The night the lights went out at the all-green Walgreens in Oak Park

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

Monday evening I was at Walgreens — the Walgreens, the green Walgreens, the thermo-nuclear-powered one over on Madison. We were there for the essentials. Eye liner. What 15-year-old girl can start the second week of school without new eye liner? And vanilla ice cream. When your wife makes apple pie, you have to be willing and able to go buy vanilla ice cream.

We're in the check out line. Nothing is doing, not even a mouse. Then the friendly cashier announces — and she is speaking here for all the three friendly cashiers splayed along the counter — that the computer system has gone out and all the cash registers are down. They were going to try the magical reboot and perhaps after four to five minutes the figure-toting, tax-collecting, inventory-controlling contraptions would puff to life and they could take our money.

We waited, almost patiently, enjoying watching as the friendly cashiers stared with rapt anticipation at the black screens. The lady behind me took the opportunity to talk up her land line. "When all of your cellphones go down, and you have no way to communicate with anybody, I'll still have my land line. I'm not ever giving it up."

Put me in mind of my days in retail where our motto was, "Whatever the hell happens with the electricity, get the customers' money."

Back at Cannon's Bookstore we had an electric cash register. Came with a handy crank. No lie. It was the Model T of cash registers. There was a little slot on the side, you attached the crank, and you, well, cranked. Gears and rotors meshed, numbers appeared and the cash drawer popped open. Voila. "That'll be $10.86 please."

At Walgreens the friendly cashiers were crankless, and powerless, in all the useful ways. "We're so sorry. The registers aren't coming back up. We'll have to call IT. You can just leave your items here on the counter and we'll put them back."

And just like that, candy and eye liner, spray bottles and Excedrin were placed on the counter as customers trudged out of the green Walgreens. I looked up at the pictures of Walgreens history that decorate its most modern store, and I thought that back in the day, no mere computer malfunction would have separated Charles Walgreen from his customers' cash. Anyone ever heard of a pad and pencil? Making a list of what got sold for future inventory management? Everyone pulling together in a giant "Hurrah!" to end Labor Day weekend with a gentle feeling of community-building and yummy apple pie ala mode?

Came in the office early Tuesday to write this column (Admission to readers: Thank God the cash registers went haywire at Walgreens. I had nothing else. Nothing) and discovered that our Internet connection was down. Office-wide. Yes, here at the World Headquarters of Normally this building just sort of throbs and pulsates with the tension and beat of the Web. Sort of like the early Ghostbuster movies. This morning, nothing. No throbbing. Hardly a pulse. Just the endless parade of garbage trucks outside my window.

But don't fret. Just like Walgreens, we'll reboot. I'll find a giant crank and head down the hall to the IT nerve center. One way or the other we'll get your money.

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