The D. C. Shopping Story

by Warren Street © 1995

Author's note: This oeuvre is the first in a body of complaint literature I'm planning. The next will describe the difficulties of getting a sewing machine repaired at a shop staffed by cheerfully incompetent Vietnamese folks. After two months, though, the machine still isn't fixed, so the climax and denoument portions of the story can't be written yet.

I'm writing this as a cathartic experience, hoping to reduce my continuing distress over Tuesday night's trip to the grocery store. The store in question is a Giant Food store on Washington Boulevard. I rather enjoy grocery shopping, but I've learned to absolutely hate going to this Giant store and Tuesday's visit only reinforced my vomitous regard for it.

We started going to the Giant because it's the closest market to our apartment. This is also true of about 1.2 billion other people living in our immediate area, the Ballston district of Arlington. This area has the highest humans-to-grocery-store ratio of anyplace I've ever seen. If the same ratio were applied to Ellensburg, there would be one grocery store for the fourth congressional district, and it would be located in White Swan.

Coupled with this large "catchment area," as the demographers call it, our local Giant has a Lilliputian parking lot, both in terms of number of spaces ("paucity") and amount of room to maneuver ("constriction"). I have actually experienced parking lot gridlock in this lot, usually caused by one driver (the vacatee) waiting for another person (the vacator) to vacate a place. The vacator, of course, is totally oblivious to the fact that everything in the parking lot has come to a halt while they are checking their cash register tape, looking for their keys, picking their nose, discovering their gearshift, exhorting their children to lead better lives, and doing just about anything but putting their frigging keys in their frigging ignition and driving their frigging car out of the frigging space so the rest of us can move before the sun becomes a white dwarf.

There are tables that tell how many words in the English language begin with each letter of the alphabet. I break every standard with regard to the letter F when I go to the grocery store. The parking lot scene is just one occasion for an F jubilee. The prices and selection of produce and meat is another. Last night, they were selling -- no, they were offering for sale -- filet of sole for $12 a pound. F! Snapper was $8! F! Disconsolate and distressed romaine lettuce, $2 a pound! F,F!

The holiday weekend seemed to have caught them quite by surprise ("Whoa! Did New Year's Day come on January first _this_ year, too?") and the stock on the shelves was Bosnian in its sparseness. I must say that the store staff was taking this crisis very well; in fact, they seemed to be totally unconcerned. There was one loaf of white bread left, the spinach in the produce section was simply garbage, there were no mushrooms, no chicken breasts, and the tomatoes were starting to get that dark red, transparent look that means call a priest to administer the last rites. Paired with this disaster in the rest of the store was a worker in the dairy section happily stocking the world's finest supply of milk. He was going for the Pulitzer prize of milk stocking. Gallons, half gallons, quarts, pints, whole, 2%, skim, half-and-half, whipping cream, acidophilous, you name it, we've got it. The straining udders of all Virginia were being discharged into our diary case, but you couldn't make a toasted cheese sandwich with the stuff in the rest of the store.

The final straw came at checkout time. We no longer choose a checkout line on the basis of length of line. No, there are more important criteria at Giant Food. We try to judge checker intelligence, general checker surliness or overall world-weariness, and apparent need of checker to engage in conversation. We look for high intelligence, low weariness, and low need to converse. Last night, there were no good choices. Giant went 0 for 6 in checker attractiveness, but you understand that this isn't unusual. Why do you think we've become aware of all of these checker variables? Grim experience, time after time.

We ended up with a middle aged woman checker and her mutant teenage male bagger. The checker had the all the charm of a manatee, looking off into space as she slapped item after item on the scanner. To tell the truth, though, the performance of the bagger was so distracting I didn't watch the checker very much. My reaction to the bagger was a mixture of impatience, disgust, and amazement. Libby thought he was winsome because he was "trying his best." He decided to double bag our groceries. It took him fully two minutes--and I am not exaggerating--two effing minutes, to put one bag inside of another. He would open one and the other, unattended, would collapse. When he opened the collapsed one, the first one would fold back up. This cycle repeated itself several times. He wrestled with the grocery bags like they were alive. He once decided to put an unopened inner bag inside the outer bag and then open it, but he turned the outer bag upside down and the inner one fell out. It was as if putting one bag inside another was some kind of ancient Greek mathematical dilemma--Zeno's Bags, or The Two-Sack Paradox of Pythagoras--that had confounded geniuses for centuries and was now humiliating yet another mental giant.

I was profoundly irked by the time we reached the parking lot and pledged to never go back to our local Giant store again. There's an IGA store and a Safeway fairly close by and a different Giant a short freeway drive away. We'll give them a try, but no double-bagging.