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Commentary: Reading tea leaves in the check out lane

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2010 - American politics have shifted into permanent campaign mode. 2008 was dominated by the presidential election. Aside from a brief interlude of bipartisan governance to prevent the collapse of the global banking system, the rest of the year was basically devoted to the partisan pursuit of elective office.

Interestingly, the senators from both sides of the aisle who came together during the financial crisis to do what government is supposed to do -- prevent catastrophe -- tried, immediately after, to disassociate themselves from the effort because of feared political backlash.

2009 is best remembered for health care reform. By year's end, the punditry was obsessed not by potential changes to the practice of American medicine, but by how they might play out in the upcoming off-year elections. The government is paralyzed again while we await the answer to that question.

The most notable political consequence of the health debate was, of course, the emergence of the so-called Tea Party movement. We'll find out Tuesday just how much electoral clout a teapot holds, but my reaction to this development has been at best lukewarm.

On one hand, it's encouraging to see average citizens get off their backsides to express an interest in their republic. On the other, the content of their commentary is often enough to make you scratch your head where it doesn't itch.

While some tea-partiers demand that the government stay out of its own Medicare program, others hint darkly at "Second Amendment solutions" to intrusive federal power. A few have suggested secession from the union for patriotic reasons.

To make matters worse, many of the more colorful participants at their rallies look like escapees from Darwin's waiting room. Nothing inspires more confidence in a political agenda than a beer-gutted Social Security recipient sporting a pony tail and a Jeb Stuart cavalry outfit demanding that the government get off his back.

Had Ross Perot dabbled in steroids, he might have hosted a Tea Party. Some favored candidates oppose the minimum wage; others think workers' compensation and environmental protection laws are insults to free enterprise, while yet another suggests the Civil Rights Act is unconstitutional. One has purchased airtime to deny that she practices witchcraft.

It's tempting to dismiss the rank and file tea partiers as misguided populists who've been duped into protesting on behalf of causes that covertly benefit vested corporate interests. But to do so, is to overlook an essential measure of truth that got the party going in the first place. A recent trip to the supermarket demonstrates my point.

Like most men, I hate shopping. Grocery shopping is especially odious because I have a truly uncanny knack for selecting the "Check-Out Lane with a Problem."

I invariably find myself haplessly stuck behind the elderly heiress who wants to pay for her cat food with Venezuelan stock certificates or the acne-challenged teenager with braces who's trying to use his uncle's driver's license to prove he's old enough to buy a fifth of Jack Daniel's.

Due to my peculiar affliction, I'm on a first-name basis with the shift managers at my local supermarket. That's because I'm always next in line when they respond to deal with the controversy unfolding before me.

The latest object of my consternation was a young couple with a baby. "Dad" was in his mid to late 20s, "Mom" was, perhaps, a few years his junior. I made their baby to be about 14 months -- old enough to squirm but insufficiently mobile to pose a genuine threat to public order.

The baby was wearing a sock hat that he'd managed to cock into a rakish angle over his brow, making him appear at once both cute and comical. While Mom wrestled with the infant, Dad negotiated with the checker.

The kid must have a healthy appetite because they had at least a hundred jars of baby food spread out on the conveyor belt. The problem was that some jars would scan, but others wouldn't.

The check-out girl was trying to explain to Dad that the public assistance program that was paying his bill would not allow the purchase of prepared foods. Apparently, the taxpayers were willing to buy the child peas or carrots, but drew the line at jars of peas & carrots.

Dad was having trouble grasping this bureaucratic subtlety because he didn't speak English. Soon, the manager arrived.

"Hi, Mike," she said.

"Good afternoon, Gladys," I replied.

She then addressed the situation in s-l-o-w, LOUD English that Dad didn't understand either. Eventually, she shut down the lane so the checker could straighten things out and moved me to a separate counter where I could pay for my now-thawing frozen foods.

If I wanted to demagogue the tale, I'd tell you that the couple was belligerent or exited the parking lot in a new Lexus. Neither of those statements would be true. The foreigners were understandably confused, but certainly not hostile. And I have no idea of how they left the premises. For all I know, they may still be there sorting strained vegetables.

I drove home more irked than angry. I harbor no ill-will toward this young family and certainly want the cute kid in the goofy hat to get a square meal. But how can a state that's slashing services to its own citizens afford to import welfare cases?

Due in part to reduced federal and state assistance, St. Louis is presently closing firehouses and furloughing municipal workers. There's talk of thinning the ranks of the police department through attrition. My water bill just went up $11 a month to defray the cost of trash collection, which used to be covered by my property taxes. Wages are stagnant and the economy's down for the count. Shouldn't charity begin at home?

Admittedly, baby food is hardly the sole reason for staggering budget deficits. But the incident seemed to offer yet another example of a government that has misplaced its priorities and fallen totally out of touch with the plight of the taxpayers who support it. Communicating with DC or Jeff City is like trying to explain the peas & carrot thing to the guy in the check-out lane.

Ultimately, I decided not to let the episode ruin an otherwise perfect autumn day. Rather than brood over complex societal issues I'm powerless to influence, I soothed my nerves with a nice, hot cup of tea...

M.W.Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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