Sometime back in 1979 my neighborhood grocery store began using a computerized checkout system. While it was easy to deplore the creeping computerization of daily life, the system had its own high-tech appeal.
Who'd have thought that someday technology would create something called Universal Product Codes, those varying arrangements of straight lines that look vaguely like two-tone Gene Davis paintings? Or that the purpose of the lines would be to translate into printed words and prices on grocery store receipts? The result turned out to be very handy, providing a detailed record of purchases. Eventually, of course, the new computerized system became a familar, unexamined norm of grocery shopping.
Then one day I looked down on my printed tape and saw a purchase listed as "FISH WALNUTS." Fish walnuts? Had I unknowingly bought small walnut-sized fish balls? A quick search through my groceries showed that my fears were unfounded. What I had purchased was a bag of Fisher-brand walnut pieces.
Then it dawned on me. Computerized life and listings both have their limitations, and this was a prime example. The space for actual words on the grocery tape was restricted. A quick count showed that no more than 12 letters could be used to identify a product's brand name and description. The possibilities were ripe for technological poetry, humor and linguistic butchery. My hunt was on.
In the beginning I even tried to preguess the computerized system and bought items that looked as if their names might print out with a chuckle. After a while I gave up on that, though. Many of my most considered tries came out simply as "GROCERY," while unexpected and seemingly innocent items sometimes produced startling results. One package of Manischewitz soup makings, for instance, resulted in the cannibalitic-sounding entry of "MAN SOUP MIX."
The truth of the matter is that you can't tell what the computerized system will use as a designation. The unusual ones are just little surprises that crop up from time to time. Over the months I've had my share of "MEDIUM EGGS" and "1/2 GAL MILK," but when I come across a listing for "MAX H COFFEE" (the name of a phony coffee heir if I ever heard one) then a trip to the grocery store becomes a little more enjoyable.
Some of my other favorite finds include "PUR CAT FOOD" (how thoughtful to give Purina such an appropriate onomatopetic shortening), "Can DRY WINK" (is it a question or a statement?) and "NBC DO DADS" (a Nabisco nibble mix that ends up sounding like a new sitcom).
There are also the straightforward listings of items by brand names that can add a catch, and often humorous note to a shopping list. It would, infact make life so simple if we could really go to the store and buy a "Fresh START" . . . $2.23 -- and if it weren't a laundry detergent.
Considering food prices these days it's probably just as well that I've been able to find this hidden pleasure in grocery shopping. Recently I came across one of my better finds when I had gone to the store just to get the marking for chocolate-chip cookies.While I was waiting in the checkout line I spend the time thinking about the smell of baking cookies and that it's one of those delightful subtlities that can help make the difference between a house and a real home. Then the shopping receipt was handed to me I found that the Nestle's chocolate chips had been entered as "Nest MORSELS." How true I reflected. Sometimes these tapes are right about more than just the money.