Monday, April 9, 2012

How to Make an Impression at the Grocery Store

In my ever-evolving commitment to maneuvering through life without reliance on a car, I recently challenged myself with the following proposition: Could I manage to purchase and transport the typical $200 weekly supply of groceries for my three hungry kids, my husband and myself without the use of a motor vehicle?

One cold and drippy day I decided to find out.

It seems a simple undertaking, buying stuff and getting it home. If I weren’t so stubborn, I could limit my purchases to what I can carry in a few shoulder bags and easily walk the half-mile to and from Fred Meyer's. But that would require an increase in the frequency of my shopping trips to two or even three per week, a frowned-upon inefficiency in my family’s over-committed schedule and an interruption to the steady predictability of our household mechanics.  If I identified as an ecstatically dedicated, long-standing bike-a-holic, I could whip out an appropriate 2 or 3-wheeled human-powered vehicle from my well-stocked stable/garage – maybe the homemade cart-in-front tricycle, or the long-haul trailer pulled behind. Nowadays, there are plenty of these uber-functional cycles around and they all appear equally capable of hauling enough food to keep a full-sized refrigerator from feeling unappreciated.

Alas, I do not own one.

My family’s "bike and walk" lifestyle is what I might call ‘well-developed, yet not rabid’. There are five bikes among us, two of which have racks, but otherwise, they are all plain-Jane bikes with two wheels, 12 gears and affordable price tags. In order to transport all that we need in one trip, I decided I would have to bring one of my favorite carriers – my offspring! With two backpacks, two bikes and two able-bodied bikers, I thought we would probably be able to approximate the carrying capacity we typically demand of our Honda Civic.

The first hurdle – which child could I sucker into coming with me on a day that, while officially falling after the first day of spring, chilled and bit and drizzled upon anyone that ventured outdoors as if it were reluctant to let go of its drunken wintry heyday? My sweet daughter Georgia, always interested in making me happy, agreed to join me.  It took us ten minutes to dress for the weather - the final snap of Georgia’s rain pants signaled that we were ready to embark.

At Fred Meyer, I deposited the two backpacks and our coats and gear into the bottom of a shopping cart and pulled out my husband’s shopping list. Georgia and I got to work.  We started in the produce section. Pumpkins were out of season, so I picked up two butternut squashes instead, along with plenty of vegetables for stew. I threw in a bunch of beautiful greens (rainbow kale – my favorite), and was inspired to try an Asian pear, despite the price. Growing bodies need fruit, so I made sure to include a good variety of apples, bananas and other healthy "sweets." We moved on to the bulk food bins for lentils, barley, a large bag of almonds to keep my stomach satisfied between meals at work, and my husband’s favorite granola. Georgia and I systematically continued through the bread aisle, the canned goods and the frozen food section. We picked up a nice roast, some cheese, a container of juice to share at my daughter’s school party and another for the family, plus two gallons of milk. We were sailing along and the cart was filling up, but I felt no apprehension - yet.

Then, as I rounded the cereal corner, I gasped! Peanut Butter Captain Crunch (PNBCC) was on sale! I helped myself to 3 boxes and added 3 more of Cinnamon Life (gotta have variety, I always say!). Georgia frowned at the heap of boxes that rose above the lip of the shopping cart, but we were in the final stretch. The last item on the list was snake bedding from the pet section.

I am constantly amazed at what products a person can find at Fred Meyer's. There, on aisle 14, not far from human staples, like milk and butter, were snake staples - large plastic bags full of shredded wood and scratching posts shaped like dragons - to help beloved reptile family members shed with ease. The size of the bedding bags discomfited me. The smallest was the size of a fat throw-pillow. Where would I put it? Georgia was getting quite nervous now, eyeing me with a look of mild terror as I cautiously balanced the bag on top of the jumble of cereal boxes in the cart.

I admit, I was starting to question my ability to pull this off. But, with my customary obstinance, I plunged the cart forward, heading straight for the checkout stand so as not to be tempted to add a cherry to the top of our precarious grocery sundae.

When our turn came to unload our purchases, the tall, tattooed cashier took one paper bag in each hand and ominously whipped them open in the air with a sharp double-snap.

"We’re biking," I told him. "We have our own bags." I heard a disbelieving snort and raised my head to catch a glimpse of something that looked like ridicule pass over his face as he eyeballed the mountain of items moving toward him on the conveyor belt.  His faithlessness lit a fire of resolve in my gut. Was he challenging me? He may as well have put the store microphone to his mouth and announced over the loudspeaker, "Ladies and Gentlemen, this lady can’t do it."

After that, it was him versus me.

"Just set it all at the end down there, and we’ll pack them ourselves," I instructed him authoritatively. Grudgingly, he did as he was told. As the groceries disappeared from the holding area of our shopping cart, our backpacks, coats, hats and scarves emerged. Georgia and I slowly re-created our sexy ‘Michelin Man’ look for the ride home, newly reassured by the fact that our clothes occupied a not insignificant volume underneath all that food.

I was hopeful and determined. I started to pack. I carefully chose the heaviest stuff - the squashes, cans, milk and juices – and placed them at the bottoms of the two backpacks, giving Georgia less on account of her youth (I didn’t want to scare her off completely on her very first foray into bike shopping). Next came the meat, fruit and veggies. I zipped up Georgia’s backpack, feeling that the weight was about as much as I could ask her to carry. I packed a bit more into mine and stuffed my pockets with apples, ramen and cheese. But when I had filled every zippered space in my current wardrobe, there were still 6 boxes of cereal lying on the cashier’s countertop.

Georgia fidgeted. The Cap’n smiled at me mockingly. The cashier tried to hide his smug satisfaction, pretending to cough as I stood there puzzling. Shifting from foot to foot, Georgia trained her anywhere but directly into mine. All seemed lost.

With a sinking feeling, I realized that I would have to raise the white flag and return the poor Cap’n and his yummy, cheap Crunch to the grocery store shelves. But suddenly, I let out a happy gasp and reached into a hidden pocket on the inside of my pack. I had remembered my secret weapon!

"You underestimate me!" I announced triumphantly as if to no one in particular.  I was really addressing my nemesis, the doubting Thomas on the other side of the cash register. I pulled out two black, reusable grocery bags with handles, flourishing them in a figure eight like a bullfighter’s cape or a ninja's nunchucks. Georgia looked at her shoes and tried to disappear into the texture of the plastic grocery-store siding all around us. (I wonder if my dramatic flair embarrasses her.) Three orange boxes fit snugly into one bag and three yellow ones into the other. I would sling these nicely-symmetrical weights from either end of my handlebars.

"Your total is $194.53."

Did I catch a whiff of defeat in the cashier’s voice? Fishing my wallet out from beneath the hot dogs and carrots took a little effort, but I did it smiling, pleased with myself at vanquishing the naysayer and accomplishing my goal. 

"Oh," the cashier’s voice rose from where he was crouched by the shopping cart. "I missed one."

My smile turned upside down. I swear I could hear an evil, high-pitched cackle as he pulled a plastic bag, squeaking, along the slick countertop. He slid the large bag of snake bedding across the scanner and said, "The total is now $197.43."

The oversized parcel and his cocky smirk let us know that the game was now officially over. He had won.  A grim silence encompassed us.

"Mommy," Georgia’s soft voice drifted up. "Mommy, I have an idea." We both turned her way, my adversary and I. She took the snake litter from me and pressed it up against her stomach.

"See?" she said, testing out her solution, and she tucked the bottom half of the bag into the waistband of her rain pants, then zipped up her coat around the soft parcel. I saw: A suddenly very chubby little girl, braced against the cold and rain, smiling proudly.

My hero.

I hoisted her backpack onto her shoulders for her, buckled her helmet and tucked her scarf into her coat so that all that showed were her pink cheeks and bright blue eyes. I pulled my gear on, groaning at the weight. It was like hauling a package of composite roofing shingles up a ladder. I took one reusable bag of sweet, Crunch-y goodness in each hand and turned back to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind at the register.

The cashier motioned for me to wait. My former opponent smiled.

"Let me get a picture," he said.

Georgia and I stood in profile, looking like a mama Sasquatch and her baby, or two misfit members of a climbing party, confusedly far from basecamp.

"Impressive," he said, wielding his smart-phone and grinning. “Say cheese.”

I patted the quarter pound of sharp cheddar in my breast pocket and said, “Cheese!”

In Your Dreams

Sometimes even the bravest of us shy away from saying what we really mean in times of potential conflict. Like when the bus driver totally speeds past our stop without even slowing, leaving us waiting in the rain for the next one. Or when a driver parks in the handicapped spot at the grocery store to run in ‘just real quick’ (but doesn’t have a handicapped permit). There are things we want to do or say, but wouldn’t dare because of this pervasive social expectation called politeness – and a strong sense of self-preservation that typically restrains us in case the target of our disdain is quite a bit bigger than us, certifiably crazy or both!

With the ever-possible repercussions of unwanted fist-fights, biker road rage or the embarrassing discovery that you just snapped at your 2nd grader’s math teacher, living out your fantasy witticisms is hard to do. But when losers and mean people thwart our attempts at getting around outside the protective armor of a four-wheeled motorized contraption, we have the right to dream of snarky comebacks and acid protestations. And after the fact, we are so much cleverer, more courageous and glorified in our righteousness. Below are some of the things I dream of saying or doing to rude or ornery commuters in the course of getting around in our fair city. Try to match the utterance with one or more appropriate scenarios. Answers below.

1. A clueless pedestrian’s forward progress confusedly meanders from side to side on the narrow downtown sidewalk, impeding your rapid, efficient stride. He sporadically stop or cut over into your ‘lane’ without a backwards glance.

2. You are stopped on your bike at a four-way stop sign, awaiting your turn to cross. A bike rider zips past from behind you and jets through the intersection without slowing, throwing off the carefully orchestrated pattern that you and the other three vehicles that are engaged in the intersection-crossing understand and follow.

3. A motorized vehicle or helmet-less bike messenger speeds into a right-hand turn as you are taking your first step into the very crosswalk they are about to blindly traverse.

4. The hail is creating pits in your scalp in the January darkness, but you are heartened by the looming shadow of the 7:30 pm number 23 bus a few blocks away. You wave your flashlight and step towards the curb, but as the roar of the engine reaches a deafening level and the slosh of icy rain water streams out from beneath the tires, you notice the driver is not slowing at the usual rate, and in fact, is not slowing at all. As you wave your arms wildly, the last bus of the night races on without you.

5. You arrive out of breath, 5 minutes late at your usual carshare parking spot, only to find it empty. As you tap your foot and check your watch for the tenth time, the car you are waiting for pulls into the space. But the driver fumbles around looking for her purse, scattering multiple food wrappers onto the floor, delaying your departure further.

6. It is well after your carpool’s agreed-upon departure time. Daycare for your son starts charging a dollar a minute very soon. Your carpool co-worker snorts and chortles about the big game with his buddies as you stand poised behind him, arms folded, shoulder bag loaded, keys in hand. He pantomimes scoring the winning point and his buddies break out the beer and chips…

A. “Jeez! Do I have to drag you by the ear?”
B. “Hello! I’m right here!”
C. “Pick a side!”
D. “Good thing I didn’t, like, actually have an appointment or anything!”
E. “The tourist route is on the other side of the street.”
F. “Do you cut in line at the grocery store too?”
G. “Come back here you X%$X(*&##”! I pay your salary!”
H. “AAAAEEYYeeeooooowww! My foot!!!!” (screamed at the top of your lungs)
I. “Excuse me, it’s my turn.”
J. "I curse you! May you live a life full of flat tires and hemorrhoids!”
K. “Pedestrians always have the right of way.”
L. “Next time, have your mommy drive you.”
M. “A minute on the lips, forever on the hips!”
N. “What, are you late for your lunch break?”
O. “My hourly rate goes up the more annoying you are.”

1- B, C, E; 2- B, F, I, J; 3-B, H, I, K; 4-B, G, J, N; 5- D, I, J, L, O;
6- A, L, M, O.

To Know Thee is to Love Thee, Dear Portland

Do you know your way around Portland? I mean REALLY know our fair city? There is one group in town whose members can say verifiably, that, yes they do!: Meet the Hash House Harriers. “The Hash”, as it is called, is one of many around the world dedicated to, in order of priority, drinking beer, running, and singing bawdy songs not fit for the ears of anyone under 21. The hash is Oregon’s "drinking club with a running problem."

The hash regularly exposes hidden nooks and crannies of Portland by leading members on wild running, walking or biking events. Members take turns leading these events along little-known thoroughfares connecting, for example, posh neighborhoods to homeless encampments, or city parks to industrial dump sites. A “commendable” (this is a euphemism) trail often passes through “shiggy” - mud, brambles, brush and swamps; and a truly memorable trail will no doubt require a little trespassing, be it through a tunnel, over a train trestle, or across the Governor’s back yard. Fording streams, climbing fences and scaling steep embankments add to the fun. Only the brave and adventurous dare to follow!

The hash began in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur. British expats regularly met at a greasy spoon, or hash house, to run and drink beer. The runs became a ‘hare and hounds’ type of game, where the leader, with a 10 minute head-start, set out running, dropping random bits of shredded paper for the ‘hounds’ to follow. Today’s hash uses biodegradable flour, dropped in handfuls every 20 yards or so, but the modern ‘hares’ still feel the pressure of the panting pack on their heels, because the punishment for getting caught by the hounds is a de-pantsing! *

*If you ever see a pants-less man running through your neighborhood carrying a bag of flour, now you’ll know why (female hashers are typically smart enough to wear two pairs of pants!).

There are thousands of hash groups around the world; one can be found in almost every major city. Hashers are even crazy enough to have established clubs in Antarctica. Portland has, at last count, three separate hashes with varying degrees of family-friendliness, athleticism and beer-consuming capabilities. Old, young, fit, fat – there is a hash for everyone here. The governance of the Hash is lovingly referred to as the MisManagement. The Religious Advisor and the Grand Master or Mattress do very little other than rile up the crowd, direct drinking ceremonies and generally incite obnoxiousness among the members.

Hashers meet at a pre-disclosed location, sometimes a bar, often a trailhead or parking lot, and warm-up for their impending physical activity by, you guessed it, drinking beer. The hares set a trail using special marks to guide the hounds – sometime astray. An ‘X’ written in flour on the ground is a “check”, indicating that the trail diverges somewhere nearby. Checks serve the dual purpose of slowing down the front-runners so that the lazy, out of shape or walking participants can catch up, and gives the hares a little extra time to increase the distance between themselves and the pack. No well-planned hash lacks a “beer check”. This is another opportunity for the hares to inebriate the fast guys, slow them down and increase their own chances of arriving at the end clothed.

The hares set off and, after a mandatory 10 minute wait, the hounds endeavor to find the trail, capture the hares (and their pants) and explore the rich and entertaining, uncharted territory of the urban pedestrian environment. The hounds will blow whistles or call out “On-on” when they find flour marking the way. Often times, the hares make them work to find the “true trail”, so it is not uncommon to see a bunch of people jogging around in circles in a parking lot or by the side of the highway, calling out and whistling to each other as they scan the ground for that elusive white, dusty pile that beckons them to the promise of more beer.

The final location of a hash is a tightly guarded secret, for obvious reasons. But well-heeled hashers, familiar with the myriad topographical secrets of Portland, can sometimes guess its whereabouts. Depending on how closely their confidence reflects their actual skill, short-cutting the trail can position these egomaniacs to catch the hares - or find themselves lost in a dead-end gulley full of hypodermic needles and used condoms. In the end, though, every hound is found and gathered up for ‘religion’, which ideally takes place around a campfire. Down-downs – rapid, on-demand drinking assignments – are meted out to punish, reward or recognize hashers at the whim of the Religious Advisor. Down-downs are bestowed for such egregious errors as wearing a t-shirt advertising a race (athletic prowess is officially frowned upon at the hash), or for skipping a beer check (a clear sign of disrespect and avoiding responsibility!). The accused swig beer from a unique drinking vessel, that, when seen on the shelves at a medical supply store, is commonly mistaken for a bed pan.

While at the hash, hashers use hash names, which are typically derogatory, offensive and/or overtly sexual in nature. Conceivably, this practice serves to protect the true professional identities of hashers after a rowdy night in the woods (a certain public school principal comes to mind). But mostly, because the names are funny. To earn your hash name, you typically have to do or say something stupid or perform an extraordinarily daring feat (one and the same thing, no?). A good hash name makes you cringe. It makes you want to wash your mouth out with soap. Needless to say, most are not suitable to print in this publication.

For special occasions, hashers liven things up by wearing togas or red dresses. Imagine a long line of random-looking men and women cutting diagonally through the downtown Nordstrom’s, unified by the bright color of their feminine Goodwill attire. Hashers can also be seen cross-dressing, or pulling a drunken charioteer riding her regal, silver grocery cart in the annual Urban Iditarod.

While juvenile obnoxiousness, beer and exercise are all great fun, the best thing the hash offers to its participants is a special intimacy with this place called Portland. There is unspeakable joy in discovering a hitherto unknown passageway beneath something as impassable as the I-5 freeway, or an expedient connection between McLoughlin Blvd and the Marylhurst University campus. Hidden gems, like the Crystal Springs headwaters and the Reed Canyon nature park fill the heart as the fresh, crisp Portland air fills the lungs. Slogging across empty nude beaches and full swamps on Sauvie’s Island on a wintery afternoon can change the aura from that of a children’s Halloween amusement park to a mature, serene habitat. The hash leads us up and down the voluptuous hills of Portland, entangles us in her twisting undergrowth and allows us to sneak a peak at her foundations. Sometimes she wears a girdle or some ratty briefs; but more often than not, it’s a lavender negligee.