Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tangled Inspiration: Grocery Store Edition

"Excuse me, sir? Are there any more steel cut oats?"

I'm standing in the middle of a ravaged bulk foods section at the grocery store, staring into an empty barrel. My instincts tell me to shut up and move along, no one ever died from not eating steel cut oats. Except I read this article before a full cup of coffee this morning about all of the foods that will kill you to death. Not the obvious culprits - Cheetos, Trolli Peach Rings, and Oreo Cookies. Nope. These were apples, potatoes, beef that doesn't cost $12.99 a pound, and tinned tomatoes. That last one was a killer. I can't even count how many times I have fed my family tinned tomatoes. The school bus hadn't even come yet and there I was planning to slowly kill my children at dinner time. The article is haunting me while I wander around the store, filling up my cart. Apples are on sale and they are not the nutritious, fiber-packed perfect after-school snack I think they are. They are poison death-bombs, riddled with carcinogenic chemicals I can't wash off. But they are on sale, so I select two varieties and some locally pressed cider to seal the deal. On to the oats.

"Lemme check," a man old enough to be my father and wearing an fluorescent yellow vest smiles and disappears around the end of the aisle. I busy myself with the bulk cardamom and await his return. A different man returns, he is "Chris from Bulk Foods" according to the store-wide page I just heard. There are all kinds of oats and assorted grains all over the floor. A few of the barrels are lid-less and overturned. It looks like a gang of exultant soccer fans have been hanging out in the bulk foods again. All that's missing are scorch marks from the Molotov cocktails.

Chris looks like he should be starring in action movies, or perhaps playing professional soccer himself. "Hi Chris," I say, "Was there a party in the bulk foods section?" This is because I cannot help but say ridiculous things out loud. He laughs and tells me it was because of the impending strike. Local grocery workers were threatening to strike over contract negotiations. Apparently, they wanted health care benefits and holiday pay. Shameless entitlement, according to some. "So, steel cut oats? Did you want the organic ones?" he hefts a large bag of grain onto his shoulder, preparing to refill the barrel. "Yes, please," I say as I swallow to quash the simultaneous urges to either take the bag from him and do it myself, or to holler "I'll take the whole bag!" and trot off with a feed-store sized bag of oats while whinnying and kicking my heels. Instead, I stand there, feeling like a middle class douche while an intelligent man is on his knees at my feet, doing something that I could just as easily do myself. He chats with me while he works, about the new contract, about the federal shutdown, about health benefits and processed organic grains while he fills the barrels. I thank him by name and spend way too long filling my plastic bag with the fresh oats because I enjoy the tactile sensation of scooping them and because inexplicably, I feel like I might cry. The lady behind me gets exasperated waiting for her chocolate covered espresso beans and moves on while I pretend I'm playing in a sandbox.

When I was in high school, I decided to become a vegetarian. I lived in Hong Kong at the time and a Chinese friend of ours sucked his teeth and clucked his tongue at me and said, "Only someone who has never been hungry can decide not to eat what she is served." I wanted to scream, "Then don't serve cow's lips in your soup!" but even I knew that would only have added to my whole Ugly American miasma. My poison apples are bringing up uncomfortable memories for me and I still can't find the chai. I cannot live without a chai latte every afternoon and I am socially conscious and frugal, so I buy the cartons of it in the store and make the lattes myself at home. Like in the old country. In the microwave.

My phone, which I am also using to store and organize my grocery list and my coupons, suddenly bellows and vibrates and the most obnoxious electronic dance tune echoes around the deli. It is my husband, I can tell by the special ring he programmed in just for me. He needs to tell me that our daughter's cello is in at the music store, except it's not a half cello as promised, but a quarter cello. But the music store thinks that will be all right, we just need to bring her in to fit it. Could I please take her to the music store after I pick up our son from chess club? I am gripped with the recurring fear that I am, in fact, a middle class douche as I reply, "The deodorant you like is not on sale, but they do have a good price on ham."

I suddenly cannot get out of this store fast enough. Except I have to try the halibut spread sample first and then run back through the store from the checkout to grab my coupon for salami that I left on the counter near the halibut spread and decline help out with my groceries three times from the man who could be my father and refrain from explaining that it's bad enough that I just stood here watching you while you bagged up my groceries and you wouldn't let me help and that I didn't bring enough re-useable bags for this haul and you had to resort to paper bags which I promise will be re-used until they disintegrate. I haven't been to the grocery store in three weeks and the bags are heavy and numerous and it takes me a long time to load them into my trunk, careful not to squash the box of rare poppy bulbs that have been riding around with me for a few days.

Two teenage boys loiter near the cart corral, skipping school and practicing their cursing and smoking. I would offer them some apples, but those cause cancer, too. Smoke away, boys, but please get a firmer grip on the proper use of profanity before you speak so loudly in public. They remind me of when a toddler hears a new word and they try it in every possible sentence to see if it fits. One of the boys is "hella mad" and says so, over and over, as he tentatively puffs his cigarette without inhaling. They pause (probably because I'm staring at them, memorizing them) and watch me load my groceries. I am positive they think I am a middle class douche. Part of me wants to reward their assumption somehow. The other part of me is still amused from yesterday when I decided that for the next hour, I would only speak in Beastie Boys lyrics. That part of me wants to step up to them and thrust my chest out in that alpha male kind of way and shout, "You can't front on that!" Instead, I responsibly return my cart to the store and make sure I push it in all the way so it doesn't get all messy in the cart corral. I don't want the man my father's age to have to round up more carts than he has to on my account.

I watch the leaves fall in storybook swirls from the trees that line the streets on my way home and I want to cry again. The crushing beauty and inequity of everything settles in on my chest and robs me of breath or the ability to swallow. Sometimes I find it hard to live in this toppled over civilization. My husband gently teases and calls me The Mockingjay, inadvertent starter of tiny revolutions. He tells me I'm fueled by white guilt, I call it compassion. He says potato, I say your po-tah-to is so full of deadly chemicals that the potato farmers won't even eat them. Sometimes I find it intolerable swimming in my vinegary brine here in the middle. But then the trees rustle and shake and cluck their tongues at me: It is only someone who has never been hungry who can choose not to eat what she has been served.


  1. Sounds like our Sunflower Market, except for the devastation in bulk foods.

  2. An interesting and intriguing read. I am always fascinated by the twists and turns of your mind. :)

  3. This speaks to me in a way I can't quite explain.

  4. Ahh the beauty of having a complex mind in an oh so ordinary world : )

  5. I have spent time in the grocery store, too much time, organizing coupons, and picking out food for picky eaters (myself included) and feeling guilty that I'm buying my kids number one obsession: dinosaur chicken nuggets. What kind of Mom is easily swayed by teenage pleadings for "the best afternoon snack ever"? I guess it's better than apples!?

  6. I'm not sure I've ever had any deep thoughts at the grocery store. Hmmm.

  7. I believe I read the same article. I've been feeling bad about tinned tomatoes ever since. Although, luckily my kids won't eat them, so it's only my husband and I who are marching a little quicker towards death because of them.

  8. Finally able to get on a real computer. Here are my thoughts: Love this post. I struggle with socially conscious but not douchey choices. To some, they are the same. As for you being the Mockingjay, yes. You and Russell Brand. Or not. Anyway, I swear we had tracker jackers in the backyard this summer.

  9. I'm reasonably certain that the primary characteristic upon which all douchery is built is a crippling lack of self-awareness or self-reflection. I would argue that simply being cognizant of your possible middle-class douchery makes it significantly less likely that you are any kind of douche at all. ;)


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