Grocery shopping is the last urban battleground. You wouldn’t think the modern way of foraging for food could be so annoying, I mean, we’re not exactly talking hunting and gathering. But in some grocery stores across the country, it’s pretty close.
The battle begins in the parking lot. The badlands. Signs and notices affixed everywhere inform the customer the wheels will lock if an attempt is made to remove a shopping cart from store property. I always thought an abandoned shopping cart with the store logo was a passive-aggressive way to advertise. Product placement in the real world. These days, despite all the signage, people insist on calling the store’s bluff.
I pass a customer with a cart half on the grocery store’s property and half off. They did not heed the warnings. The customer swears to himself. Tries to force the cart over the curb. Tries to wrangle the metal beast containing food they need to live, in order to continue making the same intelligent decisions as this current one.
Before I enter the grocery store, I look back at the customer across the parking lot. He is on the sidewalk trying to push the cart along without the use of wheels.
Now this is not just any grocery store. It is massive. From the outside, it looks normal. But inside, it keeps going and is full of lost people who have been wandering for days, unable to find what they are looking for, unable to remember what they are looking for. Delirious. Like they are walking through a desert with no sign of food or water, except, in fact, they are in an air-conditioned building surrounded by food and water. Nice irony, that.
I grab a cart with operational wheels and enter the race. It is as if one night, in the real world, the City of Toronto removed all the painted lines designating car lanes and disabled all traffic signals. People block entire aisles, park carts at angles, making it impossible to pass. And always – ALWAYS – someone has placed a cart right in front of the food item you want, denying access. A license should be required in order to operate a shopping cart. A point system set up where once your license is revoked, you are regulated to using baskets.
Grocery stores are not for the indecisive. Old people stand like statues, stare at the shelves of cereal, mouths agape at the sheer number of tomato sauces. Tomato, alfredo, basil, without basil, two cheese, four cheese, pesto, mushroom, garlic, vodka. Vodka? Tired mothers with screaming children sitting in carts stuffed with all manner of processed foods and cookies and chips and chocolates. Families with fathers that have babies strapped to their chests, pushing both a cart and a SUV-sized stroller.
A woman talks to herself, misunderstanding the labels explaining nutritional components, getting her ‘trans’ mixed up with ‘saturated’ and ‘calories’ with ‘carbohydrates’. A man pauses, frozen, contemplating, searching to answer a question that has plagued those of us in the diminishing percentage of the population who are not allergic to nuts: Should I get smooth peanut butter or crunchy? Milk! 2% or whole or 1% or skim? Should I evolve and drink soy milk? What exactly is soy? Why does it come in flavours like vanilla and strawberry? You don’t often see vanilla flavoured regular milk.
This particular grocery store has a frozen food section the size of a football field. There is one entire aisle devoted to the art of the frozen pizza. The freezer section always seems so comforting, so inviting. I would crawl in and eat a four-cheese pizza for breakfast, a deluxe veggie pizza for lunch and three-meat pizza for dinner. And after a few weeks of this, hibernate like a bear, allowing my troubles to freeze and break away.
The bulk food section. I was told by a professional nutritionist to eat more seeds. We are turning into birds. Flax, hemp, sunflower, pumpkin. Next we will be told it is healthier to regurgitate our food into the mouths of our children the way some birds do. A woman facing me on the other side of the bulk food aisle is scooping chocolate chips into a bag. She sneezes. Repeat: She sneezes. She does not turn her head. She does not do the ‘sleeve sneeze’. Both of her hands occupied; she sneezes directly into the open bin of chocolate chips. I regard my flax seeds as tiny germ-filled instruments of death. I shut the lid with a thud.
There is a particular cereal that I enjoy in the mornings. Turning into the cereal aisle, I spot the last box of this cereal. So does a man at the opposite end of the aisle. He must enjoy this cereal as much as I do. We both throw our carts into high gear, he is faster but overshoots and I bump his vehicle out of the way, grab the cereal and toss it in my cart. Those are the rules: Once an item enters your cart, it’s yours. Cereal is very serious business. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Checking out of the grocery store is not as easy as checking in. The express lane is explicitly for people who have conveniently forgotten how to count. 1 – 8 items does not mean you offload a cart-full of food. Your time is not more important than mine or anyone else in line. Dirty looks from those of us with the allotted number of items does not deter the assailant. The grocery store should implement a system of sensors that determine when a customer has reached the eight-item limit. If they attempt to include any other items, a tiny electrical shock strikes their fingers.
I move to another checkout line. A pile of groceries sits on the conveyor belt but the employee is good, scanning food so fast her hand is a blur. The customer remembers a forgotten item. She runs back through the aisles, looking for the missing ingredient. We wait. Once again, someone else’s time is more important than my own. On her return, she apologies sufficiently but her being sorry does not return the time I just spent reading the tabloid headline about Lindsay Lohan’s latest arrest.
The customer swipes a debit card – insufficient funds. Credit card is declined. More apologies. But I can’t help thinking about how this person, who has over $150 of groceries bagged and ready to go, hasn’t checked her bank account recently. I should go back to the express line.
My hands are full of bags so I approach the automatic door. It is clearly marked on the side facing me with an ‘ENTER’ sticker and a ‘DO NOT ENTER’ sticker on the opposite side. Yet, a woman is standing, blocking the door, stamping her feet on the sensor, wondering why it is not opening for her. Outside, the man with the dysfunctional cart is not much further.
At home, making dinner, I realize that I forgot to buy oregano for the sauce. Annoying. Man the carts, I’m going back in.