Power Shopping

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, September 2, 2007

Okay, I have finally found the glue (white liquid and stick) and the loose-leaf paper (wide-ruled). Right now, I'm looking for pencils (plain pencils only, please; fancy, plastic-coated and glitter pencils jam the sharpeners). I'm in a big-box store, where a plain pencil is hard to find.

"I don't suppose you've seen pencils anywhere," I say to a fellow shopper, a petite woman in silky running shorts.

She looks at me, takes an enormous breath. "I am in the totally wrong section!" she says, and storms off.

Well, then. I try not to take it personally. I empathize with her big-box store anxiety, or maybe project onto her my own. You go into these places wearing a protective shell, hunker down like a turtle, filter out all external reality beyond your list, your cart, your mission.

In an instant, everything changes: sound, mood. Huh? The lights have gone out. "A power outage!" a woman yells. "Awesome!" shouts a boy. "Did we get hit by lightning?"

Probably not. There was no boom. Just the thud of nothingness that falls over a place when electricity is suddenly missing. The woman with the running shorts reappears, zooming around a bend. "Are we allowed to keep shopping?" she says, to no one in particular. None of the no-one-in-particulars around me has an answer. We're all sort of frozen, wondering what to do. The hush is eerie -- no fluorescent bulb buzz, no air conditioner hum, no Britney Spears piped through a sound system I thought I'd filtered out.

"Plain pencils!" I say, to no one in particular. "Oh, here they are." I spot a package and toss it into my cart. That act gives others permission; any one of us could have provided it. There is no reason not to shop. The rows of skylights in the big-box ceiling provide ample light.

We continue on as if nothing has happened. Maybe this is no big deal. Somehow, it is. Without the buzz, without the hum, without Britney, everything is new. The natural world invades: rain pounding on the skylights. Claps of thunder by turns louder and sharper. A darkening sky bringing us all deeper into shadow.

The net effect is an intimacy none of us wanted. Or, I didn't. I'm just here in my turtle shell hoping to grab school supplies. Get in, get out.

"The cash registers are working!" announces a fellow shopper coming around the bend. "They have an emergency generator," he reports. "But it only powers the cash registers."

Several of us share a laugh. "That's kind of sick," the woman in shorts says.

"The shopping must go on," the man quips.

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