At the grocery store today, by the strawberries, before the bananas, a middle-aged man was helping an old man with his suspenders. The old man, sounds like the ancient of days when he speaks, in a deep, half-whisper, “I didn’t know,” he says in a breathy voice.“Well, sometimes it can be hard to do this,” says the younger man, “You just have it twisted all up, but we’ve just about got it.”
“I didn’t know,” says the old man, with his wrinkled hands up in the air, like a toddler getting dressed.“Just about done,” says the younger man, as he attaches the suspender so it’s actually holding up the man’s pants.
How the younger man took it upon himself to help out this old man, in a very personal way, is beyond me. Where did the old man come from? I wondered. Did he drive himself? He looked like he could barely walk, barely lift any grocery item over 8 ounces, and here he was, shuffling through the grocery aisle.
Well, actually, he was at the front of the grocery store when his pants were falling down, and the younger man was helping to sort him out. “Did they know each other?” I wondered. It was an intimate scene, one man helping another man pull up his pants. I was walking towards the produce section when I saw it occur. I have experienced countless moving moments in grocery stores, where some human action catches me off guard, and gets my attention.
A co-ed on my dorm floor in college walked through the grocery store and heard snickers, but didn’t know why people were looking at her. Before shopping, she had taken her sweat pants out of the clothes dryer, and a pair of her underpants remained stuck with static cling to the back of her sweat pants all through her shopping trip and return to the dorm.
But I’m talking about something deeper. We all have to eat and drink to survive. We have to ingest food, in one shape or another. We go out publicly in search of food, unless we have a good connection to a local grower. Otherwise, we’re in line with the tabloids and candy racks, checking out. Much can happen in those moments waiting in line. I learned my daughter’s Chinese name for the first time when I was in a grocery store line. I’ve seen harried parents speak horribly to their children, in a way that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up, because of course, if the parent speaks like that in public, how does that parent speak at home? I’ve stood behind women buying food for their children with a food stamps card, hoping the clerk will be kind and quick about it. I’ve stood behind a man buying liters of cheap vodka and saltines.
Recently, over ears of sweet corn, I talked to my friends from Lamu, Kenya about their preventative health care clinic. I’ve talked too long to people sometimes, so that our groceries start to thaw, or a toddler, either mine back in the day, or theirs, gets so antsy they begin jettisoning themselves out of the cart like skydivers. I’ve had old people ask if I’m going to drink all the gallons of milk in my cart. I’m asked that a lot and still haven’t come up with a good reply. I’ve tried to manage a grocery store with a cast on my foot, only to realize how slippery the store is, and how vast.
I run into friends and acquaintances who tell me, as I pick out Greek yogurt, that their sister has cancer, or their father’s Alzheimer’s is worse, or their child is flunking out of school. It’s over the frozen bins and opening frosted doors to get pizzas, that I learn the joys and sorrows of people. As we hunt and gather together in various stores.
Our humanity is on display at the grocery store. I remember the time I was buying Depends for someone, and I prayed I wouldn’t see anyone I knew, fearful someone might think I needed adult diapers. I was younger then. Now, I don’t care. I know the check out line assessment, I see it all the time, especially, as I buy so much food for teenagers these days. We check out what other people are purchasing.
The conveyer belt spools it all down, all I am buying piles up at the end of the track, telling a full story about my life, what I’m doing (working out in new shoes, hence the band-aids), what I’m drinking (yes, dark coffee is my drug of choice), whom I live with (scented bodywash for my sons, fruity shampoo for my daughter), what new rash someone has (poison ivy). Or, I stand behind the old man who buys merely canned soup and a small loaf of bread, and looks terribly sad. There’s an intimacy in the grocery store line that can bring me to tears some days, realizing, we are all doing our best here in this bodily life, to make it through.
In the last two years, if I go on Tuesdays, I’ve been asked, “Do you qualify for the senior discount?”
“No, I do not!” I said at first, shocked at the presumption, horrified I looked older than my years.
Now, I am not shocked. Now I simply say, “No.” I feel ancient some days. My siblings call me “Mabel,” from time to time, meaning my grandmother, meaning my face is morphing into hers as the years go by, which I find both hilarious and scary.
The humanity of our lives, spilling out, overflowing, falling off the cart, like the gallon of milk in the parking lot, making the man in the car stop, so I can pick it up, and sling it back on to the lower rack of the cart with the others. This is what the bodily life requires, that we feed it. “Take, eat.” This is what we need, “Take, drink.” This gives us life. And, it’s something we share with every person on earth, the hunger and the thirst.
One of my fav sites on the web: The Hunger Site
(The strawberries above were actually from a weed infested corner in my garden that no one believed would bear much fruit, but that, my friends, is another story for another time)