A few days ago, Dee and I paid a visit to the local food market to pick up a few odds and ends by way of preparation for the upcoming Passover holiday.
You’d be amazed at how costly Passover can be. Much of our average, everyday grub is unsuitable for use during the eight-day duration of the festival, when the use of leavened or fermented products made from wheat, oats, rye, spelt, and/or barley is forbidden. Rice, corn, and legumes are also off-limits in accordance with Ashkenazic tradition. (Quinoa, at least, is permissible.) And so replacements must be found... and the supermarkets know that they have you, so to speak, over the barrel. If we were really observant, we’d use completely different dishes and serving pieces, and things would get completely out of hand.
But that was not what I was thinking as the cashier rang up our purchase. Perhaps “booped up” would be a more accurate turn of phrase, because there was nary a ring - just a series of electronic boops and beeps as she passed our items, one by one, over the laser scanner. No, what I was thinking was how things have changed since my Snot-Nose Days.
I slid my debit card into the reader and punched in my PIN code, and an invisible (and yet very real) C-note was instantaneously sucked out of our checking account. The cashier handed us our receipt and we hauled our groceries - packed into a small army of wispy plastic handle-bags - to the car.
When I was a mere sprat, I would occasionally accompany my mother to the grocery store, where we would roll our cart (a device referred to hereabouts as a “buggy”) to the cashier. As the items were propelled toward her by conveyor belt - technology we still use today - she would pick each one up and find the price, stamped (usually) in purple ink. She would then punch the price into her huge electromechanical cash register - chik, chik, chik, chik - and then hit a button that would add the item to the slowly growing total. Kerchunk. And when it came time to add up the purchase at the end, a lengthy series of kerchunks would culminate in a nice, attention-grabbing Ding! Ring up, indeed.
Ancient (vintage-1974) box of Jell-O with price stamped directly on the package. Notice the cents sign: Back then, plenty of items actually sold for less than a dollar.
Old-school cash register.
Mom would hand the cashier a bill - good old paper money - and the cashier would count out the change, a task easy enough for anyone with a grade school education to perform without a calculator, abacus, or even a scrap of paper and a pencil. Then we would lug everything out to the car, filling the trunk with big kraft paper sacks of Food-Swag.
Today’s system is a lot faster and more efficient. No need to stamp every item with a price: Each product has a unique barcode to which a price can be assigned electronically. (It makes it a whole lot easier to jack up your prices when you can do everything all at once!) Every time an item is scanned, the store’s inventory log is adjusted. If change is needed (What? Cash?), the register does all the calculations. And the laser scanner “boops up” purchases far more rapidly than the most nimble-fingered cashier could ever ring them up on the old-style registers.
There’s a famous old bit of folklore about one John Henry, a “steel-drivin’ man” whose job it was to pound holes into solid rock so that explosives could be inserted... part of the work involved in building the railroads. But new technology came along in the form of a steam-powered hammer, and the days of the manual steel driver were numbered. In order to assess the practicality of the new device, John Henry’s steel-driving prowess was tested in a race with the steam hammer. According to legend, John Henry won, but at the cost of his life: Overcome with exhaustion, he dropped dead at the end of the contest, a latter-day Pheidippides.
Standing there in the supermarket checkout line, I imagined a contest between a modern John Henry armed with an electromechanical cash register. His fingers would fly over the keys as he raced against the new technology, a technology powered by laser light instead of steam. Yet even if he were to win, it would be a short-lived victory. Hey, that’s progress!