You need pretty much the same five items every time you visit the produce section: bagged Light Caesar salad mix, tomatoes, bananas, grapes, and carrots. You usually survey the strawberries, too in the hopes that one day you will find a carton with satisfactorily ripe and unsmushed bulbs. Naturally, each of these products resides in a different row, so you can’t just grab and go in one efficient swoop. After just avoiding a collision (you were advancing toward the burger patties when a woman decked out in a cream-colored blouse, Coach scarf, and sunglasses screeched around a freezer bin of meatballs and forced you to recoil into a pyramid of Progresso soup cans), you stop for a moment before you torture yourself into the last phase of your trip.
In Produce, the aisles run perpendicular to all of the other aisles in the store and allow even less space for shoppers. Without the ugly gridlock of wire carriages jamming every means of entrance into and egress out of these aisles, you think that this department might actually imitate the soothing climate of a tropical jungle with its leafy lettuce heads, banana bushels and misting machines. Even the lighting here is different—calming in its golden dimness. But none of these decorations matter. The primordial craving for dominance, for claiming the least bruised of the apples or the most robust of the orange peppers, for making sure the savvy consumerism is completed and the savings achieved before the world ends, pulses threateningly beneath the guise.
Every. Damn. Bag. Blast! You refuse to buy a premixed salad with an expiration date of tomorrow. You have disassembled an entire line of Doles to search for viable lettuce, and now must shove all of the bags back into place for someone else to make the same pitiful discovery. And yet, despite the unforgivable lack of fresh Romaine, you know that the grapes two aisles over will be voluptuous and tight, promising to respond with a snap and a crunch when your teeth cut into them.
The previous three times that you have shopped here and have attempted to spend a good long time inspecting the grapes for the perfect bunch, a store associate has been blocking the display while he unpacks a new shipment of the fruit, lifting each pouch one at a time out of a crate that sits atop a wheeled cart. The cart itself devours half of the aisle’s width. Today is no exception to this regular experience. You have to settle for one of the bunches teetering on the corner of the display, and you apologize meekly for disturbing the associate’s task. As you strain to push your carriage, now crammed and heavy, toward the strawberries, you curse yourself for your deference. What the hell? I mean, it’s lovely that the store is so attentive to supply needs, but it’s only useful if the shoppers can actually access the food to purchase it. You realize that on this excursion alone, you have encountered associates obscuring shelves of merchandise with their casual stances, endless chattering, and stacks and stacks of boxes in Aisles 4, 5, 9, and now 16. You also realize that you are grousing all of this out loud to yourself as well as raising your eyebrows and jerking your chin back and forth as you give attitude to some imaginary listener. Oh, my God. You’re turning into a loon.
You shake off this discovery as though it’s a spider with a shimmy of the shoulders and focus on the strawberries. They look stunningly rich-pink-red from afar, curvaceous and juicy in their crackling plastic chambers. But as you get closer, you notice their shriveled stems and the brown dents in their bodies, sometimes patches of white fuzz when you turn over the containers. You snarl in disgust. And then you glimpse the activity of the perhaps 75-year-old lady next to you wearing wooden bird earrings the size of sand dollars. She is peering over her bifocals as she snakes her fingers inside basket after basket, every few seconds plucking a couple of berries from the masses and scrutinizing them in the dim, golden light. When she finds a winner, she drops it into a partially-filled basket that she is holding with one hand against her chest. You don’t register that you’re staring until she says to you, somewhat guardedly,
“I’ll be done in a minute.”
You’ll be done in a minute, and then what? It’ll be my turn to look at the strawberries? Golly gee, lady, thanks. You sure are thoughtful. You do know that this is a public supermarket and I have about ten other people up my a** waiting to look at strawberries, too?
You don’t even want the nasty strawberries. You make a dismissive “pfft” noise by pressing your top teeth against the inside of your bottom lip, a sound that your mother always produced when she wanted to indicate, “If you think that tone is going to get you anywhere with me, missy, you’re sadly mistaken,” and steer your cart with embarrassing sluggishness around bird lady’s haughty rump.
You pick out three hefty tomatoes, snatch a sack of organic carrots because you can’t find the cheap ones, and totally miss the bananas.
You keep moving. You’re so close.
The apathetic beeping of scanners draws you to the finish line. You skim your eyes one more time over the impulse-buy weekly specials, piled in waist-high bins that stretch across the front of the store directly before the checkout lanes. Scooby-Doo Graham Cracker Sticks, 2/$4; fancy dinner napkins, package of 200, 99 cents; Special K Low-Fat granola, $3.49. Hot Tamales and Junior Mints tempt you from their freestanding tiered baskets. A cardboard box at the mouth of one of the checkout aisles bows precariously as it attempts to contain rubber balls larger than your four-year-old son.
“Attention, Bahhgin Buckitt shoppizz,” caws an expertly raised Boston accent over the P.A. system, “Right now in our fish depaahhhtment, getta quaahtah pounda groupah free when you buy a pound at regulaahh price. Summah time is almost heah.”
A current of horror at this gross misuse of language ripples through you. You have to get the hell out, or you will end up stupider for staying too long. You look at the time on your phone homescreen and ignore the notification that your husband has sent you four texts; you have been coursing this supermarket for two hours and fifteen minutes.
Just like you always do at this point in your journey, you quickly assess the baggers. As a teacher at the high school one town over, you must always confront the possibility that one of your students, or a student whom you don’t know but who knows you, will be avoiding eye contact with you as he or she packs your tampons or bathroom air freshener or eighty-eight-fat-gram coffee cake into paper or plastic. Your heart thumps as you analyze the situation. Oh, Jesus—you don’t know! Every ponytailed girl, every lanky boy, looks the same. You select a lane with a bagger who sports a lip piercing and coarse, jet-black hair. He won’t judge you.
After ten minutes of waiting in line, you begin arranging your items on the belt according to the categories of frozen, perishable, carbohydrate, and household. You hate it when a bagger carelessly throws in a leaking pack of chicken tenderloins with a jar of Prego, for example. All you can do is harp on the notion that you could give your daughter salmonella the next time you pour red sauce onto her rotini. As you wait for the belt to inch forward, you happen to look up and catch sight of a post topped with a glowing lantern that lords over the lane. You have never noticed that each lane features this beacon, marked with a circle that declares the number of the aisle and the motto, “Quality and Value Since 1917.” No wonder the store looks so worn with its speckled orange-and-ivory linoleum tiles and outdated shelves and bins. You are convinced, now, that the place has not undergone a makeover in at least sixty years. Clearly, though, patrons could care less about the decor, the paltry state of which must ensure the store’s ability to offer unbeatably low prices. Reluctantly you admit to yourself that you’ve bought into the phenomenon, too.
“That’ll be one-hundred ninety-seven forty-eight,” announces the cashier.
For the first time all afternoon, the tension in your body dissolves and your heart vibrates, charging your blood with a new energy. Finally, the reward for your gratuitous investment of time and anxiety! You ogle the harvest you have reaped, bag after swollen bag heaped atop one another, piles of nourishment for your family. There is no way that a haul like this would have cost you under two Benjamins at Stop and Shop. You feel light on your feet, resolved to fortify yourself against the stench of your husband’s fried nerves when you finally walk into the house, to turn his frown upside down with your heroism. Look what you have done!
“You’re going to need two carts,” says the bagger.
Ugh. You hate inconvenience, but for the blessing of this booty, you’ll deal with it. You also find it awkward when a store associate assists you with your bundles because you are never sure whether to give him a tip or not, and sometimes you have no choice not to give him one because you have only a twenty or no cash at all.
However, the bagger doesn’t extend his services to you and you must leave one of your carts at the end of the lane while you push the other one, rustling and rattling, out to your car. You feel as though everyone’s eyes are following you, a five-foot underdog gritting your teeth and locking your elbows in determination as you steamroll this laden vessel across the parking lot. At any moment you could lose control and watch helplessly as the carriage careens into an Oldsmobile or an elderly shopper.
When you return to Checkout Lane #6 for your second cart, you smile broadly at the bagger and chirp, “Thanks for all your help.”
“No problem.” Despite his inability to register your sarcasm, he does smile back at you from beneath a shard of raven bang.
“Have a nice day!” salutes the cashier. She waves.
As you rescue your cart packed with water bottles, soda cans, and jugs of iced tea, you marvel at the merriment of these people, daily negotiators of the same maddening hordes, the same narcissism and bullying, that you withstand when you shop here. You find their positive outlook impressive, considering their working conditions. Of course, they probably grocery shop elsewhere.
Car stuffed with goods, air conditioner blowing, and Madonna singing huskily from your iPhone, you close your eyes and lean back wearily in the driver’s seat to bask in a few quiet, post-war moments. Your mind lazily scrolls over options for spending the money that you have saved today. The electric bill. A summer recreation class to keep Maddie entertained and enriched. Drew’s first preschool tuition payment.
Or, a new pair of Naturalizer sandals. After all, you are playing with house money.