
They charge a nickel deposit for beverage containers here in New York and if one ever wants to see that nickel again, the containers need to be returned. This doesn’t make any sense to me at all. We’ve had curbside recycling programs firmly in place for decades and anyone who is going to chuck a bottle out the car window isn’t going to let a nickel stop them. I should be able to put these bottles in the recycling tub along with wine bottles and ketchup bottles and every other species of bottle, so why can’t I? They don’t refill them and as far as I know, they all get minced up at the same facility. What makes a Poland Springs bottle so special that it requires a security deposit?
Every few weeks, Mrs. G. will pile all of our deposit bottles in an old pink laundry basket and take them back to the store. How else is one supposed to get them from the house back to the store but here’s the tricky part—how does one get them from the car to the machines? They can’t be placed in a shopping cart because of the unsavory nature of used bottles, so now my wife has to lug our old laundry basket into the store, feed these bottles one at a time in the machine, grab the little credit stub and then take the basket back to the car. If it were up to me, I’d drive my car right through the doors, park it in front of the machines and wait for someone to come and get them. Hey, this deposit ransom wasn’t my idea.
I don’t know. According to Popular Mechanics in 1966, we were supposed to have flying cars and robot butlers in 2016, and here we are ringing up our own groceries, pumping our own gas, pushing bottles and cans into machines for a nickel and trying to figure out why a cash register receipt is a yard long. The changes happened so subtly that we didn’t even notice it until one day there we were, not only paying more for less service, but also doing most of the service ourselves.
Nowhere in the monorail cities of the twenty-first century did Popular Mechanics show somebody pumping their own gas into an earthbound car with a trunk full of empty deposit bottles, which leaves me to wonder: How could they have gotten it so wrong?