Deli Woes

Chaos in front of the counter.

I’ve noticed I get the eye roll now when I approach the deli counter at my local grocer. There haven’t been any incidents where security has to be called or anything like that. I simply have a way of subtly expressing displeasure that the deli staff apparently feels is out of line given the circumstances.

First of all, why does the ragged, disorganized queue in front of the deli case have to resemble a bus stop during rush hour in Islamabad? Banks have those little mazes that keep the rabble in a one-behind-the-other line. Who ever said buying processed meat had to mirror feeding time at the zoo?

I know what you’re thinking: Deli counters have those take-a-number conveniences. I’ve found that “convenience” to be more like an inconvenient lottery. One day, I’ll dutifully take a number and then hear a staffer call, “Who’s next?” The next time, I won’t take one, and the staffer will call out, “91?”—at which point, I’ll rip one from the roll to discover I’m 101, with numbers 92 through 100 having come after me. Apparently, the deli decimal system was in operation that day.

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And then there are the days when I enter the store to see a golden glow of emptiness in front of the counter. I head straight for that beautiful cosmic nothingness only to see a patron from the produce section suddenly approaching that same emptiness—but at a much better vector.

The woman arrives just ahead of me, as I watch her pull out a list of meats and cheeses that would satisfy the catering needs of a Greek wedding. (While I’m on this particular stew, I believe anyone ordering quantities less than a quarter pound should be summarily shot. That’s one sandwich, for crying out loud! Ever hear of refrigeration?)

Thence came the remote ordering kiosk located at the entrance to the store. Miracle of miracles! No longer do I have to spy the commotion assembling in front of the deli case. I simply tap in my order (ahem, a half pound or more of each item, for those cynics who may be wondering). Then I go about my business.

I arrive at the counter some minutes later, and I expect to find my packages waiting. Alas, I find nothing—and through clenched teeth, I politely ask if my order has been filled.

“Has it been 35 minutes since you placed the order, sir?” the slicer replies.

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So, I’ve become a deli stalker. I approach the counter with the stealth of a hungry carnivore in search of helpless and easy prey. If someone’s holding a list, I move on. If two or more are there, I move on.

Finally, there will be that day when I have the counter to myself. Victoriously, I will place my order for a pound of ham-off-the-bone and a half pound of sharp Provolone, and then I’ll move on with a jaunty gait, only to return to pick up a half pound of ham-off-the-bone and one pound of regular Provolone. I swear I can see the flicker of mischief in the deli employee’s eyes.

One day, I fear, security will have to be called.

Reid Champagne admits to occasional vegetarian impulses.

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