checking out

Debit Card SwipeUsed your debit card lately to buy something in a store?

I tried yesterday, but the store began closing before I could answer all the questions that pop up after you swipe your card. I had started at noon

The first dozen or so were child’s play, questions like:

“Do you want cash back?”
Yes, but only if you’re giving it away.

“Is $3,590.23 the correct amount?”
Only if the clerk is holding a gun on me.

“Would you like to donate to ISIS today?”
No, thanks. I gave at the office.

“Are you having a nice day?”
Well, I feel more like I do now than I did when I got here. You figure it out.

Seems that every time I go to a store these days, still more irksome questions have been added to the grilling you must undergo to make a debit-card purchase.

Haven’t these merchants ever heard that time is money?

Worse, the procedure seems different at each store, and you can’t complete a debit-card purchase if you don’t answer all the questions correctly. Get half way through, make a mistake, you cancel the sale and have to start over.

There is no right answer anyhow to “When did you stop beating your wife?”

The customer who had been in front of me in line said she had been trying to check out since last Monday. She showed me a sweater she had begun knitting while waiting her turn.

The guy right behind me said that when his turn comes, he just dials 911.

The woman behind him said the Suicide Hotline might be a better bet. She had been working a New York Times crossword puzzle while waiting and was nearly through!

What happened to the good old days when you simply handed over cash and went quickly on your merry way? Even the Geneva Accords require only three answers: your name, rank, and serial number. But get a look at what I had to contend with:

“How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck would chuck wood?”
Beats me, Bubba. The closest I get to wildlife these days is a nature show on TV, though I did date a kinky little blonde once – but wait, that’s a story for another time. Besides, my wife might read this (and she’s a brunette).

“Did you flush after using the store’s bathroom?”
I remember washing my hands; does that count?

“Who’s on third?”
Not even Abbot and Costello could figure that one out.

“Who killed Cock Robin?”
I don’t know – but it was not me. No, wait; it was not I.

“One train leaves Jersey City at 4:05 p.m. headed to Atlanta. Another leaves Atlanta going to Jersey City at the same time. Which train will reach Chattanooga before the moon comes over the mountain?”
Hey, I could not solve word problems when I was in high school, and my algebraic skills have not improved with age. Besides, I majored in English. In fact, the last time I used algebra was on the final exam. So why, for crying out loud, is it still in every school’s curriculum?

The next screen was the last straw: “What do women want?”
I know when I’m beaten; Solomon in all his wisdom could not answer that one.

I hit “cancel” and pulled out my wallet. Deep in its recesses, I found a $20 bill that had been there since my retirement party last century. Mad money. Good name for it.

“Here,” I told the clerk. “Keep the change.” I just wanted to get out of there.

“You have no change coming,” she said. “The bill is exactly $20.”

I held aloft a very small bag containing over-the-counter allergy pills. “For this?” I asked, incredulous.

She shrugged and said, “It’s on sale.”

“Lucky me,” I replied.

Image: Debit card payment by © skynesher and licensed by via
Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb

I grew up in Augusta, Ga., where I attended Boys' Catholic High. After a stint in the Navy, I attended the University of Georgia, majoring in English (Class of '61). I began my (wholly unexpected) journalism career on the old Augusta Herald, an evening paper, and went to work for The Constitution in, I think, 1976. I left in Sept. '82 to write The Great American Novel. That goal has proved remarkably elusive, but my first attempt (Striking Out, in 1991) was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award and my second (Atlanta Blues, in 2004) contended for an Edgar Award. My latest novel won no honors but might well get me nominated for a hanging. Titled A Majority of One, it is about a clash between religion and the Constitution over book-banning in a small Georgia town. I've also published a collection of short stories and poems: Six of One, Half Dozen of Another. Before retirement, I taught creative writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina and its Honors College, and feature writing in its School of Journalism. I maintain a now-and-then blog at and I walk my dog on the beach a lot at Pawleys Island, S.C.