A Life Lesson Learned at the Stop & Shop

It's noon on a Wednesday; I've got plenty to do, but I need to pick up a few things at the grocery store first. I have determined that it will take 30 minutes to complete the errand. I pride myself on efficiency, and will do everything in my power to meet my goal. You see, I live with this absurd notion that it is possible for me to "own" my time.

I get out of my car and glide through the Stop & Shop's sliding doors. I tuck my sunglasses into my jacket pocket, and scoop up a shopping basket without breaking stride. While my eyes adjust to the fluorescent lighting, I notice a frustrated man struggling to separate two shopping carts that have been wedged together. Good luck, pal.

I stop by the deli first, the only potential speed bump in my meticulously choreographed routine. There are a few people ahead of me, but with two employees slicing away behind the counter, this shouldn't take long. I draw a number, wait my turn, approve the thickness of the initial slice of turkey, and decline the invitation to sample it. I'm moving away from the counter as the clerk hands over my half-pound package; I reach back and collect it as if it were a relay-race baton and scurry off in the opposite direction. I'm making good time: no need to check my watch—my internal clock is unfailingly accurate.

I'm coasting along on cruise control, heading for the pet aisle, when I notice an elderly couple looking at laundry detergent at the end of the aisle, their cart obstructing access. They shuffle coupons while looking back and forth between their shopping list and the merchandise. I stop a few feet behind them and begin shifting foot to foot. They're comparing the merits of Tide versus Wisk while computing some complex mathematical formula involving sale prices, triple-value coupons and fluid ounces. They decide against the detergent. I watch them as they walk off, completely oblivious to me. Unbelievable.

After picking up a carton of litter-box liners, I head to the dairy section and toss a couple of containers of yogurt into my basket without slowing down. I realize I'm still on schedule when, up ahead, I see the elderly couple stalled out in front of the dairy chest. Here we go again. The man has most of his upper torso in the cooler; he's passing half-gallon containers of milk to the woman. She squints, shakes her head, and hands them back to him. They're checking expiration dates. I can see the exact brand of milk I want, but I can't get to it. Finally, the man hands the woman an acceptable selection. She makes a mark on her list, and they slip away without acknowledging me. Clueless.

I pick up a six-pack of Powerade on my way to the checkout area. I search the lighted signs for an express lane and don't see one. A regular lane is open to my right. As I prepare to unload my basket, I find that the lane is not unoccupied. The elderly couple had been camouflaged by the candy and magazine racks. I'd probably laugh if this were happening to someone else. The woman is rechecking each item against her list as the man places them on the conveyer belt. I lean back and inspect the other checkout lines to see if there is a better option. The woman looks at me, then at my basket, and whispers something to the man. He turns around and, in a gentle, friendly voice, says, "Hey, why don't you go ahead of us? You've only got a few things." His carefree manner catches me off guard. He sounds as if he's got all the time in the world, and he's offering me a little piece of it. I feel the sort of shame that comes when someone does something nice for you after you've said something nasty behind his back.

"That's OK," I say, trying to match his casual tone. "I'm in no hurry."

"You sure?" he asks.

"Yes. Thank you."

I look down at my shoes; I feel self-conscious and petty. The man loads the last of their items on the belt and places a divider behind their order. I thank him. He nods and smiles. The woman is watching the checkout girl to make sure no mistakes are made. I have an urge to go forward and bag their groceries for them. Their time is precious, too—more precious than mine.

I pull into my driveway and check the clock on my dash: 12:35. I missed my goal by five minutes. I know that the five minutes were well spent observing the kind elderly couple in front of me after they had offered me their place in line. Five minutes: a small price to pay for discovering that only those who are giving of their time have ever owned it in the first place.

Blout Lives In Stoneham, Mass.