Shopping during blackout has black-eye potential

September 16, 2003

Standing in the checkout line, guarding our cart full of essentials and suspiciously eyeing my fellow shoppers, it occurred to me: This is the way the world will end.

Civilization was starting to crumble, I thought, and I would be one of its first casualties. I would die right there in the line for lane 30. Maybe I would be caught in a crossfire between two shoppers scrapping over the last loaf of bread. Maybe I would simply die of boredom. Either way, I was a goner.

It was Aug. 15, and the scene was a Meijer store in suburban Detroit. We were about 19 hours into the largest blackout in American history, and we were in survival mode.

I was visiting my sister and her husband for a few days, and I was into the first full day of my visit when things went dark for us and more than 50 million others.


The first night wasn't so bad. We were inconvenienced but comfortable. But there was a boil water advisory, and we had no way to do that because the electric stove was inoperable and there was no charcoal to fire the grill. So we went out in search of water.

When we pulled into the parking lot, I had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into. And while getting in and getting our hands on the water was easy enough, it quickly became evident that the usual customs and courtesies of grocery shopping no longer applied.

There was a very long checkout line, and I knew there would be a very long line. While we were standing in it, I was amazed by how many people were surprised by that fact upon walking through the doors. It was as if half of Detroit thought they could sneak out to the store and get right in and out.

"I'll just run in, pick up a couple of cases of water and a box of Ho-Hos and be out in five minutes. Keep the car running, honey." Yeah, right.

I was also amazed by how many people thought they would salvage some of their refrigerated goods by buying a couple of bags of ice. Do you know what a bag of ice becomes after two hours in a checkout line? Half a bag of slush and a place to put a "Caution, Wet Floor" sign.

And I was amazed that so many people decided that as long as they were there, this would be a good time to take care of their other shopping needs. I realize stores like this are designed for one-stop shopping, but do you really need to pick up two pairs of shoes today?

Worst of all, I was amazed that although it seemed that our checkout line was feeding several registers, it was not.

By the time we figured out that the longest line in the store led to only a single register - and a scan-it-yourself register at that - it was way too late to bail. We looked at other lines, but we already invested more than half an hour in this one, and we had crossed a point of no return.

But another arm of checkout wannabes had somehow intersected ours, and anarchy was taking hold. There was some heated conversation and some finger-pointing, and scenes from "The Trigger Effect," a little-known but chilling movie about a Los Angeles blackout, were running through my head.

Soon enough there was a low-level manager on the scene, and he did the only thing he could do, which was to merge the lines one shopper at a time. Then he stuck around for a while to make sure his edict took hold, though he looked like he had better things to do and probably did.

After 15 minutes of shopping and more than 90 minutes of waiting in line, we were finally on our way, behind the woman with the two pairs of shoes but well ahead of the woman who was buying only a can of biscuits and a package of cookies and thought this somehow entitled her to move up in the line.

We returned to the relative calm of my sister's subdivision with our stash, only to find out that the power had come back on while we were out.

For the most part, people we encountered during the blackout were generally understanding and courteous. Sure, the police had to stand guard at gas stations to make sure nobody cut into lines that were half a block long - Where did these people have to go? - but it was one of those events that brought out the best in most people.

Unfortunately, it also brought out a few too many shoppers.

Mike Marsee is a sports writer

for The Advocate.|9/14/03***

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