Encountering the counter - Michael Davis

They divide their forces. Both with arms-full of cereal, fruit, various beverages and toiletries. The one in cargo pants and thong sandals sidesteps to her right, craning her neck over a middle-aged man with a basket half-filled with goat cheese é the other half with tofu.

Cargo pants peers forward, eyeing the line, sizing up who has what and how long it's going to take them to pay.

Her friend, in a tunic and sporting pigtails, gives cargo pants a questioning glance. "Whadda you think?" she asks.

It's a game we play every week, or perhaps more often. How do you choose a line in the grocery store? On what criteria do you base your decision? Is it just gut instinct?

Sometimes it really doesn't matter.

Most often when I go to the store, it's so late that, save for a few stock boys and girls and the occasional party kids, I'm the only one there. At those times, if self-checkout ain't open, there's only one option. That sort of makes it less of an "option," doesn't it?

But, on the rare evening I venture to the store to pick up dinner with the masses, I've noticed that there's a definite science, or at least a ritual, to choosing a lineé but, it's still risky business.

Some, I've noticed, choose based on the number of bodies in the line in front of them. They look for lines with fewer people, never minding the full carts those people are pushing.

Others, I've noticed, choose based on a strict load-per-person basis. These figure that, despite 10 people in the line, they'll move faster because those 10 people collectively have fewer groceries than those three people in that line over there who have full carts.

One thing I've noticed, though, is something I've come to refer to as the checkbook variable.

Let me explain. I've got nothing against people who write checks. Heck, I write checks myself.

But I don't do it when I've got 37 people waiting in line behind me. Maybe it's got something to do with my age, but I grew up on the debit card, and if you find me with a checkbook in my pocket, just let me know and I'll get rid of it.

But the checkbook variable seems to throw off a lot of line-hoppers (those who move from line to line looking for the best deal). One never really knows that, when you get in the three-man line and each one has only two or three items, who is going to go for the checkbook and throw the equation off. If you've got a bunch of debit-carders, you're golden.

One checkbook, however, can put you minutes behind.

There's another factor no shopper has control of - the "I can take the next customer over here" line.

They all say it, but think about what it means and the end result. Sure, the cashier has good intentions, but they are never realized. They never really get the "next customer" in line at the new checkout.

That newly opened line. That luminous bulb shining a beacon of light through the blue or green No. 8 at the end of the line of checkout counters. Yes. We all yearn to be the first in that line, the first out.

Ever think about where those customers come from? They're not the rank-and-file who've paid their dues by waiting behind a mom with three screaming children, one of whom kept asking, "Can I have this? I want that" and pointing to the Mars bars and M & Ms.

Those customers are not the ones who've stared at Fred's mullet protruding through the back of his adjustable mesh NASCAR ball cap.

The customers who get into those fresh lines are the ones who got in line just a few minutes, or perhaps seconds, behind those people. They are the lucky ones who took a trip down just one more aisle, or lingered a little longer in the pet sections, trying to decide whether their schnauzer Jake would like an oversized rawhide bone.

Is it fair? Maybe not. But when opportunity knocks, you'd better hope the wheels of your basket go round and round.

Michael Davis covers government for the Daily Herald. His column appears on Fridays. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or via e-mail at mdavis@henryherald.com .