March 3, 2002
Sunday In The Grocery Store With Secra

ytd: 147.74

"So what's left?" David asks, as he maneuvers the top-heavy shopping cart down the beverage aisle ahead of me.

I glance at my list. Tomatoes. Lettuce. Baby carrots. Bananas. Grapes. "Looks like it's all produce, at this point," I reply, trotting along behind him. 

We've already cut a swath through the rest of the grocery store -- taco fixings, lunch materials, cleaning supplies, bike magazines, sinus medicine, four kinds of breakfast cereal -- and now we hang a right, at the end of Cold Beverages, and head for our last stop of the day: the Produce Department. 

"I'll get the lunch fruit," I suggest, "if you'll go pick out some salad stuff." 

David obediently parks the cart in a low-traffic spot -- next to the tofu hotdogs and the pre-packaged bean sprouts -- and he wanders off in search of lettuce and tomatoes and weird Oriental root vegetables whose names I can't pronounce.I grab my purse from the shopping cart, sling it over one shoulder and head for the fruit section to load up on a week's worth of beta-carotene and Vitamin C.

An elderly woman is standing next to the display of green seedless grapes. My heart sinks. 

I have been actively avoiding this woman for most of the past hour, as we've navigated from one end of the store to the other. She is one of those slow, tremulous, slightly-befuddled elderly shoppers ... the kind who parks her shopping cart diagonally in the middle of the peanut butter aisle (and then takes fifteen minutes to decide between "Salted" and "Unsalted"). Mind you: I have nothing against slow, tremulous, slightly-befuddled elderly shoppers. They might be somebody's grandma, for one thing, and I have a very special place in my heart for all grandmas, everywhere. For another thing, I aspire to BE a slow, tremulous, slightly-befuddled elderly shopper someday, if the world doesn't blow up before I get there. In the meantime, however, I generally try to avoid the slow and the slightly-befuddled in grocery stores, mainly because I do not always trust myself to be as kind and as patient as I'd like to be. (Also because I don't want to be drawn into conversations about the merits of salted versus unsalted peanut butter.) This is especially true when I'm tired and crabby and in a hurry and my knees hurt and my Sunday afternoon nap has already been postponed two hours longer than normal.

Unfortunately, grapes are an unavoidable necessity of life around the Ю僱êrvØ¡ household. I stand a safe, discreet distance behind the woman and politely wait my turn.

The green seedless grapes are pre-washed and bundled into little plastic bags with ziplock closures. I watch as the woman reaches out with one tremulous hand and slowly, sloooooooowly unzips the closest bag of grapes. I'm not sure why she's opening the bag, exactly, unless she plans to inspect each individual grape in the bunch. (Sigh.) It takes her almost a full minute to get the bag completely open. Once the bag is open, she furtively looks to her right. Then she looks to her left, and back to her right again. She even glances over at the Produce Manager, who is hosing down a bin of romaine on the other side of the Produce Department. And then -- with a stealth I wouldn't have thought possible, given her advanced age and her bobble-headed demeanor -- she plucks a single grape from the bag and swiftly pops it into her mouth. Then another, and another, and another, until her mouth is almost impossibly crammed full of grapes. With that, she nonchalantly pushes her cart away from the grape counter ... her face perfectly expressionless, perfectly empty, perfectly blameless.

I blink in astonishment. If it weren't for her bulging cheeks -- and the almost imperceptible motion of her jaw and chin as she chews -- I might think I'd imagined the whole thing.

I step up to the grape display, after she has rolled away, and I immediately move the open bag of grapes to the very back of the pile. As I pick out two fresh bags of seedless greens and a bag of reds, I keep my eye on her as she casually pushes her cart around the corner and into the next aisle. She maneuvers herself next to a display of tomatoes, parks her cart, and begins the surreptitious looking-all-around-her routine again. While I'm weighing and double-bagging my grapes, I see her snatch up a handful of cherry tomatoes and pop them, one at a time, into her mouth. (Quick mental checklist: Do I remember how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver?) A couple of minutes later, I spot her over near the dried fruit bins. I trail along behind her, pretending to look at shredded coconut, and watch in fascinated horror as she slips four or five dried pineapple rings into her mouth. It is at this point that I notice her shopping cart is almost completely empty, except for one head of cabbage and a carton of Mocha Mix.

The realization hits me like a baseball bat in the gut. God. She can't afford to buy her groceries ... so she's stealing them.

David appears at my side just then, carrying a plastic bag full of mixed salad greens in one hand and a fistful of some weird unpronounceable Oriental root vegetable in the other hand. "I have a story to tell you later," I murmur in his ear ... nodding my head in the direction of the elderly shoplifter. He looks at her, with her baggy sweatsuit and her implausibly jet-black hair, her mostly-empty shopping cart, her mouth full of purloined produce, and he nods sympathetically.

Sometimes the picture tells the whole story, doesn't it?

Another half hour later, we have finally made our way to the head of the endless Sunday afternoon check-out line. As David makes amiable chit-chat with the check-out clerk and the grocery bagger and the people standing next to us in line (I'm not sure, but I believe they are debating the merits of salted versus unsalted peanut butter), I look around the store to see if I can spot the old woman. Somehow, in all the confusion of unloading our cart and paying for our groceries, I've managed to lose track of her. Just when I'm beginning to think that maybe she has already left the store, I suddenly spot her walking slowly out the automatic door, carrying her pathetic little bag of groceries in her hand. For one wild, crazy moment I actually consider running after her. (And then what? Offering to pay for her groceries? Inviting her out to lunch? Adopting her?) But of course I don't do any of these things. I stand there in the check-out aisle, filled with good intentions, even though I know that good intentions -- like unspoken compliments and silent apologies -- aren't worth the paper they're printed on. I watch her walking away, no doubt headed towards the bus stop to wait for the #51, which will pick her up and take her to her crappy one-room apartment over on the low-rent side of the island, where she will sit alone in darkness for the rest of the weekend, eating raw cabbage and drinking Mocha Mix right out of the container.

"Have a nice day, Mr. and Mrs. Ю僱êrvØ¡," says the check-out clerk, handing us a computer-generated receipt roughly the length of Alameda. We've managed to drop $189 in less than an hour. David and I trundle our shopping cart full of food out the front door of the grocery store and head across the parking lot towards the Subaru, and towards home, and towards our long-overdue afternoon nap ...

... just as the elderly woman roars past us at a bazillion mph in her brand-new Lexus.

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~ nil bastardum carborundum ~

for about twenty minutes, anyway.
[and then i turned it off
because it was STOOPID.]