Christmas Eve in Lewiston. It's early afternoon and Hannaford is rocking. It's elbow to elbow in the wine aisle and there's a thrashing mob in front of the meat counters. No aisle is safe. If you came for a simple can of tuna, you'll have to dig your way through a thrashing sea of humanity to get it. The last person I saw diving in for Chicken of the Sea never made it out. May God rest his soul.
The frenzy smacks of desperation. These are wide-eyed shoppers under pressure. They're here for last-minute hors d'oeuvres or entire meals that should have been in the oven an hour ago. Some have carts heaped high as though they are doing all of their holiday shopping right here, right now. A few clutch shopping lists in shaking hands. Don't forget the 2-percent milk, dear. God help us all if you forget the 2-percent milk.
A voice comes over the store intercom.
"As you approach the checkout," the voice begins, "you may notice longer lines than usual ..."
There's a problem with the checkout system, as it turns out. Each transaction may take between three and five minutes. In holiday time, that means eternity, a span that might mean the difference between a successful yuletide celebration and absolute chaos. An unexpected glitch that could bring about the ruination of Christmas as effectively as the Grinch on steroids. The horror! The panic!
Only, it doesn't turn out that way.
As I approach the front of the store with my pizza sauce and cheese, I see that the lines are long indeed. All the way back into the aisles, and disorderly. It's hard to tell which line goes where.
We've all been there and we've all hated it. But today, in place of hair-pulling and teeth-grinding there's a certain merriment not normally seen in this place where you come to buy toilet paper and corn pads. People are smiling. What's more, they're talking to one another — and not to argue about who's carrying too many items into the express lane.
Next to me, an old woman is leaning against a cart crammed full of shrimp platters. A little boy, bored by the long wait, is peering into her cart, seemingly transfixed by the seafood. On Dec. 23, it might be annoying: Mind your business, kid. And keep your face out of my shrimp. On Christmas Eve, it's an opportunity to socialize.
"Are those good?" the boy asks the woman.
"Oh, yes," she replies. "I could eat all of them in one sitting."
The lad looks more than a little impressed.
"No," he says. "Really?"
The woman laughs and so does the boy.
To my left, a pretty woman stands clutching three bottles of wine. One is tucked under her arm and it keeps threatening to slip free. A middle-aged man sees her plight and brings her a basket. Last week, he might have stood aside and watched the juggling act.
"Don't want you to drop it," he says.
The pretty lady smiles and takes the basket, grateful to have use of her hands again.
"That's a good merlot," the man says, stepping back to his own place in line.
"Oh, it is. It wouldn't be Christmas without it."
"I'll drink to that," the man says. He really is a charming fellow.
There's a young woman with just a few items waiting for the line to move. While she waits, she talks on her cellphone. Yes, I got the pearl onions. Yes, I checked the date on the eggnog. Everything is under control, darling. Don't worry your pretty head.
She turnss off the phone and a young man in a pea coat leans toward her. Two days ago, he might have said something snide about the everlasting annoyance of cellphones in public places. But hey, it's almost Christmas and he's got cheer that's every bit as warm as the thick wool coat.
"Is that the new Samsung?" he asks her.
Her eyes light up. She looks like one who has been dying for someone to comment on her phone.
"Yes!" she says. "An early Christmas present from my boyfriend."
The pea-coated man nods knowingly. "I got one for my girlfriend. I hope she likes it."
"Oh, she'll like it. Trust me. Best. Phone. Ever."
They laugh and keep on chatting.
Up and down the store, it's the same thing. People are laughing, talking, exchanging holiday pleasantries. It shouldn't look like anything out of the ordinary, but it does. There's something unique at work here, you can feel it. At Christmastime, people are less apt to bark at each other and more prone to patience and good cheer. They act with uncommon courtesy and affection, even if they don't realize they're doing it. There's just something about Christmas that affects even the terminally grumpy.
I spent 15 minutes in the line at Hannaford and didn't see a single snarl or hear one surly word. I caught snippets of friendly conversation and had a few of my own. By the time I was cashed out and carrying my bags to the door, I kind of wished I could stay longer, if only to experience the rare joy of human beings at their finest.
Which reminds me that you have to be careful what you wish for, especially at Christmas. Halfway across the parking lot, keys in hand and ready to roll, I stopped in my tracks. I stood there a few minutes and then turned around, back toward the store and the long lines within.
I'd forgotten the 2-percent milk.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer and an apt observer of the human condition. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.