It had been a busy work day at Apartment 438: two loads of laundry, preparing and cleaning up after two meals, a little housecleaning, considered off-limits by our regular housecleaner. I was tired. I’m learning to use this aging body more gently and caringly. But there was just this one thing left. A seven item shopping list. I could get it all at Schnucks, even the essential wine and corn patches. So I sat down for 10 minutes, thought “I can do this,” pulled myself together, grabbed three cloth shopping bags, and headed down to the parking garage.
A few days ago the drive up Taylor to Schnucks was replete with fading daffodils and blooming magnolia trees. Now the trees are starting to green up and leaf out. Still, though my attitude is getting a boost from springtime, my bones are sinking into my seat. I park, grab the bags, get out of the car, and try to approximate my former stride with a slightly wobbly substitute. Electric entrance doors bow to me, I get my cart, and I head through the produce section, iPhone in one hand, the other hand on the cart.
I am finally at the checkout line. I cart into the closest open lane, since it has only one other person being checked out, and start to place my items on the conveyor belt: three cloth bags, a big bottle of Anthony’s chardonnay, a large frozen gluten-free pepperoni pizza, Top Care corn patches (take that, Walgreens), a large bottle of pimento-stuffed green olives, a three-pac of Puffs, a small box of 13 gallon trash bags (yes, I get the hypocrisy of plastic trash bags and cloth shopping bags), a bottle of Alberto VO5 normal shampoo, and a box of King Alfred gluten-free cookie mix.
As I begin to re-focus on the checkout process, I become aware of an unfolding mini-saga. The trim, attractive mid-thirties woman in front of me has uncarted an apple that has no PLU tag on it. The sixtyish, short, darker-haired woman behind the checkout is trying to find out what to charge for it. She has a small, Sherlock Holmes-type magnifying glass, and she’s holding it not by the handle, but by encircling the silver rim of it with her thumb and forefinger. Though she is wearing proper bifocal glasses, she is through the magnifying glass espying a list of prices in a long list of kinds of apples on the computer monitor. She’s going through them deliberately and carefully in alphabetical order, and the younger woman is periodically saying “no,” shaking her head or just not responding. For each variety of apple, she gets up quite close to the monitor screen. So I am hearing: Braeburn? … Cortland? … Hunh uh. Delicious? … No. Empire? … <<shakes head>> and so forth.
My first impulse is to be irritated, since I am so frankly worn-out and ready to be home in my chair. But then a realization hits me. This is Schnucks again, giving work to a person with significant work challenges. I have been critical in the past of some of Schnuck’s policies, but this one is a good one.
Fuji? … Gala? … Mm mm. Golden Delicious? … Granny Smith? No.
I recall a conversation that Stephen and I had just a couple of days ago. We were talking about the terrible and burgeoning state of economic inequity in our country, what might be done about it, and which Democratic candidates for POTUS had the best positions on this matter. At some point I had said this: “I think every adult that wants it deserves a living wage for a full day of work, and I want to see our employers, our educators, and our politicians focus on this for a change.” And now here I am, witnessing what one employer, Schnucks, is doing.
Honeycrisp? … Lady Alice? … <<Shakes head.>> Mcintosh? … Mp um.
Now some energy is pulling me, lifting me up, and I look once again at the situation with my heart open. Here is this woman trying as hard as she can to do her work. She is being extremely patient and deliberate. She once had that “perfect skin” with strawberry cream cheek highlights, but care and effort and time and aging have lined that face and left their marks.
The shopper speaks and invades my thoughts: “I think it started with an ‘s.’ It seemed like an unusual name for an apple.” The cashier continues, determined to go through the entire list, if necessary: Ozark Gold? … Red Delicious? No. Shockley? The shopper smiles. “Yes, that’s it.” The last item has been identified, and so the sale is concluded. Usually, I might look at the saleswoman’s nametag, or make a stab at a witty remark. But today, fatigue is still pulling me down.
Now it is my turn, but I don’t manage much. “Hello, how are you,” she says with a faint smile. “Fine, and you?” “Ok.”
These days there’s no such thing as passive grocery shopping. It’s kind of an intelligence test or at least a hurdle race, with Schnucks rewards, Schnupons, Escrip cards, chip cards that flash angrily at you “Please insert card” and beep glaringly at you to remove your card once they have absconded with your money. And in my case, cloth shopping bags, and insisting on no plastic bags. I have tried to develop my own sense of ethics about this. For example, there is a general policy at Schnucks that you can either use your Escrip card or collect your Schnucks Rewards, but not both. I personally enforce this policy, even though the person checking me out may not. I choose Escrip because my church gets a certain amount through Escrip for every dollar I spend. I have learned to hit cancel when it asks for my phone number, essentially forfeiting my Schnucks Rewards for the chuch’s Escrip reward. Not that that’s a big deal, but every little bit helps. It amounts to hundreds of dollars each year for the church, because several people participate.
Back to the transaction, there is a bagger, and I can see that he is a bit bewildered by my odd mix of products, especially as to how they will go in the three clumsy cloth bags. I tell him, “Just leave the Puffs out, since they’re so big.” He does that. He is an older guy, white hair, not particularly well-combed or even well-combable. He seems a little slow, but also completely committed to doing a good job here, and I am appreciating that. Somehow he gets the large pizza into the bag with the olives, the cookie mix and the shampoo, but the pizza just barely goes in. The bag looks strangely packed, with bumps, edges and bulges. I’m leaving him alone to do his job.
The cashier announces the amount, I negotiate the credit card dance and receive my receipt. “Thank you for shopping at Schnucks,” she says. I say, “You’re welcome,” and I mean it from more than just a superficial level.
As I look back at the bagger, he puts the wine in a paper bag and drops it into a plastic bag. I can’t let this pass, so I say, “I’m sorry, but I’m trying to avoid taking plastic bags at all cost. Here, just don’t worry about the wine.” I reach out for it. He looks slightly uncertain about this. I just take the paper-bagged wine out of the plastic bag and put it in the the baby seat of the cart. I repeat, “It’s ok, don’t worry about it,” and I smile. But now, he proudly puts the Puffs into the second bag with the two remaining items and hands them to me. I pick up the third bag, put the wine into it. “Thanks for bagging,” I say and head for the car.
I don’t really know why it is that sometimes, these mundane events seem to jump out at me from the bushes of life and shake me up. Sometimes, I don’t even know what they mean. Everyday we are treated to horrific images of destruction, subjected to the ugliest of political fights, invited to participate in acquiring more credit card debt or to fantasize about zombies, wookies, and wonder women and men. Maybe this occasional attention to the nuts and bolts detail of social interaction is my subconscious mind’s way of derailing this escalating program of catastrophe, at least my conscious devotion to it.
But why can’t we just have a nation of workers, with dignified and life-permitting work for everybody doing their best to do their jobs, understanding that doing their work, whatever that may be, is what much of life is about? Why can’t we be just a little patient and understanding with each other? Maybe we can, after all, rise above our own fatigue and struggles and the hoot and holler of mass media and just be with our companions on the way. It doesn’t cost a thing, and it improves the quality of life.