Some people think rush-hour traffic is the worst thing in the modern world. Others would vote for airports on holiday weekends. But I've found a slice of '85 madness that's hard to top: the grocery store on a Saturday morning.
There are only three things wrong with a trip to the grocery early on a Saturday.
You can't get in.
You can't get through.
And you can't get out.
Other than that, it's a wonderful experience. So wonderful that it took me nearly an hour to get in, through and out the Saturday before last. My clenched jaw has relaxed; my resolve never to do this again hasn't.
Here's my Diary of a Mad Shopper:
11:06 a.m.: I pull into our neighborhood Giant Food store. Or, rather, I try to pull in. There is exactly one empty parking space in the entire lot, and two cars are competing for it. One driver is coming from the west. One is coming from the east. They glare at each other. At last, West allows East to claim the space. Meanwhile, the ripple effect blocks exits, entrances, even the street. It takes five full minutes to untangle everyone.
11:12 a.m.: I'm striding toward the front door when I notice a sign that asks me to take a cart into the store with me. I'd love to, but there aren't any. I wait for three minutes before a woman finishes loading her car at the curb. I snatch her cart and bolt for the door, feeling like a thief.
11:16 a.m.: I'm looking for sweet red peppers. And looking. And looking. I find snow peas and string beans and romaine lettuce and tart green peppers, but no sweet reds. I try to find somebody to ask. There is nobody to ask.
11:24 a.m.: A Mom is piloting a cart through the cold cuts section. Her 2-year-old son is sitting in the child's seat. Mom stops to ponder the salami. She parks the cart quite close to the shelf. That is always a bad idea when a kid is in the cart -- which this one proceeds to prove by yanking on a jar of gefilte fish. This causes a cascade of multi-gefilte jars crashing to the floor. Three jars break. But the Mom is too harried or too selfish to clean up the mess, or to report it. She simply continues to shop.
11:33 a.m.: The bread department. It's at the back of the store, so it's the last stop for most shoppers. On Saturdays, it's also the place where tempers that have been carefully preserved throughout jostlings and gefilte-ings finally snap. So it went at the coffee cake shelf. A woman takes what is obviously the last blueberry danish ring. Another woman says, "Hey, wait a minute! I was looking at that!" The first woman says, "Looking isn't buying," and disappears.
11:37 a.m.: How hard is finding a checkout line? On a Saturday morning, hard. Each line is five deep. Just as I think I've found a line that's only four deep, the manager announces that Aisle Number Nine is about to open. Eleven shoppers instantly make a beeline for Aisle Nine, which instantly becomes the most congested checkout lane in the place. I slip into line at Aisle Eight, where there are only three customers ahead of me. I consider myself fortunate.
11:44 a.m.: How hard is getting through a checkout line? On a Saturday morning, hard. Some guy in front of me is arguing with the checkout clerk over a 25-cents-off pizza coupon. He says it's good for any brand of Celeste Pizza. She says it's good for plain pizza only. They go around and around as if they were before the U.S. Court of Appeals. Finally the manager is called. Meanwhile, for the first time in history, I actually finish two articles in one of those MY DAUGHTER HAS THREE HEADS newspapers that you always see at checkout lines. I will have you know that I am now the reigning expert on Johnny Carson's divorce settlement and Madonna's makeup.
11:56 a.m.: I reach the cash register, at last. "Good morning, and how are you today?" says the clerk, a little wearily. "You really want to know?" I reply. She gives me a look that answers my question in a big hurry.
11:59 a.m.: The clerk is trying to weigh a plastic bag full of green apples. She places them on a scale. One of the apples rolls out of the bag, lands with a crash on the cash register, takes a large hop and plops onto the floor. "Would you like to get another one?" the clerk asks. Easiest question of the week. "Thanks," I say. "I think I'll pass."
12:01 p.m.: Finished at last. I decide I can live without the parcel pickup lane. I hoist all three of my bags and clutch them to my breast as I stagger across the parking lot. I start the car and begin to pull out. Suddenly, screeching brakes. Two cars, one from the east and one from the west, have seen me starting to leave and have converged on my space, like famished buzzards. I roll down the window and say to Mr. West: "You know, neither of you is going to get this space unless you back up and let me out." Which West does. Whereupon East takes the space with a squeal of tires.
12:02 p.m. Rolling home and wondering: Can this be worth it for three bags of groceries? Not on a Saturday morning, fellow shoppers. Not by a long shot.