Back in the mid sixties, when I was just a little shit, I vividly remember accompanying my mother to the grocery store. There was a sort of a ritual to the whole process that somehow seems to have gotten lost as the years have gone by. I don’t know if that's a good or a bad thing.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, we never had a car. It’s not that we were poor or anything but the hassle of the phenomenon known as alternate side of the street parking combined with the lack of a garage made my old man think it just wasn’t worth it. When we had to go somewhere, we usually relied on mass transportation or if it was within walking distance, our own two feet. When it came to the chore of grocery shopping, our two feet would have to do.
My mom, bless her soul, was all about what is known today as “one stop shopping”. The last thing she wanted to do was have to haul her ass from store to store with me in tow (dads didn’t “baby sit” back then) looking for gourmet items and specialty goods. Needless to say, my rock hard peas came frozen, my soggy asparagus came from a can and my mushrooms were trapped in a bottle with some sort of liquid that seem to make them disintegrate when it was opened. Meats were bought for the week and frozen and then later thawed out, freezer burn be damned. Hey, who could blame her? She worked hard all week and grocery shopping was a chore for Saturdays that could last upwards of two to three hours depending on things like the crowd and just how many supplies were needed.
With no car on hand, we were also subject to the change of seasons and the whims of the weather. I don’t care if it was the bitter cold of a New York winter or the stifling heat of one of its summers, she was going to make sure there was enough food in the house for us to get by. Like the postman and his appointed rounds, it was her mission.
And so Saturday morning would come along and she’d make her list of the items to get for the week, Shopping everyday when you’re doing it on foot after a hard days work wasn’t really an option. She’d ask my father if there was anything special he wanted and he’d say he didn’t care. We’d be sure to hear about that later in the week when he got salami for lunch instead of his treasured liverwurst. We’d get dressed accordingly and pull the shopping cart from its hiding place in the closet, the one with four wheels that you lugged behind you and that made a God awful squeaking sound and embark on our little journey.
The walk was maybe eight to ten block and along the way, if the weather was nice, we’d see neighbors sitting out on their stoops idling the day away. We’d stop and chat about events of the day and I remember thinking that if I heard the words “You’re getting so big” pass through my ears one more time, I’d scream. Mom would always throw an cautionary word of advice to “Be nice” when we got to some especially talkative folks who seemed to have nothing better to do than chew your ear off.
Once we made it to the store there was no wandering of the aisles. She honed in on the items we needed like a salmon returning to its spawning ground. Since these were the days before credit and debit cards were widely accepted, the store was cash only and the thought of “impulse buying” was severely restricted by the amount of money you carried with you.
I remember getting to the check out line that was mainly staffed by middle aged women looking to pick up a few extra bucks or two to make ends meet. Remember, these were the days before scanners and bar codes and every price had to be entered manually into an aging cash register. I remember being awestruck and how smooth and fluid their motions were. How they would pick up an item with one hand and punch the amount into the cash register with the other all the while holding a conversation. Their fingers seemed to fly like Mozart or Beethoven and the music was the constant ching as the machine recorded the sale. This was also before the time of “paper or plastic” and the paper bags laden to the hilt and stamped with the stores logo were mounted in the pull cart for the journey home.
These days, I hop into my car by myself to drive the three or four blocks to the grocery store. I often wander the aisles like a lost puppy looking for the hot item of the day. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just being indecisive or if there are just too many choices to make to start with.
When I’m done, I’m asked if I want to scan my groceries myself and swipe my card into a machine that will record my every purchase so that my mail box will be filled with offers in the coming weeks. I usually decline and prefer to stand in line waiting to be checked out by a fellow human being. It’s as if I make a concession to myself that technology hasn’t taken me over just yet and there is still a place for humanity.
So much has changed since the days of my youth but the people behind the register seem to be the same middle aged ladies just trying to make ends meet. I think that their smiles seem somehow tired and their feet must be killing them and that they’d rather be just about anywhere else.
The groceries are loaded into the trunk or the backseat of my car for the journey home that on a bad day will last three minutes. They're quickly unloaded and stashed away and I have the rest of the day to myself.
And then I wonder, now what am I going to do?
Maybe I’m letting sentiment get the better of me, but at the time, I dreaded those trips to the grocery store with my mom.
Today, I’m not so sure.