It used to be that a wait in line meant you made new friends. Today, however, in the age of cell phones, you’re more likely to be eavesdropping accidentally on a checkout line conversation than engaging in one.

I went to medical school recently while in a checkout line at a department store.

Surgery now is my specialty.

Specifically, I was in the speedy checkout line for people who rush through life buying no more than a dozen items at a time, and I hadn’t really planned on taking a medical class. I just wanted to pay for my birthday card, bananas, light bulbs, soda pop, golf balls and motor oil and be on my way.

But being the eighth or ninth person in a fast checkout line slows the whole process down considerably, forcing a guy to sort of balance his potential possessions on the top of a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper.

In the wait that follows, the lives of linemates begin to overlap.

High tech introductions

It used to be that a wait in line meant you made new friends. Someone behind you in line might see you struggling with a carton of soda and say, “You’re welcome to put it in my cart while we wait.”

If you didn’t drop it onto eggs or cupcakes, it’s likely that you might continue to talk, in a fairly superficial “I hope it doesn’t rain today” or “I see you like Pop Tarts, too,” sort of way.

Still, it was a connection, and the next time you saw that person in the store you might nod, and think, “I know him from somewhere,” then walk quickly past him so you don’t have to admit you don’t have the slightest idea who he is.

Today, however, in the age of cell phones, you’re more likely to be eavesdropping accidentally on a checkout line conversation than engaging in one.

Trust me, I didn’t try to listen to the lady who was making a call about some family member’s organ repair. I don’t faint at the sight of blood, but I don’t generally hold lengthy discussions about it.

Privacy impossible

The woman in line apparently does. In a conversation that was right out there to be listened to by strangers, she chatted about blood, the incisions that caused it and the pain that resulted from it. She talked about the preparation for the operation and the recovery after it. She gave a diagnosis and a prognosis, and I think she used a couple of other medical terms that ended in “osis.”

By the time I reached the checkout counter, I had learned far more about surgery than I ever expected to learn during a trip to a department store. Actually, it was quite a bit more than I even wanted to know. It might even have been a little more than I was legally allowed to know.

But, as the clerk was ringing up my purchases, it dawned on me that, in an emergency, I think I could perform that procedure. I’ve now got that shot in my medical bag.

And a certain intimacy had developed from listening to the lady’s conversation. I was concerned.

“I hope whoever it was recovers from whatever, whenever the doctors say he should,” I told her as I was leaving.

She nodded uneasily at me, as though she was thinking, “Wherever did you hear about the operation and however did you hear it?”

I guess this wasn’t as public a medical condition as the cell phone call made it sound.

Gary Brown writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at gary.brown@cantonrep.com.