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  • Writer's pictureCarl McCoy

Full Contact Grocery Shopping

Updated: Jan 13

I’ve just been to the grocery store. I don’t want to go back. Maybe ever. I’ll find some alternative to groceries – maybe Chipotle or Panera. Would that be so bad – every night?

It was Sunday afternoon, and the conga drums and barreling, caffeinated shoppers were out in full force, dodging and weaving through the aisles, iPhones in hand, conference calls occurring while small dogs were lunging and a child was screaming persistently about a Blondie brownie bar that belonged to him "no matter what." There were rumors going around about a crowd of people backed up in line for the smoked turkey, and only one attendant working in the deli, feverishly. A sweet, little old lady looked at me with an almost frightened expression as she muttered to me, “It’s a jungle in here.”

“Yes it is,” I replied. “May God be with you today,” as I said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t be crushed by the watermelons falling out of that family’s cart. The heavy-set family corgi was pushing them onto people, and I could’ve sworn he was aiming for people’s faces, or maybe their jowls. Evil corgi. Why do they allow mean dogs into the shopping carts? The children were egging the mother on to buy more donuts for the dog, and the mother was harried and ready for surrender as she reached for the box of Entenmann’s, as the wicked dog smiled broadly – winning again, as he so often did. Long live the fat corgi and his squad of donut-enabling children. I rushed off into the frozen foods section – the only quiet place in the store, at that moment – to regain my footing and remind myself that most dogs were still good and decent people, at their core.

I always promise myself that I’ll find a way to do my grocery shopping during a very obscure and creative time – Tuesday at 8:30 pm, or maybe Thursday morning, before work, when the working-world is too busy to think about grocery shopping, and it’s quiet and civilized, and I’ll have the frozen food corridors and produce section to myself. What a beautiful moment that would be for me, and for my groceries! Nobody could stop me. Imagine the dinners I could make – the freedom I would have! The raw power! I could accelerate my shopping cart down the aisle, and make sudden turns without worrying about taking out other shoppers. It’s a beautiful thought, but it never happens that way. I always end up in this riotous weekend carnival zone, wondering why it has to be this way. How did I fail to rearrange my schedule, yet again? Do I not want it bad enough? Why am I always grocery shopping in the chaos by default? Do I secretly love the chaos? No.

The first warning is when I pull into the parking lot, and I see that cars are circling, following pedestrians as they make their way back to their vehicles. SUVs and Mini-Coopers are double-parked, and people have invented parking spaces where none were ever intended. Why don’t they have a government presence in grocery store parking lots? Where is the military? And when I see the chaos that is bubbling over in the parking lot, I know – it’s going to be much worse, when I get inside. I grip the steering wheel and remind myself that we all need to eat, after all, and I try and persuade myself that we, in the modern era, actually have it better than our hunter-gathering forebears who had to kill the great Woolly Mammoth with their spears and bare hands to survive the night. Surely Trader Joe’s on a Sunday afternoon is better than that, I tell myself. But it doesn’t ring true.

I usually start in the produce section, but today, it’s just not worth the effort. Not with this volume of traffic; there are just too many variables, and too many things that could go wrong, so I regroup, and head for the cereal section, where at least the layout is in my favor – it’s just another aisle, after all; there are only two ways to move: up the aisle and down the aisle, whereas the produce section is like a science fair, or a corporate conference with those information booths: people moving in three dimensions, grabbing those plastic bags, circling around the bananas, coming back towards the avocados, turning left just before they collide with you, and then dispersing somewhere near the potatoes. Usually it all works out just fine, but sometimes things go wrong. This is why I stopped eating produce in 2017. It was after that incident with the grandfather and the cauliflower. It wasn’t my fault, despite what the judge said.

I’m usually quite boring with my grocery shopping, snatching up the usual items from the usual places, following a script that lines up with our weekly meal plan. Get in – get the food – and get out, and move on to a better place for the rest of my Sunday. The same old Russet potatoes in the same bag from the same mini-section within produce is not very sexy, but it gets the job done, and sometimes that’s all you want from your grocery shopping – it’s not supposed to be exciting. But on occasion, it’s tempting and daring to sample new products from sections I’ve never visited before where I don’t speak the language or know my way around – it feels exotic and fresh. Not dangerous exactly, but certainly not safe. The gourmet cheese section is that kind of place for me – unfamiliar and strange. I’m not very close with Gouda or Asiago cheese, so I don’t know their temperaments, and what types of food or wine they would pair with, so usually I just leave them alone. But it’s kind of sad, really, because that’s a road not taken: a cheese that I will only read about, or look at distantly from the salad bar. But Sunday afternoon is not about experimentation; it’s about survival. Doing your job, and getting home as quickly as possible, with no lawsuits.

I’ve read and heard all sorts of rumors and myths about the design and layout of a modern day supermarket – it is certainly not conceived at random – they know what they’re doing, and apparently, it’s all part of an evil plan to get you to eat more carbs and spend more money. The whole layout is a trap, they say, moving you inevitably closer and closer to a giant box of refined sugar. Why not just surrender and eat donuts? I have been there on occasion, with a higher purpose, and it’s not easy. My wife and I gave up eating added-sugar recently (we’ve given up sugar many times: usually after the holidays, and again on the first of March, April, May, etc. …basically every Monday we try again…I just accidentally ate a scone), and I went into that grocery store with a mission – yes, a higher, noble calling – to avoid purchasing anything with added sugar. Have you tried this? It’s when you realize they’ve added sugar to peanut butter, pasta, bread, eggs, water, salt, chicken, and the air we breathe. Since sugar pervades us already – maybe I should just give up already with the false piousness, and eat the donuts with the fat corgi. Maybe throw some watermelons at people. Become Darth Vader and rule the galaxy with a constant sugar high. But I push onwards, trying to eat food that doesn’t alter my brain chemistry for the worse. And it’s not easy; it slows you down considerably when you’re trying to be a good person, and nowhere is that more true than in the grocery store.

My fastest trip to any grocery store was that fun and wicked day when I had an epic sugar craving on my caloric cheat day, and I came in like a hungry, amoral rocket ship, with the sole and urgent purpose of buying three cartons of Ben and Jerry’s, chocolate fudge, marshmallows, walnuts (to be healthy), and a family-sized bag of Lay’s potato chips. It took about 3 minutes, and oddly enough, all of these items were located within about two yards of each other, with the exception of the potato chips, which I had to work for a bit. But I always know where to find potato chips in almost any grocery store, for some reason. They are always the first thing I notice, when I walk in the door: “Oh hey, everyone, look at all those beautiful, glistening bags of potato chips over there! It’s going to be a great day!”

As I drive my shopping cart about the store, I start to notice familiar faces: there’s that guy who came into the store at the same time as me and almost took the shopping cart I wanted – he’s way ahead of me now, but at least I got the cart. I’m not a competitive shopper, but he’s winning. He’s just so much better than me – look how he moves. There’s that nice couple that was moving so slowly over by the seafood; I remember how they were asking all the clerks and a couple of strangers about Halibut deals. I think they disappeared over by the lobsters. There’s still some hope for them that they’ll find Halibut today, God willing.

People have different styles of grocery shopping: there’s the calm Zen shopper, moving at a relaxed pace, idly experimenting with different foods and culinary sensations – he or she is present in the moment, sampling new soaps and lotions and taking deep, conscious breaths, as they contemplate different brands of hummus. They’re often smiling, even quietly singing along to the music, paying attention to what’s around them – and in my experience, they almost never throw watermelons at you on purpose. I aspire to be this person: fully present and Zen, even in the raucous prepared-foods section.

Then there’s the mad-dashing grocery operative, with the shopping list in hand, and a look of ferocious concentration and utter lack of humor. These are the elite Navy Seals of the grocery store; you want them on your team when you’re repairing your roof or fighting off an elephant – but you don’t want to be in the supermarket with them. They’re careening around the corners, communicating with each other via secret hand signals, deploying themselves around the market to take out the best deals, and it’s entirely possible that they will keep moving right through you if you hold up the deli line again. They’re not taking conscious breaths, and they’re certainly not smiling, but they’re way ahead of you in line.

Most of us fall somewhere in the middle – between the Zen shopper and the Navy Seal. I suspect that where we fall on that continuum has something to do with how many donuts we’ve had, and how crowded the market is, on that particular day. This is why I want to find a secret, anonymous time to do my grocery shopping, so that I can always be the Zen shopper – with plenty of time and space around me and within me – where no crowds and evil corgis can provoke me into tactical style grocery procurement. Someday, I’ll be the Zen shopper who can maintain those conscious breaths even while the corgis are growling in my direction, and the Navy Seal is playing chicken with me in the frozen foods section.

But until I rearrange my life so that I can do my grocery shopping on a random Tuesday night, it’s back to the weekend jungle for me. I think I’ll have Chipotle tonight, and maybe forever, from now on. Until next time, happy shopping to you. And may the force be with you.

Carl McCoy, copyright 2019

Check out my book, "Job Hunter Road," for some comic relief and inspiration on the Great American Job Hunt. Laugh out loud satire and soulful advice come together in a humorous narrative about following your dreams.

Available as a paperback or e-book on Amazon:

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