One day recently I was in my local supermarket, standing in line, awaiting my turn to check out. Suddenly, the man in front of me picked up a deli container he had placed on the conveyor belt. He opened it. The contents appeared to be chicken salad. He began eating.

Yes, he had a fork.

Incidents such as these have led me to view the grocery store as a microcosm of human life. Our grand panorama is on display in all its dramatic, disorderly and, sometimes, disgusting manifestations.

I regularly report on my Hannaford adventures on Facebook, and sometimes compile them in this column. So far my favorite story remains that of the man behind me at the checkout who moved some of my items forward on the checkout conveyor. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye as he did so, but he seemed harmless enough and I wasn’t disturbed enough to say anything.

He, however, exclaimed something to the effect that he shouldn’t have done that, and that he was barely civilized. This led to laughter and joking among him, myself and the cashier. The other customer then paid for my order.

I’ve yet to top that one.

I’m always on the lookout, though. My favorite book as a child was “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet was an aspiring writer who lived in Manhattan. She enjoyed watching people on her “spy route,” and also liked to sit at soda-fountain counters and listen to conversations at the tables behind her.

I internalized the message that writers notice people. That’s where the material is.

So I am always interested to see people flouting social conventions, as was the gentleman with his container of chicken salad. Perhaps that sounds facetious. Do we even have norms nowadays? It’s like a sociological Wild West out there.

Yet given the responses I received when I shared this story on Facebook, I think it’s safe to say that most people do not want to share a supermarket line with somebody eating from a container. We do have some standards left, apparently.

Although a supermarket is full of food, I do not want to see people eating there. When a hand makes contact with a mouth, bacteria are exchanged. I do not want to then see said hand picking up a naked tomato and returning it to its display bin. Eww.

The chicken-salad guy had finished his shopping when he chowed down, so that wasn’t an issue for him. (Although I did say a silent prayer of thanks that I had bought only packaged food that day. I didn’t have to subject myself to visions of him eating his way through the produce department.) Still, I take issue with strangers stuffing their faces within 2 feet of me. I am not going to dignify that statement with an explanation. It will stand on its own. Some things are just plain wrong.

Again, I’m going to sound sardonic, but I was disgusted to see that he kept eating throughout the sales transaction. Fork went to mouth as he inserted his card into the reader. I guess I should be grateful he didn’t attempt to talk to the cashier, as who knows in which direction food bits might have flown?

As I watched this scene, I marveled at the fact that our society has gone so far in the wrong direction that a person can think it’s fine to eat in a checkout line. That it’s perfectly OK to hand an open container from which he’s been eating to a cashier. That a person can’t wait five minutes to get out of the store to eat. That some people think there’s nothing wrong with eating anywhere, at any time, in front of anybody.

Trust me; I am not being the least bit sarcastic when I say that this kind of behavior is a symptom of the downfall of a civilization.

I am not perfect. I usually eat lunch at my desk. That is not cool, but at least I’m alone in my office when I do so. I do have other standards. My husband, Paul, and I eat our meals only at the dining room table. I do not walk and eat. The only time I ever put anything in my mouth in a store was once, at Target. I had a headache. I needed water to take an ibuprofen. I felt guilty handing the opened (but capped) bottle to the cashier, even though I had swiped the neck with a tissue before putting the lid back on.

Chicken-salad guy is an example of our societal lack of self-restraint, consideration for our fellow humans, and ignorance of the importance of social mores.

I am left with only one question: Where did he get a fork?

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected]

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