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Another essay on the grocery shopping experience


Shopping for a Little Milk of Human Kindness

by Jan

There I was, cruising along at a reasonable rate of speed. I just needed to pick up a few things on the way home after a hectic day of work. "Velveeta cheese, four pack of Guinness, and cat food," I chanted, lulling myself into a consumer Zen state. My pre-purchase bliss was interrupted when I first sensed someone approaching from the rear; driving in my blind spot. When I heard their engine revving, I chose not to acknowledge it. I had my own agenda, no need to be swept up in theirs. I gritted my teeth and continued chanting my list mantra.

They, meanwhile, continued revving and pulled up--accelerating to pass me, I assumed. I rolled my eyes at their impatience, but kept looking forward. Didn’t want to make eye contact with some weirdo. Who knew where that would lead?

Suddenly, they swerved in and bashed right into me. Metal met metal with a big clang as their shopping cart slammed into mine. I turned, to face my attacker, aghast. There stood my neighbor. His little daughter (who had switched from making engine revving noises to tire squealing) was seated in the child’s seat. I nearly fell over laughing at their prank, and at my own insistence on taking such a ridiculous situation so seriously. When you can’t acknowledge a little engine revving in the grocery store, things have obviously gone too far.

That’s when I first began to notice this strange blanket of self-importance that grocery shoppers shroud themselves in.

We’re all in the store together, friends--why is it that grocery shopping so often ends up a solitary, unsatisfying experience?

My theory is that our car culture is to blame. We hop in the car and drive a few miles to the supermarket, rather than hoofing it to a neighborhood shop. On the way to the store, we’re surrounded by our car’s protective bubble, and when we reach the store, we’re swathed in a cloak of mystery. We’re not waving at neighbors, chatting as we take that leisurely stroll to the market; we’re speeding along with complete anonymity. We space out our trips so far in-between (or we bounce back and forth from supermarket to supermarket; depending on the sales) that we remain un-identifiable to the supermarket employees, let alone our fellow shoppers.

So we remain solitary, roaming the aisles, hunting for the things we need, piling up our shopping carts in hopes of staving off the next visit for as long as possible. We scurry past dawdlers, trying to ignore their confrontational comments. When they mutter, "Bat out of Hell!" we know they’d never expect us to enter their protective cone of anonymity for an actual confrontation. So we wheel on, fuming, and dreaming of what we could have said.

We try to justify to ourselves that those ten bottles of the same soda count as one item so we can save some time by going through the seven items or fewer checkout. We elbow little old ladies out of the way, lunging for the last packet of shredded cheese. We are on a mission here. Don’t you people understand that?

Ever since that run-in with my neighbor, I’ve tried to shake off my cloak of anonymity. I’ve thought about that Rosa Parks quote "All I wanted was to be treated like a human being," and I’ve realized that if that’s what I’m shopping for at the grocery store, maybe I need to start offering the same courtesy to my fellow consumers. As I enter the store, I look around at my fellow shoppers and acknowledge them with a smile. I’ve even gotten so brazen as to say "hello" to complete strangers every now and then. Sure, some people completely ignore me, but I press on, hungry for the person whose face lights up at this unexpected acknowledgement.

And you know what? Now I do find myself taking a leisurely stroll through the shop. I chat with the woman in the natural foods section about carrying the brand of faux sandwich meat that we like. Over in the spice aisle, I answer a fellow shopper’s query about the mysterious Beau Monde seasoning she needs for her rye boat dip. I acknowledge the checkout girl’s crankiness, and even she cracks a smile, glad that someone else sees how the plastic bag dispenser has been conspiring against her.

Let’s face it, when it comes to shopping, we’re all in the same cart. Next time you’re at the store, why not blindside your fellow consumers with a little kindness?


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