I felt that, like Alice, I had just stepped through the looking glass. It would have been no surprise to find a Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, and Tweedle Dee and Dum. Except this was not Wonderland; it was Shop-Rite, 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning. I usually food shop after work. It’s always jam-packed so I figured this way I’d beat the crowd. In a lifetime of bad decisions, this one gets an honorable mention. My grandparents, at my age, were “old people.” My parents were “senior citizens” and I am an “active adult.” Let’s just say this joint was lousy with active adults.
They operate on a mystical bio-rhythmical time schedule. Yesterday, today and tomorrow blend together. There is no sense of emergency, no place you have to be before dark. Whether it’s the dairy aisle or the Royal Caribbean buffet line, the sense of time is the same.
My adventure actually started before I even got inside. I grabbed onto a shopping cart but it had mated with 200 other carts and only a quarter could break their tryst. I didn’t have the quarter. A pocketful of change, but no quarter. Unfortunately I am the proprietor of not only advanced age, but I’m also a guy. I had no idea what to do. A kindly little active adult lady noticed me standing there like a lox, my bewilderment on my sleeve. “Do you need a quarter,” she asked. “I do,” I mumbled. “Here you are sweetie.” She placed a coin in my hand and walked inside. I looked down; it was a nickel.
Sensing my dilemma, a man returning his cart gave me his. OK; good to go. I pushed my carriage inside. For a moment, I thought they had put up a toll booth. The term “snail’s pace” came to mind, but no snail worth his salt would subscribe to this. Hopefully it was just traffic merging around the crate of tomatoes and eventually open up. Either that or I’d exit at the 2-for-$12 organic carrots. Most guys break down by the cheeses (How do you choose from the 30 varieties you never heard of?)
The bumping started halfway down Produce. Hostile Viking women with lethal carriages. Women who should be dressed in camo. Or armor. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg had less thrust. Mentally unprepared for such an assault, I found myself jostled and nudged until at last an open oasis appeared. A space that, because of long waits, I had never ventured into before – the deli!
Finally a man came forward. “Quarter pound of cheddar,” I said. “Number 43,” came the reply. I repeated, “Quarter pound of cheddar.” “Are you number 43?” “No, but there was no one else when I got here.” “You have to have a number. Forty-three!” he shouted. “Whoa! Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” as my voice rose to rock concert level. “No one else was here. I was just polite enough not to bother you.” He was undeterred, “Forty-three!” That was it: the gloves came off. My inner Vesuvius erupted. I thundered, “No one was here!” Babies in carriages three blocks away in Frozen Foods began to cry. A chihuahua burrowed down in her owner’s handbag. The man behind me, number 43, spoke up, “You can take him first.” I thanked him, turned, and in my sweetest little-boy inside voice, uttered “Sliced thin please.”
God works in mysterious ways and this, so it seemed, was one of his more recent miracles – no one was on line. I had the entire deli to myself! I had no intention of getting anything there but, let’s face it, a quarter pound of cheddar sliced thin doesn’t land in your lap every day. I swaggered up. Seven people working behind the counter. Seven. I watched them slice and wipe and sweep and rearrange. Busy as the dwarves prepping Snow White for the ball. One of them was bound to see me. Patiently I waited. And I waited. And waited. One worker, possibly a founding father of the “inactive adults,” was disrobing a baloney. If mankind operated at his pace, we’d still be grouting the pyramids. I waited.
Next stop – Spices. This apparently is where the bus from the psych ward lets out. Tarragon, you may know, doesn’t just jump out at you. It takes a few moments. I guess I lingered too long. A woman, agitated either because my hourglass ran out or her husband jumped bail, muttered to herself and I think to me, “This sugar sucks! Men suck!” Hightailing it out of there, I threw the spice in my cart. It was cinnamon.
Eggs and milk and I was out of there. It would have been quicker to raise my own chickens. Yeah, I know … the old myth that you can’t milk a chicken. Still – on to check-out. The lines were all backed up; except one. Not a soul on it. There’s a reason for that. The same battalion of active adults descend on Shop-Rite at seven AM every Tuesday. They all know Doris the cashier. They all know she has carpal tunnel and can’t lift anything heavier than a paper clip. They all know she will have a bagger assisting her. And they all know he will be a junior citizen for whom every bag is an unsolvable rubik’s cube. Liters of soda haphazardly dive-bombed on top of eggs. Bread violated by leaky rotisserie chicken. And bags of cans and bottles that should come with a forklift.
But I made it through. I pushed my carriage beyond the quarter-mile of handicapped parking and 10 more minutes past the spots for expectant mothers. Quite an ordeal. Now I feel like I’m ready. Can’t wait for next Tuesday. Might make a good column.