Wednesday, August 23, 2006

When you buy bread, it's ready ... set ... stay

Commentary by Betty Bell


Betty Bell

I went to one of our big new banks last week and marveled at the vast unused space it had. All the new banks have these lovely sort of parlor spaces that seem to invite you to come on in and curl up in a comfy chair with a good book. But if you did I betcha you'd soon get a visit from an associate whose eyebrows were raised in a questioning look.

I was thinking about those lovely, unused spaces yesterday as I shuffled along in what I guessed wrongly was the shortest check-out line in The Grocery Store—capital letters deserved when it's the only one in town. When you're ready to check out, you have to make a split-second decision, commit to a line fast. If you dally, another antsy shopper will already have angled his cart ahead of you.

It seems to me the banks could do the community a big favor—while at the same time adding a virtual second grocery store—if they donated those lovely, unused spaces. One bank could have a deli, another a salad bar, yet another set up the coolers for the beer and beverages, etc., etc.

Most of the time, the first dreary thought to hit me in the morning is what time I should hit the grocery store. But in the past few days I've approached the dilemma rationally, set out all the options, and they come out like this:

· Within the first hour of opening—the lines are already bigger than small.

· Mid-morning—lines are a little bit smaller than really big.

· Lunch time—lines are really big—and sometimes scary. It's construction-guy lunch time, too, remember, and some of them still bear traces of the aggressive attitude they need to wield those wicked, whirring, unacceptable-decibel power tools without flinching.

· Mid-day—the lines are really big, but during high summer most shoppers are in their mid-day stupor.

· Pre-happy hour—this is painful ... painful. Ugly ... ugly. Everybody's thirsty ... thirsty. Cranky ... cranky. But don't whine if you can't plan better than this.

Just before closing, say 20 minutes, not an hour—the smallest big lines in which you'll ever shuffle, but there are reasons: the salad bar's gone wilt, the deli's closed, and the only bread left is Eddy's never-mold white.

Take your pick.

Of course, before you even start your check-out shuffle you have to gather up all that stuff on your list. On entering, there should be directional signs but there aren't. Not a one demanding "ALL SHOPPING TO BE DONE COUNTER-CLOCKWISE. VIOLATORS WILL BE PROSCECUTED." It's bad enough when we all push and shove in the same direction. When you start in produce—which is where you should be, not sashaying among the wines—we park our carts in the aisle and unavoidably it's usually next to an associate's bigger cart from which he's replenishing corn and organic cucumbers and Taiwan grapes and such while we consider the broccoli offerings, surreptitiously squeeze the peaches and sniff knowingly at cantaloupe whether or not anyone's had a whiff of cantaloupe since Harry Truman's time. Sharp-elbowed shoppers constantly try to get their carts by. Even if it's an inherent part of our nature to shop counter-clockwise, there are always misfits. We need the signs.

Grocery store conversations are even more bland than elevator music. Here we are in a vibrant, arty, musical, literary community—surely our defining word is "creative"—and yet, as I eavesdrop, and how could I not, here's the melody: "Hi there—I came early to miss the lines ... Howdy—did you come early to miss the lines too? ... Lordy, Lordy, can you believe the line's this long this early?"

So much for cultural savvy.

Once in a while when I'm in the check-out shuffle and I see that, really, I'm not as grumpy as the other shufflers, I'll just boom out, "Excuse me, may I go ahead?—I hate to wait in lines."

You might think that such a remark would be the tipping point, the last straw, but no one ever turns ugly. Never once has violence ensued. What happens is they all snap around, first give me a flinty look, and then they break into grins, sometimes actual giggles. Their shoulders loosen, mass relaxation is clearly visible.

If you're a uniter and not a divider, and would love to do what you can to relieve check-out line tension, don't try my recipe if you still have all your collagen and your hair isn't all the way white.

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