January 8, 2018

cleaning up on aisle three

Another piece of evidence of freakhood:  I love going to the grocery store.

I despise all other shopping.  I used to frequent our local mall when my son was young and they had just built that awesome new play area with various slides and stools and activities made out of large, plastic fruit.  I could sit on one of the benches and exchange sad, stricken smiles of incessant attentiveness and sleep deprivation with other parents of toddlers.  Once he outgrew that and we stopped going, I quickly and completely lost my capacity to contend with the milling people and noise and fluorescent lights and traffic.  I cannot remember life before Amazon any better than I can remember life before the Internet.  The brain just hazes over.

Grocery shopping is different.  It’s sort of a conglomeration of gathering things in, filling up emotionally, providing for my family, taking care of my home, and just plain indulging in buying shit.

I used to go laissez-faire style, but now I make a list that appears in the exact order of where I will encounter each item, based upon my pattern of movement in the store.  The list is essential when I'm in a depression swing, because so much as having to decide on which box of breakfast cereal to put into the cart will cause me to freeze and stop functioning for half an hour.  I just stare and try not to cry.  Happily, these times are fewer and fewer.  Usually, at the grocery store, I'm chipper to the point where other customers avoid me.

P.J. would rather chew a wad of aluminum foil than accompany me to the grocery store.  Not because I'm chipper or depressed or any state in-between, but because of my insistence on going up and down every single aisle, regardless of whether I need something on it.  But I might see something I need.  I might.  And if we're five minutes in and she's exasperated, I damned well do find something.  See?  I told you.  Isn't it lucky I checked down there?

So I have the privilege of being our shopper.

Before my son transformed from a kid into a reclusive adolescent online presence, he would come with me to the store most of the time.  We played a game of "spot the totally fucking out-of-place object" and we'd see a bag of raisin bread nestled among the cans of Italian wedding soup, and because he was with me so often, he, too, knew where everything was, and would go return it to its proper place and then find me again.  Bwahhahhah, I was surreptitiously teaching him to be a good citizen.

But there among the Vidalia onions and coffee pods and frozen waffles, the grocery store can be a social mine field.  The chipper and my social anxiety vie with each other.  There's no telling how any given shopping trip will go.

There's that lady behind the deli counter who asks you what you'd like, and you say, "A pound of roast beef, shaved, please, and no thanks, I don't need a sample," and she gets out the roast beef and asks how you'd like it sliced and offers you a sample anyway.  When you turn it down, she looks genuinely disappointed, like you've passed personal judgment on her, and shaves the roast beef for you, and puts it on the scale.  It always says 1.21 pounds, but you can't bring yourself to protest because you've already wounded her.  Then she wraps it up and asks you brightly if you want some Boar's Head deluxe aged imported limited-edition provolone cheese to go with it, and you smile and say sweetly, "No, thank you," and she looks hurt and mumbles, "Have a good day," and you say, "You, too," and wheel your cart away, guiltily wondering if you've cost her a commission or made her fail to meet a quota.

Next you deal with that customer as you go up and down each aisle, who is going in the opposite direction at the same pace as you, so that you cross paths on every aisle, and on the second one you pretend not to notice, and on the third aisle, it's funny, so you smile at each other with a little polite smile and keep going, and on the fourth aisle it starts getting awkward, and by the seventh aisle, you ignore each other like anything and each of you reads every single ingredient on the grain-free dog food or mesquite charcoal or whatever your eyes happened to light upon when you realized you were both there again.  Then you intentionally slow down and try to break it up and put an aisle between you, but the other person does the same thing, so you end up in the frozen food section together and hate each other for life.

There are the avid coupon clippers to contend with.  I used to clip, but I recovered.  If you're a coupon clipper, take it from me:  Look, I know you save money, but you would not believe how liberating it is to give it up, to not have to keep up with all of those little pieces of paper and expiration dates and when triple-coupon weekend comes around.  Just let it go.  Because it's complicating your life, and it's making you stand in front of the asparagus and comb through your coupon organizer while I really need to be where you're standing, like, right now.

You've finally reached the meat counter, and you need some cod, but there's nobody back there.  And the store has placed a sign in front of the counter that says "Ring for Service" on a pedestal, above "THE BIG RED BUTTON", and because of your neuroses, Hell would freeze over before you pushed that red button.  You just stand there for eleven minutes waiting, because that's more comfortable than the aggressive, entitled worldview that pushing the red button would announce.  It makes this loud "BRRRRRRRRRRRRRING!" sound that you expect to be followed by large industrial conveyor belts and machines firing up.  You stand and look content, until the middle-aged man comes along and pushes it, waits ten seconds, decides that was too long, and moves on to the cheese section.  Then the butcher comes out and thinks you rang the bell and asks if he can help you, and you stammer out something about cod, and even if he didn't hear you and gives you eight pounds of tilapia, you gratefully accept it and escape.

You have to pass the deli counter on your way.  She frowns at you from the back as she bags loaves of French bread.

And at last, you've reached the checkout lines.  These hold an array of possibilities, a spectrum of social interactions that can leave you happy and full of faith in humanity, or determined to use self-checkout next time and keep your eyes cast downward.  It all just depends.

Take Jose, for instance.  I miss that kid.  Jose was a high school check-out clerk who worked after school and on weekends a few years ago.  We were buddies.  While my son went to peruse the Redbox machine, Jose always filled me in on whatever gross, violence-filled video game my son was pining for and swearing wasn't all that bad and didn't deserve its 'M' rating.  Jose knew his zombies, his weapons, his pay-to-win schemes, his gore factors, and his scantily clad girls sitting on top of obscenely shiny sports cars.  I'd run a title by him and he'd give me the skinny on it.  That was Jose.

And when Jose wasn't there, I'd go for Matt, a little guy with glasses who was about my age and outgoing and funny and ADHD as fuck.  He was a whirlwind, and could keep up a lively conversation while bagging faster than anyone I've ever watched.  You knew checking out with Matt would be fun.  Matt left, and I heard that he went back to school.  I wonder what he's studying.  Whatever it is, he'll rock it.

But lately, there's just been John.  If I shop on Monday afternoons, I invariably get John.  His sign is the only one lit up.  I have to remember myself to keep from sighing.  Shit.  John again.  In appearance, John's your quintessential big, burly guy from up north, complete with triangle-trimmed mustache and slicked-back hair and beer belly.  I'm sure he's a nice guy, but ... he's really into his work.  He approaches scanning and bagging groceries with a seriousness bordering on military decorum.  This is in direct conflict with my Southern upbringing, which requires me to attempt to make small talk.  John doesn't do small talk.  "See that?  I've always wondered what blueberry coffee would taste like.  Guess I'm about to find out!" I say.  John doesn't acknowledge that I've spoken.  "You doing okay today?" I ask.  "Yep," John says, clipped and terse, and focuses on looking up the code for the bok choy, never making eye contact.  He won't talk.  It's become a challenge, a game, my trying to break him and force him to become an interactive human for just a moment.  But then I stand there and think (because what else is there to do?) that maybe he's a veteran with PTSD or is a hardened criminal hiding a sordid past or thinks I'm the spitting image of his ex-wife, and that maybe I should try to be a little bit respectful and understanding.  That doesn't keep me from feeling self-conscious about the small talk sounding really stupid, though, and wanting to blurt out, "Oi!  Do you even talk?  What the hell is wrong with you?"

I'm the girl who puts away the carts that other people have left in the median and on the curb and in the middle of perfectly good parking spaces.  My work here is done.  Time to go home and put away what was on my list and the ninety-seven things that weren't.

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