Utah Phillips described anarchy the way I see it: anarchy is not needing a cop to tell you what to do.

One of my exes used to tell me to “be nice” when I stood up for myself or for someone else. It took me awhile to realize that “nice” meant “doormat”, and I went on my way. I thought of that yesterday in the express line at a grocery store.

This isn’t my “regular” grocery store; it’s a store I visit just to buy Mexican soda and the occasional bottle of booze. My son and I were headed there since it was near the car wash. This particular time, rum was in my cart because mojitos were on the menu. I looked at the long lines at the checkout, and saw that the express line–15 items or less– was the shortest. I stopped. I counted. Thirteen. I got in line.

I noticed the woman two ahead of me in line, who was checking out. I was too far away to count the exact number of items, but there were more than 15. Then the woman in front of me started unloading her cart.

There comes a time when you stand up for something. For me, at different times, that’s meant protesting against poison disguised as food. It’s meant feeling handcuffs around my wrists–and later the estrangement of members of my family–because I protested a war. Yesterday it meant sticking up for anarchy.

I’m not sure what came over me.

I started counting. Softly. Aloud.

Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen…..

“Do you want to go in front of me?” the woman asked in a controlled, snarly way, turning toward me.

“Not at this point,” I said with a smile, since she’d already unloaded the contents of her cart. “It does defeat the purpose of the express line, though.”

Anarchy is not chaos. It is not violence. It is doing the right thing at the right time because it helps everyone. It is policing ourselves. It is staying on the correct side of the highway when there isn’t a state trooper around. It is honoring an inherent agreement about the number of items allowed in the express lane.

The woman and I did not speak again.

As I slowly inched up the motorized beltway, I turned behind me to count (silently this time) the items of the woman behind me. I stopped at 22. When it was finally my turn, the check-out woman asked me how I was.

“Grateful,” I said, “for my superior education. I am the only person in this line who can count to 15.”

She smiled slowly, gratefully, and rolled her eyes. “All day long it’s like this,” she said in a low voice. “I just keep my head down and check out groceries.”

“Don’t get paid enough to fight that battle?” I asked her. Our eyes locked in mutual appreciation.


The bill came to even dollars and a few cents, but I was out of change. I asked my son if he had forty-four cents. I knew he did because I’d already raided his change when we vacuumed the car.

“I can’t let you do that,” the check-out woman said. “He’s not 21. Since you purchased alcohol, I’d have to void the sale.”

“Even though he’s handing it to me? Even though we bought non alcohol items too?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She made her voice low again. “Isn’t that ridiculous?”

“Well” I said, handing her a twenty, “we need ridiculous laws when most people can’t count to 15.”

She smiled and nodded as she handed me my change.

“You made that woman in front of you mad,” my son said as we headed to the car.

I thought of all the people I’ve made mad in my life because I’ve stood up for things. The number of items on the motorized beltway may seem petty to some, but not to me. Not yesterday.

If we can’t count to 15–if we can’t be fair and honor agreements and act with a sense of justice in the grocery store–how can we hope to keep the poison out of our food or the drones out of the sky? How can we assume we’ll stay on the correct side of the road?

We have to start somewhere. And maybe, sometimes, we have to worry less about being nice, about being liked. That could mean finding our courage on a police line–or making a seemingly insignificant wave on a motorized beltway.