It was a light day in the Cost Plus at Oakland's Jack London Square with only a handful of people in the store. Good time to shop. Not a good time to buy, as the whole handful clenched into a big, fat fist, slamming the three checkout lines at once.

Not a problem. Clutching my two English gardenia candles, I chose what appeared to be the path of least resistance, a line merely two women deep. Alas, it was a dead end. The woman up front, 30ish, suburban-chic with a blue paisley scarf draped over one shoulder as though a gentle wind had nudged it there during an allergy relief commercial, had two -- count 'em, two -- shopping carts burgeoning with lamps, wicker baskets, candlesticks, pillows, place mats, a wind chime with a frog topper that appeared to be made from a coconut shell and much, much more. Either she was a decorator doing an entire home, or she had a serious shopping addiction and the frog chimes were a cry, perhaps a croak, for help.

Store lines can seem a special circle of hell, and some shoppers deserve to spend some time there.
Store lines can seem a special circle of hell, and some shoppers deserve to spend some time there. (Neil Nakahodo/The Kansas City Star/MCT)

So I hopped lines, moving behind two heavily pierced women making a purchase together. The clerk had just rung them up when I arrived on scene. Score! "Oh, I'm sorry, can you split the bill in two instead?" one of the women asked the clerk, digging a few crumpled bills and coins from her pocket. The clerk winced, just slightly, as though she'd bitten into a bad shrimp. She proceeded to void and re-ring the transaction, completing it again just as the other woman said, "Oh, you missed these," pushing two bottles of white wine to the center of the counter. More bad shrimp. A heavy sigh escaped from the scruffy man behind me. There was a grinding noise between my left molars.

Shop 'til you hop


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More hopping. A man in the middle aisle had a cart full of about 50 bottles of wine, slowly positioning them on the counter like bowling pins. Hop. Back to the original line, now that the scarf woman's receipt was printing out. Enough to wrap a mummy. Twice.

There were only two people behind her. The first, in skintight workout clothes, was the kind who makes everything sound like a question. "Hi?" she said to the clerk. "I'd like to return these? But I don't have the receipt? But you can look it up on my rewards card account, right? And I want to buy this vase? But it's damaged?" Grind, grind.

I began to hate her. I wanted the clerk to say, "No! Get out and burn in Hades!" But she was nice. Grind, grind. Twitch. Hop, back to the line with the bill splitters who were still there but about to leave and the scruffy man moved up. Another jumped over from behind the 50-bottles-of-wine guy. Grind. Ouch. Twitch.

Was this a virtual reality loop? A dream? Some special circle of shopping hell where everyone has a bizarrely complex checkout issue like wiring money from an uncle in Kalamazoo or trying to buy a $30,000 car entirely with pennies? Sure, I could leave and order my items online. But I would NOT be swayed from my mission. I REALLY wanted those candles!

Finally. Finally, the loop broke. I bought my candles in a flat 30 seconds. I drove off. My car smelled of English gardenia. My teeth hurt.

Don't ask, don't tell

Surely it would be better at the grocery store. Just a quick stop. The 15-item line. Three people in front. One man behind. A stray Beach Boy. Maybe 60. Tan to the point of beef jerky. Straggly hair like Brad Pitt's between movies. Hawaiian shirt over a tank top. Buying a single can of Heineken.

"Do you have kids?" he asked me out of the blue. I shook my head. He continued, "I have 11. Five wives."

I couldn't help it: "All at once?" I joked. The floodgates opened. In moments, everyone in range learned: He used to be a tennis pro; he's traveled the world; most of his wives were medical doctors, one of whom he met on a plane to Switzerland; he's a school counselor; he sings country music at a local bar; he trained Arabian horses; he worked at San Quentin as a prison guard; he has short-term memory of 16 digits so "if a woman has an international phone number, I've got it right here." He tapped his jerky forehead. Then tried to guess my name. "I bet it starts with J. No? K? You could be a Melissa. No? Hmm. How about Linda? Melanie? Guinevere?"

Other customers looked away, useless. Escape seemed unlikely. Truly, it would only be a couple of minutes. I could power through. Zen. Transcend. "I'm really in Disneyland. I'm really in Disneyland." At last, freedom. I went home, updated my Amazon account and made an appointment with the dentist.

Contact Angela Hill at ahill@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/giveemhill.