So this time, I’m shopping at Schnuck’s South City at Grand and Gravios. This is my closest supermarket; it’s where I go to when I just have to get a few things. I long ago gave up trying to figure out how to get into the fastest moving lane. In fact, I have told people, if you don’t want to get into the slowest lane, watch where I am, and then definitely don’t pick that line.
It’s packed this afternoon, but I spy the handicapped line with only one guy with a very full cart. Zip, I am right there, past two uncertain shoppers. I don’t even read People magazine any more, I just patiently wait.
“You better try another line,” the checkout woman says calmly.
She looks tired but determined to still do her job, a short but large black woman with relatively long hair tied behind her neck. I see that she has a large stack of white forms with yellow tops that she is working slowly through as she checks out each item in the cart. I’ve encountered this a lot at this store, but never have bothered to find out more about the details. I surmise that the man who is shopping alone is an African national of some sort. He has on street clothes, brown pants, a yellow short sleeved shirt, close-cropped hair, strong arms, and is waiting quietly and patiently. “How long do you think?” I ask.
“Ten, fifteen minutes.”
I check out the bulging lines to my left and right, and notice that there is a three-deep wait at self-checkout. “Anh, it’s ok. I’m not in a hurry.” Now I’m standing there watching this process. The guy has obviously been shopping for his family, and the cart is filled with staples.
“Do I have time to go out to the car and get my own shopping bags? I forgot to bring them in.”
“Oh, yeah,” she replies. She didn’t have to roll her eyes, I got it in the words.
I hustle out the aisle, and since the store is packed there are a jumble of carts being pushed, one by an old, somewhat wizened woman, one by a very large, perspiring man, a gaggle of teens, and a security guard. Not wanting to loose my place in line, I cleverly wait until someone enters, and slip out the entrance lane. I go to the car, get my bags, and return to my station.
Nothing seems to have changed there.
I notice that apparently different ones of these “food vouchers” seems to have a different list of acceptable items. For example, the checker has inserted one of these cards into the register, which somehow sets it up for this round. She has pulled out of the cart two gallons of milk, two large plastic bottles of maybe orange juice, cheese, and a few other items. Now one by one, she runs items from the pile over the scanner and waits. Two or three items go through.
Now our patient and deliberate checker scans a big package of American cheese slices. It’s a Kraft product. It doesn’t go through. She holds it up to him and says, “You can’t buy this. You have to get the Schnuck’s brand. Do you want to go and get one of those?” Our shopper shakes his head “No.” The woman puts the Kraft American cheese over behind her with a small pile of items that already haven’t made the grade.
Something else goes through. Now she scans the first of the large juice bottles. It’s some kind of Ocean Spray juice. The register scolds her again. She holds up the bottle, propping her elbow on her hip. Now she has switched tone slightly. She still is being patient and determined. “You can’t buy these other brands,” she says, just a slight bit more firmly. “You have to buy the Schnuck’s brand.” Our good looking black man looks just a bit uncertain. She asks again, “Do you want to go look for juice that you can buy?” He shakes his head “No.” One by one, she puts the large juice bottles in the rejected pile, now significantly larger.
Now I get that this is an important program for helping impoverished people to eat. Nevertheless, going through my heart, not my mind, are empathic feelings for this man. This is more than inconvenient, this has to be frustrating, embarrassing, even at some small level, humiliating. I’m saying this even though if I ever had the same need for assistance as he does, I would surely go through the same process to get some food. I look at this man, still standing there relatively composed and patiently, and my heart goes out to him.
The first gallon of milk goes through ok. Good! Now the second gallon of milk. Again she stops. “This last item has gone over the amount on this one. If you want this item, you’ll have to pay the extra yourself. It’s 86 cents.” He nods yes, and she puts the milk through and begins closing out that card and checking a few remaining articles on another one.
Suddenly I find myself doing something without any forethought. I slowly but deliberately walk past the register and up to within a few feet of this man whom I do not know. He is not looking at me, but straight ahead across the counter. “Sir” I say, getting his attention. He turns and looks right at me, and I at him. “Sir, if you want, I will be glad to buy these items for you.” I wait. Slowly a smile forms and continues to broaden across his face, revealing a really gorgeous set of white teeth. He’s also smiling with his whole face, his eyes, his brow.
“No,” he says through this broad smile. And then a heartfelt, “Thank you.” This is very definite, so I smile and begin to retreat to my cart, which I had previously walked past. It is kind of an embarrassing moment, but he once again turns to me and warms the world with this heartfelt smile. And I return a smile to him. I wish to myself that he had accepted my offer, but at the same time, I realized that perhaps I would have done the same thing in the same circumstances.
The checking out slowly concludes, with an exchange of small change, he gets his stuff all into the cart, and begins to leave, but not before giving me a final smile.
“I’m sorry you had to wait so long,” the woman apologizes.
“Well, sometimes I like to see what people have to go through if they are on food assistance. I learned something. And besides, I really wanted to go back for my bags, I say, piling them on top of my groceries.” We don’t talk about my offer to buy some of the man’s groceries.
I wish I had a moral to this story, but I don’t. I do want to add one sequel. When I got home from shopping, I started to tell Stephen about my experience. When I got to the part about me offering to buy the guy’s rejected items, I couldn’t get it out. I cried instead. Puzzled by my tears, I tried unsuccessfully to explain them, and concluded my story.
Maybe that’s the moral. This world is so full of suffering, and it’s even more full of people trying to comprehend, ignore, justify, eliminate, and avoid this suffering. I’m glad I cried. It felt good. Maybe tomorrow I’ll try to do something more.
*See my previous shopping saga note in April, 2015.