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Pound of future, please

News has it lately that the checkout method at the supermarket is about to change. Instead of prices, packages everywhere will have funny little marks to be scanned by a laser and computed at a speed five times that of a cash register.This will no doubt bring to a screeching halt the national competition to find Miss Checkout, a sporting event I know a little something about on the grounds that I never cared to know more. I attended an elimination contest, invited by a friend who is a wholesale grocer. I thought his company was sponsoring the thing, but decided later it was a gimmick of the cash register company.

Three checkout lanes, just as in a grocery store had been set up in the lobby of the smart resort motel where his gay event was held, and three checkout girls who had won regional runoffs were to go through two wheeled basket-carts of goodies, handling each item to find the price, and ticking off on their registers. A bundle boy would pass and take away. Time and accuracy, of course.Cordiality and chitchat with the imaginary customer were not factors.

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I had no reason to favor one girl, but I guessed on a Miss Stopoff & Savemuch , Inc., of East Mattawamkeag, champion of Penobscot, Piscataquis, and Aroostoook Counties. I though she had a beady poise that would give her an advantage, but it turned out she was squintly from wearing contacts, and she fouled her ribbon on a box of Wheaties.

One of these girls went to Chicago to compete in the national finals for a mink coat, a Porsche, and two weeks in the Tyrolean Alps. (I seem to remember the second prize was three weeks in the Tryolean Alps.) But I never heard who won Miss National Checkout, and I don't recall that I inquired. I never heard about a contest in after years. But if the laser is to put Miss Checkout in limbo, it may be pleasant to know that I once attended such a function.

I often wish I weren't committed to my other philanthropies, so I might have money to sponsor a national competition to find an old-time grocer who tots up your order with a lead pencil on a paper bag, and then makes change out of his pocket. The kind who dumped a barrel of prunes in the front window and had old newspapers over them to keep off the sun. This idle wish is not all predicated on fond memories: I'd like to have a decent dish of prunes again. Prunes, because they could wait around until wanted, were important in Maine seaboard and lumber camp diets, and after you'd been eating baked beams all week a dish of Sunday prunes was something to look forward to.

My wholesale grocer friend says the package on a pound of prunes runs to 35 percent of the retail price. And says the new laser system will give us a 25 percent savings. There's a sneaky 10 percent around there somewhere, and I'd like to take it out in loose prunes.

It isn't a matter of availability. Bananas still grow in bunches, and salt cod is still flaked. But my grocer friend says the only way he can get a bunch of bananas is to have one flown up from Guatemala by a friend of his who runs the United Fruit Company and has an executive plane. The only way to get a split salt fish is to tour the Gaspe. The supermarket has regarded the package into an improbable result -- it is no longer just to contain the prunes, it is the vehicle for funny little marks in laser-beam merchandising. How could you check out a loose prune?

I could, and our one-time grocers did. They fondled the pile in the window and counted prunes into a bag. Prunes came by count -- the number it took to make a pound. The bigger the count, the cheaper the prunes, and lumber camp commissaries always bought high-count prunes. That way, the men got more. Nowadays you don't get many because they cost too much, but you do get a pretty package, and you do get a stirring performance at the checkout counter. Think how much better prunes will be when they are all laser computed.

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