“No scanning, please!“ There is heartfelt outrage in the voice, which belongs to the woman in front of me in the supermarket queue. The cashier at the checkout was just about to scan her first item when she let rip with the hysterical shriek.
Now he looks at her, just briefly, then at the clock, then back at her, his big eyes imploring; ‘Please do not be serious… not at this busy time…’
We are in ‘a bio grocery’ shop, a prime port of call for know-all neurotics and, alas, the only supermarket close to campus. The women shows no mercy. The casher sighs, shrugs his shoulders and looks at all of us in the queue. Defeat and pity are writ large in his wearied manner. I can’t tell if he feels pity for himself or for all of us, or both. Clearly, we will all need to wait an eye-wateringly long time while he attends to a task of Herculean dullness. He turns the bag of bio Gummy Bears over and starts to type in every single digit below the barcode. I look at the checkout stand’s conveyor belt; at least thirty items lying before the ‘next customer’ sign. I check my watch, and instantly regret trying to score a quick breakfast before running to the research institute. I am definitely going to be late for my meeting now, and I can forget about taking my cells out of the incubator beforehand.
I contemplate leaving but I am sandwiched between Laser-Looney and a kid’s buggy hosting a restless one-year old. With loud grumbling noise, the tiny child tries to strangle himself out of the safety belt in order to pull stuff from the shelves. The tot grows more dissatisfied with every passing second. It will not be long before he reveals the full capacity of his lungs. The child and his young, tall dad are familiar to me. Apart from a friendly greeting in the morning, we have never exchanged a word. However, we regularly share a train compartment on the way to campus, as we did today. We shared a train that had been delayed.
The buggy has a flag on its handlebar from the University’s day care centre; ‘Bio kids,’ it reads, in colourful letters; a name that evokes, in my head, an image of drooling toddlers dissecting frogs. The dad has placed two half-litres of natural yoghurt and a kilo of fruit muesli on the conveyor belt. It is clear that he too has only rushed into the store to purloin a breakfast. His eyes nervously shoot back and forth between his watch, the ticking time bomb in the buggy and the achingly slow progress at checkout.
His son makes a particularly convincing and vocal attempt to escape from the boring confines of the stationary buggy. I quickly pull off a quarter of the pretzel I have on the belt and put it in the hands of the child. He immediately sits back on his nappy, chews on the pretzel and sticks out the empty hand. He looks at me with pleading eyes and I give him another quarter of my pretzel. He is temporarily placated by having half of my breakfast in his chubby hands.
“That saved the supermarket,” the dad laughs.
“And my ears,” I say jokingly.
Laser-Looney is expressing her deep displeasure that the Vegetarische Würstel on the belt are called ‘würstel’. The cashier soldiers on keying in the numbers, doing his best to minimize conversation. Of course Laser-Looney will not be stymied. As if the cashier was in some unknown way connected with the nomenclature of this product, she discourses about the moral calamity of products which remind her of the unnecessary cruelty we expose animals to every day.
I would love to tell her that the word, “wurst”, has a Germanic root meaning “to mix up”, and it is therefore perfectly apt for a blending of vegetable, fat, salt and flavouring. Since it is textured and packaged to remind us of the flesh-containing version, surely the name is doubley apt? But I know better than to believe you can trump her type; her etymology may be bunkum but somehow she will still be right. And she will explain why at great length.
Naturally, the cashier cannot focus efficiently on typing the digits whilst also dealing with her block-headed whinging. He mistypes several times and more minutes of our lives slip sadly away, never to be experienced again.
“I’m late, so could we just let the cashier focus on the product codes?” an impatient voice inquires, and I quickly realise it is my voice.
Laser-Looney throws an irritated look in my direction but keeps her lips firmly together.
“Is the scanner broken?” asks the dad soon after.
“No, but the lady doesn’t want scanning,” I say, loudly, clearly and exasperatedly in order to convey the blithe insanity of her wishes.
“She doesn’t want scanning?” he asks, utterly bewildered, as if I just told him his mother was a giraffe.
Laser-Looney turns towards us. “That way I save your son a lot of radiation!”
She sneers with a critical look as if the dad were a brute ignoramus who habitually neglects the health of his child. She turns away from us without waiting for an answer.
“Are you nuts?” he asks the back of the lady’s head.
“Of course she’s nuts,” I chip in, as if his question didn’t need asking.
“If you want to save my son from harmless radiation then you shouldn’t expose him to the cell phone in the butt pocket of your trousers for all this unnecessary time!”
He points at the phone outlined in her denims. She turns around again, glares at him and announces victoriously; “It is on Airplane mode!”
Suddenly I am very happy that I will soon be surrounded by scientists.
However, as I stride briskly to work, I find myself wondering if we scientists are doing enough to engage with the public? To inform and enlighten people? I read recently that two-thirds of Europeans don´t know that cucumber contains – oh horror – genes?! And a similar number believes that red light can be harmful? Our failure to communicate sometimes appears boundless.
Written by Karin Bodewits (author of You Must Be Very Intelligent – The PhD Delusion)