It started innocently enough. Neither Thomas nor I was terribly enthusiastic about getting out, but I needed a black toner cartridge and a magenta ink cartridge. Neither printer would discuss terms with me until I brought them lifeblood.

A trip to Staples would be necessary. But no dawdling over all the pretty office supplies!

We thought we could do this. A simple mission for two items. We were wrong.

It was early afternoon, 1-ish when we started down the driveway. I’d written out the printers’ model numbers and the ink codes on a Post-it. We had miraculously remembered the old dead cartridges to bring in for recycling, the coupon, and a mystery gift card that might be worth something.

I got back out of the car and went back in the house for the forgotten Post-it. That should have been an omen to just stay home.

Parking at Staples was a breeze. We reminded ourselves, ink and toner only, stick to business. Then we stepped through the airlock and were instantly stripped of all self-control and immediately went straight to the pretty pencils section.

Then, oh, here are the clipboards Thomas had been searching for! And look, storage bins—we need a few more of those too. And wow! We could certainly use this collapsible rolling cart.And yes, we “needed” a set of Prismacolor art pencils.

When we had as much stuff as we could carry, we headed to the register to doing the paying part. Luckily just as we were about to unload our purchases on the counter, Thomas said, “uh, didn’t we need toner?” Of course! The only reason we were out!

We went over to the toner section and stood there. I was searching my black hole of a purse for the Post-it I’d written the printers’ model numbers on. It would not come out of hiding. And of course we didn’t remember the model numbers. A poor sales clerk had taken pity on us and offered to help but was bamboozled by our lack of information and called over a manager.

Finally, as I was admitting defeat, Thomas pulls the note out of his pocket and says, in complete surprise, “Oh, here it is. You must have given it to me.” Neither of us remembered that? More likely it was some sort of magic trick that just transported it from me to him. (Or another omen that we should go back home now.)

The manager and the very helpful clerk were by this time raising their eyebrows at one another in a look they thought (hoped) I hadn’t seen. After verifying the model numbers, he carefully and politely explained to me that I needed toner, not ink. I stared dumbfounded at him for a moment because I knew something wasn’t right but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I burst out, “Yes! Toner. For the Canon. But the Brother really does need ink.” Sure, lady, of course it does. He helps us find toner. After much discussion, we decided it would be prudent to get all four colors. If the black was out, the colors probably weren’t that far behind. We had triumphed over that half of the challenge.

Next, my new favorite Staples manager walks me over to the scary wall of a million kinds of ink and helps me get the right one, saying, “That’s a very old model, they’ll probably discontinue it soon.” Great. It was the only printer that never gave me any crap about doing whatever I needed it to do—print, fax, scan, or copy. That prompted discussions amongst the four of us about buying all the colors instead of just magenta. Yes, we did. And for good measure, we bought a black cartridge, too.

Finally, once again, it was time to do the paying part. Or so we thought.

All that confusion took longer and more people than it should have. But it wasn’t that out of bounds for our usual shopping trips.

Which brings us back to the paying part. We were lucky; there was no line so we could walk right up to the nice young lady at the register.

The first thing I’m asked for is the phone number, to look up my rewards account.

Our first sign that disaster was imminent was when the young cashier groaned and started pushing the buttons with more force than needed. She muttered something about slow register and computers in general. It was taking plenty of time for her to ring us up. But we are to the actual paying part (we think).

We tried to apply our recycled ink bonus. More than once. I recite the phone number again and she types it in again. Response from the machine was slow and ambiguous. We weren’t sure it went through.

The manager who had helped us find ink and toner had by this time joined us at the register because credit for ink cartridge return requires a manager override anyway. The register at last connected and found that I indeed did have ink credit. (Probably its last words.) The two Staples employees try to credit my transaction. Which of course, wasn’t happening. Repeatedly. Hmm, the rewards site must be down. He reassured us, however, that if it didn’t go through we could bring the receipt back and they could take care of the reward dollars at a different time. SO we carry on.

Finally, we are at the paying part, again. Thomas reminded me that we had a gift card. (yay! Win! We’d been forgetting the card for the last 3-4 trips). I hand it to the young lady who turns to the register, arm raised, to swipe the card. Then I remembered (thankfully everything I think blurts out of my mouth immediately) that I had a coupon in my purse. Champ that she was, she deflected her arm at the last minute. She told me she was glad I said that before she swiped the card because then the transaction would have gone through and no applying discounts. We all stand around while I paw through that pit of chaos in my purse. Again. Even the nice and helpful manager was convinced that I was a funny old lady and stayed close by. Funny in the “keep your eye on her” sense. Or at a minimum that I wasn’t all there.

Aha! the coupon! What was my phone number again? She scanned the coupon, and we waited. It wouldn’t process. Of course not. By this time my new favorite manager had gone off and was talking worriedly and listening through his earbud. He came back to report that the whole store’s computers had gone down and wouldn’t respond to coupons. But it’s okay, he says, bring the receipt back and they’ll retro-credit it. That sounded familiar for some reason.

We were finally, once again, ready for the paying part! Nice cashier, whom by now I had known long enough to be on a first name basis, Tammy, swiped the gift card. And swiped it. And turned it around and swiped it. And turned it upside down and swiped it. She begs the register not to make her enter the code manually. It felt nothing for her plight. She begins to enter the card’s number, and maybe my phone number too. Then it wants the pin off the back. She asked permission to scratch off the pin’s protective cover. Of course, I say, carry on. Even this did not go well. The special scraping tool just wasn’t getting it off. She tried open scissors, managing to nick it enough that she could apply that trusty first tool of humans, the fingernail. There ensued a minor battle with Tammy insisting that the coating was coming off, and the card repeating, “Oh Yeah. Just try.” I’m happy to report that my champion won and entered the pin. Of course, nothing happened. She again entered my phone number, the long card number, and the pin. I no longer knew why they needed the phone number. I had just assumed that reciting it over and over was part of the ritual.


My favorite manager notices that his favorite crazy lady and her enormous bodyguard are still in the store. He comes over with his best calm and soothing happy face on and asks, “Is there a problem?”

No, not really, Tammy and I chorus. She explains the difficulty of the gift card. He asks for the gift card and takes it over to another register to test it. Of course, he swiped it a few times because he didn’t want to input the long number either. He was not as insistent as Tammy, and only enters the numbers once. He came back and apologizes; they can’t take it. I, still in my disappointed but pleasant customer voice say, “That’s okay; we’ll just use it next time we come in for ink.” Favorite manager briefly closes his eyes and silently offers up a prayer that he won’t be on duty then. We were at just hoping we could someday go somewhere other than Tammy’s register. I’m sure she felt that way too.

The true core of the paying part still remains. I gleefully pull out my credit card, send up my own silent prayer, and stick its little chip into the beeping reader. Where nothing happens. Just steady little beeps. I ask it if it too needed my phone number. No response. Favorite manager comes over to report that the POS (point of sale) readers couldn’t reach the place that gives credit card authorization. An 800-number appeared on Tammy’s screen. He tells her to just call there. Even that took two tries. Then, there’s an answer! It’s the operator telling her that the number was not in service.

I begin to literally bang my head on the checkout counter.

“Check!” Tammy says, “You can write a check.” I waste a few seconds trying to remember where a checkbook would be in that purse. I don’t have a checkbook. Happily, Thomas reminds me that I carry an emergency check. Where’s that? Ah! I find the worn, wrinkled, smells a bit like spearmint gum, ratty little check. Everyone breathes a sigh of release. I scribble the pertinent info on the check, recite the phone number and Tammy runs it through the register’s check reader. Just guess what happened next. Nothing! So sweet little Tammy tries to run it again. This time when she asks for my phone number I tell her that surely by this time she’d memorized it. And she had but was trying to be polite. She enters the phone number, puts the check in the reading slot for the second time. Still nothing. The favorite manager makes a late scene appearance to tell us that yes, they couldn’t reach the check people. And BTW, Staples’s website won’t open.

This requires a call to corporate that gets us a recording saying that yes, they know everything is down. Worldwide!

That leaves cash only. Apparently the cash records are kept local. I’ve lost faith that they can even do cash. The computerized register is probably on the verge of its own breakdown. Tammy, with all the hope she can muster, asks if we can pay cash. Of course, there’s a dead silence while I try to remember what cash looks like and where I keep it.

As anyone who’s ever purchased toner cartridges can tell you, this transaction is way more than walking around money. Nonetheless, Thomas and I scrabble around checking pockets and such to see if just maybe, between us, we could come up with the cash. Even getting out my double emergency cash from the secret hiding place, we couldn’t.

However, they are glad to put my purchases aside for me and call when the system comes back up. Tammy opens her drawer to get out her own post-it and a marker to make a tag for the pile. The marker doesn’t work!

Tammy, who is way more distraught at all the commotion than I am, asks, “Can’t just one thing work today? With the backup marker, she makes out a tag. She needs a name, and you guessed it, my phone number one more time. She doesn’t even bother to ask, she just writes it down. I warned, “Of course, now that you’ve memorized my phone number, I have to adopt you!”

We sadly left our ink, toner, and pretty colored pencils there and moseyed on home.

I see how this could have been an angry and unpleasant deal. Easily. I just kept saying to myself, “Wow, this is going to make a hell of a funny story.” And if it’s going to be funny later, it’s funny now.


About 6PM I get a call from the store that everything is back up and I can come claim my pile. This time everything goes smoothly and we are out the door, Tammy and our favorite manager hoping to never see us again.


5 thoughts on “Lucy and Ethel buy toner cartridges while the earth spins off its axis.

  1. What gets me through awful situations like this is knowing that when I retell the story it will be hilarious, even if it is not so funny in the moment. I was sad that you weren’t able to use your gift card!


  2. You have a knack for finding humor in all sorts of situations, Sherron! Your telling of this series of unfortunate events made me laugh out loud, although I was feeling bad for all y’all involved!

    Liked by 1 person

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