I Need the Grocery Store — And Not for Food

In the checkout line, my humanity returns

Getting prepped and dressed for “church” — aka the grocery store. Photo by author.

Twenty nervous shoppers, most of us strangers, wheel our carts past the sweet onions, green bananas, early season peaches. I go the wrong way down the soup aisle.

It’s May, still early days in the pandemic. When a woman points out my error I apologize, defensively.

“Oh it’s OK,” the woman says with unexpected warmth. Her eyes are ice blue; they sparkle. She wears a black mask, so I rely on the language of her eyes to fill in the story.

“I messed it up too,” she assures me. “We’ll get it down eventually.”

That’s all it takes: a moment of tenderness, the sound of the word “we” and I feel myself breathe. The brittleness of my posture loosens. The reminder of being a human-among-humans thaws my deep emotional freeze for a little while.

I drive home with my shoulders lower; there’s a smile for my husband, a kiss and a grab of his butt. Kindness returns.

Friends order groceries online; I refuse. “I need to witness humans doing daily life,” I tell a friend. “If not, I’ll get craggy and mean and rotten inside.”

I want to cry in the checkout line

“Nice to see you,” my favorite cashier, a man of about 25, says. The eyes again, the only place to get all the communication signals. He really does look happy to see me.

“Oh thank you!” I say, and what I really mean is “I love you.” Before the last word is out, there’s a clench in my throat. I want to cry. Actually, I want to fold over and sob.

I don’t know why, but there’s something about the simple kindness of the grocery store staff: that they’re here, working for us during a pandemic, saying Hello; reminding us to stand on the circles in the floor. They thank us for coming in, tell us to have a nice day. “Enjoy that beautiful weather!”

The supermarket staff are in good moods, laughing — being normal.

In contrast, I am often short-tempered, serious and snarly.

On a Monday, I head to the grocery store late during rush-hour shopping. I worry about a crowd. My shoulders constrict at the vision of being too close to other people (harrumph!) while getting my vegetables.

At the store, a new community market, a shopper steps out of my way as we enter; we nod at each other. There’s kindness in his hazel eyes and this fills me with love. The store is bright, sparsely attended, no line at the check-out. I get lost among mounds of seasonal citrus before whipping out my shopping list.

The produce man points me to the scallions, explains the difference between green onions, shallots and leeks. “Thank you,” I say with that back of throat sob feeling.

I love him too.

In the check-out line, the cashier asks: “How are you holding up today?”

“Great!” I gush, my intent being that my “great”ness might create great feelings in others. This woman reminds me of myself — same brunette coloring, compact size, age (except she wears mascara).

I love her, too.

“Did you get what you wanted?” she asks.

I assure her I did, all the while marveling: Here is a person who cares — while all virus hell is breaking loose in the world! — whether or not I found my green onions or the raw coconut flakes (for a New York Times recipe that I would never be making if it wasn’t for so much g-d pandemic cooking).

Here’s the thing: the grocery store reminds me of the truth of the world. People, doing their work as cashiers or shelf stockers. People going to the market to purchase their goods. All of us coming together, for the most part harmoniously, day after day, moving forward in our casual shoes and sweat pants or leggings, doing the best we can with whatever’s in our heads and our hearts.

The grocery store reminds me to drop the drama of “all hell breaking loose in the world”, and ask a man about the onion family. Then fall in love.

The grocery store reminds me that I can make friends, for five minutes, with my doppelganger in the check-out line.

Writer, coach, swimmer, runner, late-marrier. I coach writers, professionals & re-inventors. Everyday Creative Coaching, www.everydaycreative.net

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