CHEAP!

[Note: the following has been rewritten nearly from scratch, after a previous version somehow disappeared. Presumably I deleted it myself by accident. Unlike Carlyle, I have no J.S. Mill on whom to place blame. But then, unlike Carlyle, I am not Carlyle. It may be worse than before. Or maybe it’s better.]


Loud thunk. Shortly after that, a second thunk, louder still.

You’ve guessed correctly if you said: sound of two 10-liter vats of roofing patch heaved onto a checkout counter. Such clumsiness being beneath her dignity, my cashier — a familiar Belorusian fatale — positively seethes.

“Good eeeeevenink,” she deadpans. The fingers of the left hand seem permanently cocked in a cigarette-holding pose, as if to mime just one of many elegant vices — all of them deadly, I would guess. Fortunately for the rest of us, smoking has been illegal in places like this, a hardware store full of volatile solvents, oils, and varnishes, for decades.

It is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. With storms predicted for the area, I have dashed in at the last minute. Like everything on earth, our roof is not as young as it once was. This time I’m determined not to be caught out should the heavens erupt, flaying its delicate, cracked skin during the holiday. The Belorusian watches me fumble among various pockets for my debit card.

“Cheap?” she says. Always terse (though less, I suspect, from modesty than self-consciousness about her thick accent), she conveys only the bare minimum necessary for our transaction.

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Yves Klein, IKB 79

“Sorry?” I reply. “You said cheap?”

“Cheap,” she repeats.

“Cheap,” I repeat back, a little lost. Is it the roof patch? It must be the roof patch: she’s impugning my financial wherewithal to hire proper roofers. “No, no, not cheap,” I say, “not cheap, that’s not it.” Now she too looks confused. I attempt to explain — by, as usual, over-explaining — that if calamity were to strike over the long weekend, it could be hard to book emergency repairs. “Last year on Christmas day, our roof sprang a leak and nearly ruined a rare Yves Klein, IKB 79.” (We don’t really own an Yves Klein, rare or otherwise, but I’m hoping this totally fabricated story will adduce to my not being a pinchpenny.)

Her eyes narrow to a squint.

I continue. “You know the painting, right? From 1959, the famous International Klein Blue, hence I-K-B, a color that Klein himself invented. Of course it’s well-known that he had help from Edouard Adam, a fine-art paint retailer whose shop was located — still is, I believe — on the Boulevard Edgar-Quinet in Montparnasse. They used a polyvinyl-acetate resin binder, which is what gives the pigment its extraordinary vibrance.”

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Boulevard Edgar-Quinet, Montparnasse

Now she’s getting pissed. The squint ratchets down to yet a tighter level of contempt. “CHEAP, CHEAP, CHEAP!” she half snarls, grabbing the debit card from my hand. With her index nail, dark as blood slopping through an aorta, she taps at its edge, indicating a tiny metallic square that I have never before noticed. “You see think here on cart? Think is cheap!”

Think is cheap, think is cheap.

“Ah! Ah-ah-ah! You mean chip. You mean, thing is chip, computer chip, card has chip!” (I seem to have abandoned indefinite articles; surely my vowels must soon turn Slavic as well.)

Other customers have started clotting up behind me in line. Unwilling to watch me self-destruct, she keeps my card. She will do it for me. Reaching round to my side of the scanner, she jambs the card into the slot. I find myself rearing back from her cleavage, which is alarmingly scented. “Not to touch!” she orders, ambiguously; then, sensing my misinterpretation, clarifies, “Not to remoof cart from sloat unteel beepink noise!”

So here it is — that new technology of which I’d heard only vague rumors. Instead of swiping a magnetic strip, you inject your card into the base of the customer keypad and leave it there. The screen prompts you through a cycle of menu options:

DEBIT/CREDIT
CASH BACK, YES/NO
CORRECT AMOUNT, AGREE/DISAGREE
GLORY TO FATHERLAND/GLORY TO MOTHERLAND

Vast reams of who knows what personal data are hoovered up within seconds. The official line will be that this system is harder to hack while providing businesses with more nuanced information about one’s spending habits. Or about one’s needs, as these are commonly referred to in the creepy lingo of ConsumerSpeak. But by nature guilty-minded, nudging toward the paranoiac, I presume the worst: this is the vanguard of a grimmer, more pervasive threat from everyone who’s after me — the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, UNICEF — and will only expedite the serving of warrants, possibly on these very premises, possibly before I can manage even to extract my card.

“Now to type peen, poleez.”

“Wait — police?”


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