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!”

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