The oily sheen is what gets me. Just within reach, prodigious produce entices vices. I’m checking out at check-out; I ogle the goods less taken. Griping the cart handle with sweaty hands, I think, “Oh man, I wish I’d picked up a green pepper to call my own.” If only I were brave enough to snatch it when nobody is looking. My fingers itch. In my heart of hearts, I’m already legging it to my car with the shouts of “Stop that woman—she’s got my pepper!” ringing in my ears.*
I’m standing in line one day, loading my groceries onto the black sander belt that drags them to their plastic-bagged doom, when I find myself looking at what the schlub behind me has selected.
“Hmm, they have just as much produce as me. But, look, they have a collection of processed snacks made with asbestos and nuclear orange, cheese powder. I win!”
I’m awash with self-satisfaction, when, suddenly, it strikes me, I am a grocery conveyer voyeur. I feel superior to the guy with the Lipitor prescription and deep-fried pork rinds. Are those Twinkies? Outrage! There is no Twinkie defense! If you buy canned soup, be prepared to be judged! What does it say about my nature that I have to compare my worth in such a way? Am I alone in this? Am I a solitary, smug-worthy opportunist or is everybody guilty of shopper’s gloat?**
I decide I need to find out. I make a Facebook announcement to my friends and family requesting images and receipts. The idea I have is to see if, given a task to shop and knowing it will be posted online, would people change what they buy? What I discover is random journalism is really hard to organize and people are even harder to define. And sometimes, you find out something shocking.
[To maintain everyone’s
dignity privacy, I am using cutesy nicknames to identify each respondent.]
After getting the receipts and photos, I asked each participant this multiple-choice question:
If you take a banal activity like shopping and turn it into an assignment, would this effect the activity and make it:
A. More exciting?
B. More of a chore?
C. Influence what you bought in any way?
D. I forgot about it until I was at checkout!
I wasn’t sure what I would find. But I definitely got more than I expected.
I wait a week to get enough responses. I receive some photos texted to me along with a few receipts from various states. In answer to my multiple-choice question, I get varied answers. My Philly Friend is the first to respond; she also is the only participant to answer “D”—meaning she forgot about it until she reached the cashier. She sends me a text of the items and her receipt. I’m looking at a motherlode of snacks; I have to ask the question:
Me: “If you had remembered this was going public, would you have shopped differently?”
Philly Friend: “If I’d seen it earlier I might have made different choices – although I really was planning on getting the crackers, nuts and raisins – might have skipped the Cheetos. LOL”
Me: “Hah! Is that a Cheeto-in-Chief concern or just the utter lack of nutritive value embarrassment?”
Philly Friend: “Heehee! total junk food, no the DVD was a total last minute addition, too – on sale for less than $4! Wooooo!!
We chat a bit longer, but mostly about the merits of the DVD she purchased. We agree that Cloud Atlas was fantastic—if Tom Hanks was a bit hard to understand at times.
Me: “I think the only disconnect was when Tom Hanks spoke with the odd, futurist dialect and it was so hard to understand him.”
Philly Friend: “Yeah really! Took a bit to understand all that, but that’s why I often use subtitles nowadays. I’m OLD.”
We are the same age, but I suspect the fact that I have both bi-focals and a hip replacement clinched my geriatric status years ago. I am in no position to argue that fifty is the new thirty. (Hah!) I will feel slightly superior about not letting Cheetos touch my lips in nearly twenty years, though.
The California returns are a little slower in coming. One respondent in sunny San Diego provides a mostly-honest consumer profile. She remarks that her haul is a ‘light’ shopping expedition. Sunny D spent approximately $87.00 on thirty-four things. I smile when I realize the most expensive item is $12.99 for whey protein beating out the price for actual steak. Also, it turns out a fresh Del Monte pineapple in California is more expensive than it is here, in Michigan. My father would have been pleased to point this out—and then he would have bought ten of them to increase his savings.
I ask her whether the assignment affected her attitude:
Me: So, how would you answer the multiple-choice question?
Sunny D: “C definitely C but just a tiny bit, I told [husband] he could not fill the cart with beer! And I had a coupon for the Kleenex and then the store had a buy 6 and save sale so I had to stock up 🙂 ”***
I speak with another California participant. I’ve dubbed her LaLaLand—although she lives outside of Hollywood proper—she’s just a bullet’s ricochet away from the famed city. Her multiple-choice answer is ‘A’; she feels that shopping with a mission is more exciting. She sends the prettiest picture and, since we’ve been roommates in the past, I am not surprised by her haul.
Me: “Did you shop for anything differently?”
LaLaLand: “Well, I kind of thought, ‘Would Kiri like this?’ I was shopping for you.”
Me: *blush* “Aww, gee. Thanks.”
I don’t let her attempts at flattery stop me from asking the hard-hitting questions:
Me: “Was this because you didn’t want people to know what you typically shop for?”
LaLaLand: *laughs* “No. My life is an open cart.”
Me: “That would make a great book title.”
LaLaLand makes a few non-committal remarks before blurting a small confession:
LaLaLand: “Sometimes I look at people’s stuff in line and think, ‘Somebody is going to have a party!’ based on what they’ve got there.”
I suspect she isn’t referring to an excess of cake and balloons. We exchange laughs at our shared voyeurism and then she says something more serious:
LaLaLand: “No, mostly when I’m shopping, I am thinking how much is this gonna cost me and can I afford it?”
Our conversation swerves to the topic of finding low-priced food in a state as expensive as California. LaLaLand is originally from Michigan, so I am surprised to find she is daunted by having to drive to get her groceries to save money. She does have her standards, however. While there is a nearer Walmart, she pooh-poohs that idea outright.
LaLaLand: “I don’t like to shop for groceries there.”
Her opinion is final and immovable in the face of economic need versus personal preference. Apparently, it is worth going a little further afield to avoid Wally-World. My next interview brings the issue of economic necessity to a head with a whiplash-inducing, 180-degree veer off the conversational cliff.
It’s Monday, I’m compiling the scraps of my data seeking a theme for the post. Comparing the lists and wishing I had a few more participants, I check Facebook for inspiration and send a private message to one of the people who’d said they were interested in taking part. Periwinkle is a fellow parent in the autism community and, though I do not know her well, all autism families share a pool of similar experiences that makes for an immediate bond.
I try for the breezy-but-I’m-not-needy approach:
Me: “Periwinkle – Hey, just checking to see if you had the chance to get to the store and take a picture of your groceries. No worries if you didn’t. K”
After a few minutes, I get a reply. It’s short and it knocks me on my metaphorical butt.
Periwinkle: “I didn’t forget – I thought I was going to get some money to be able to buy food but am unable to buy food for my family currently.”
If instant messages came with crickets—fields would be chirping to fill the void of my initial lack of response. The crickets continue to chirp while my mind races to process what I just read.
“…can’t buy groceries…?”
I’m ashamed to admit, my first thought was, “How am I going to write a humorous article knowing that?” The answer is, I can’t. There is absolutely nothing funny about people struggling to get by. The only way we can function in real life is we don’t actively know someone is in need unless we ask. Well, I’d asked.
Over the next hour, we exchange instant messages that are frank and, on her side, a mixture of embarrassment and fear. Her typing is awkward and a little hard to read. She injured her wrist recently and it is difficult to do everything with one hand. I can just imagine trying to cook this way! Periwinkle’s husband needs surgery and is seeing a doctor on the seventeenth of this month. You wouldn’t think you could read emotional distress in a typed message, but it comes through in staccato phrases. Periwinkle admits it near the end of our discussion–she’s reached a point of despair.
Me: “I know my questions are intrusive, so if this is hard to talk about, I can respect that.”
Periwinkle: “Sorry I just unloaded on you – I’m very frustrated.”
Me: “I would be beyond frustrated. I would be scared and worried.”
Periwinkle: “….I don’t mind. I feel like I’m drowning so it’s nice to share a little…. I am scared and worried and honestly quite done with existing.”
I may not know much, but I recognize a cry for help. I’ve had that kind of moment myself, not for the same reasons, but that empty sense that the world is going on merrily around you–unaware that you are drowning.
We exchange a rapid-fire series of messages identifying ways to get food in the local community. I suggest she set up a Go-fund Me page for the current financial stress and need for groceries. I check my cupboards and admit to myself my impulse shopping in bulk might have finally paid off. I have groceries to spare.
I promise to bring a few bags by after I’ve taken my boy to his oh-so-reluctant music lesson. As we leave the center where he has therapy, the snow, which had been gracefully wafting as we went in, is now swirling madly as if dancing to a demented waltz.
Driving is dizzying and the roads are slick. At one point, I see a car make a sharp left at a corner and drive straight into a building. Fortunately, the driver had been crawling through the intersection, but it forced me to reroute from our destination. I’ve never been so grateful to make it to someone’s house.
Periwinkle waves her uninjured arm from the door, but sends her older son to grab some of the stuff. I admit when I hand mine off to her, “If I hadn’t already promised to come, I would have saved this for tomorrow.” I indicated the near-blizzard swirling around us. She thanks me, but we are both a little awkward and make quick goodbyes to get in out of the freezing cold.
I have no great end to this bizarre, journalistic turn of events. I began this article with lighthearted intentions—before I spoke with Periwinkle. I have no illusions about my acumen as a reporter; I just know that there are some things I can’t ignore. I prefer to write about laughter and whimsy—it is my cure for the dark that tends to lurk. But, I can’t stand by when someone else is drowning. Can you?
If you want to help Periwinkle, here is a link to her GoFundMe
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
* I’m the covetous bad girl at the Lane 6 register.
**Feeling superior because of other people’s poor food choices, would the German for this be ‘Schaden-Foodie?’
***Sunny D lives in California where, apparently, emoticons are used instead of punctuation marks.
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