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Tales From The Turnip Tribe

[whitespace] Grocery Shopping

Surviving some exceedingly strange encounters of the third-aisle kind at local grocery stores

By Tai Moses

THE FRIENDLY BONDING that occurs from time to time between fellow shoppers at neighborhood grocery stores has always interested me. Total strangers who may have been screaming at one another on the freeway an hour before can be observed in the market exchanging pleasantries, sharing recipe tips, grumbling about the shortcomings of one item and singing the praises of another.

My theory is that there is something primal at work here; this behavior is an echo from the Stone Age, a hunter-gatherer mentality that surfaces during our common quest for foodstuffs. Hunting and gathering are the two oldest organized occupations (with all due respect to prostitution) in human history, so it stands to reason that even our modern version, with the marketplace substituting for the savanna, would stir up that ancient cast of mind.

The old competitive element seems to be somewhat pacified by the fact that there is so much food readily available on the shelves. Shopping is a communal activity--perusing the aisles, filling a grocery cart, seeking sustenance for oneself, family or friends--it's a ritual that not only connects us, it also establishes temporary alliances. When you see someone buying one of your favorite foods or brands, it's almost as if they're part of your tribe: the Turnip Tribe, the Grape-Nuts Tribe, the Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto Tribe.

The other day I was waiting in line at Shopper's Corner when the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder.

"I have a story about those cookies," he said. He pointed to the package of Stella D'oro Swiss Fudge cookies I was holding.

I looked at him and then at the cookies. They were my favorite kind.

"Will it make me want to put them back?" I asked, cautiously.

"Oh no, it's a good story," he assured me. "I used to live in New Jersey. I was a house painter. Every day on the way to work, I'd drive by the Stella D'oro cookie factory. The air around there always smelled so good, so sweet. I didn't even mind going to work because every morning I looked forward to that wonderful smell."

The man's voice trailed off. His eyes glazed over like two donuts. He was right, it was a good story. I could almost smell those sugar-scented breezes myself. This fellow was obviously a member of my tribe--the Cookie Clan--and in homage to our totem food I was ready to break open the cookies then and there and start passing them out.

Then he broke the spell: "But I used to think, Who'd eat those cookies? They seemed, you know, like the kinda cookie you buy for company and then leave on top of your television set for a coupla years."

I clutched my package defensively. "Well, I don't know about that."

Elf Space

OCCASIONALLY, it must be said, you come upon people whose behavior is so inexplicable they don't seem to belong to any recognizable tribe, much less a human one.

I was in the produce section at Safeway one night looking at some honeydew melons. I couldn't figure out how to tell if they were ripe or not, so I was scrutinizing them one by one, hoping that, as on a turkey, there might be a button that popped out when they were ready to eat. Just then a bell-like voice piped up at my elbow.

"Do you know how to open these?" A little girl was holding a plastic bag up to me. I opened it for her.

"They can be kind of tricky," I said, "but you almost had it."

She began to fill the bag with pistachio nuts from a tub.

"My father loves these," she said. "But my mother can't eat them. She's on a diet. My father and I eat them all the time. We cannot stop eating them."

"Well, you're lucky," I replied. She kept chattering on, and I only half listened to her, still concentrating on the melons and their mysteries. I thought there was something a little weird about the way she was talking to me. She was preternaturally articulate for her age. Maybe she was a Montessori kid. There was no sign of her parents anywhere nearby, and it was way past her bedtime.

"What's your name?" she asked. I told her my name, and she said, "My name's Charis. That means 'love' in Swedish. It means I love old people--and young people like yourself."

That was when I lost interest in the melons and fixed my full attention on her. She was a tiny, odd-looking child with a cherub's short curly hair, and she had wandering eyes and buck teeth with a gap between them.

"Farewell," she said and traipsed off down the aisle, swinging her pistachios. I suddenly noticed that she was dressed entirely in green.

I stared after her. I felt like I'd just met an elf or a brownie, some kind of grocery-store sprite who inhabited the produce section and probably slept in the sweet-potato bin, covered with a blanket of cabbage leaves.

Food Stutz

OF COURSE not every grocery-store encounter will be positive. You have to be on the lookout for hostilities between the tribes. I learned this at an early age.

I was 7 years old, shopping with my mother at the Mayfair, and she had asked me to go get a bag of ice from the ice machine. This was a new request, but I thought I was up to it.

I wandered up to the front of the store, where I saw a rectangular metal object. The ice machine? To be on the safe side, I decided to check. There was a man standing nearby, and I pointed at the object.

"Is that an ice machine?" I asked innocently. He looked over at it, and then down at me.

"No," he said. "It's a 1938 Stutz Bearcat." His voice was dripping with a quality that I would one day recognize as sarcasm.

I have met many such people in the intervening years: they belong to the Stutz Bearcat Tribe, a dynasty of sardonic wits whose members trace their lineage back to a distant ancestor named Don Rickles.

They are especially antagonistic to members of the Cookie Clan, a peaceful pastry-eating people who remain happy in their belief that in a faraway land called New Jersey, the air still smells sweet.

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From the April 9-15, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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