My Story: Cart blanche

The supermarket is where sociologists could write major tomes.

shopping cartoon 88 248 (photo credit: Pepi Fainberg)
shopping cartoon 88 248
(photo credit: Pepi Fainberg)
Recently, archeologists working at an ancient site in the South uncovered a piece of limestone bearing the message: "Wooly mammoth steaks - only if on sale!" Missed that report? Well, it appears that men have been shopping since ancient times, armed with lists their wives and other loved ones have been giving them for just as long. And we men still never quite get it right. In face, the whole grocery shopping process is something about which sociologists could write major tomes. It begins with leaving the house, and the husband giving the list prepared by his wife and family a quick going-over. The list is born one fine day as a simple item, say, "milk." Then someone will sit down and add a few other items, their entries dripping with criticism, like: "Cereal, but not the yucky kind, and the non-spicy ketchup." And there are also those entries that almost sneer at the shopper, usually in magic marker: "Orange juice, WITHOUT THE PULP THIS TIME!" By midweek, as shopping day approaches at our house, the list has grown like Topsy into something approaching the catalog of all the items in the Museum of Modern Art. However, it's in an almost indecipherable scribble in and around the borders of the page, as if it were written by a chimp, befuddling even the most sincere of male shoppers. And it is this document we poor men take with us into the no-man's-land known as the supermarket. Ahhh, the supermarket, the place where grown men are reduced to babbling idiots, largely by that very same list they're now holding in their hand, after surviving the bumper-car ordeal of the parking lot, a space where normal driving rules are suspended. Instead, geometry must be used to determine whether I'll later be able to get past the Kotex truck that just pulled up in front of my spot, or whether I can sneak between it and the Coke truck that's pulled up next to me. After choosing a strategically selected parking spot, it's time to get a cart. First I fumble around for a five-shekel coin or one of those neat devices my wife gave me that also releases the shackled cart, so I can start shopping. Stick in the coin, looking good so far, and then... wobble. Wobble, wobble, wobble, screech. I've got a seasick cart, the kind whose movement is as predictable as a driving student on his first day behind the wheel. Just missing a full frontal collision with the Mazda in the parking lot and the three women alongside me, I pull out the list and am ready for action. Almost. Because my list usually mixes the laconic with the truly expressive. "Fruit," it will say, with no further explanation, leaving me free to choose just about anything from guava to kiwi, both of which are generally selling for the price of a home in North Tel Aviv. UNDAUNTED, I make do with some oranges, apples, bananas and pears. Next: "cucumbers." Yeah, we definitely need some of those. Turn to the left and there's Hezi the vegetable boy, just tucking in the last of a beautiful stack of the green things so balanced, so airtight that removing any one of them will not only ruin his creation, but send the whole lot toppling to the floor. He glares at us, as if to say: "Touch one and you're a dead man." Okay, no cucumbers this week, or until someone else upsets Hezi's cucumber tower. What else do we need. Tissues. Easy enough, They're over in aisle 5. Or they were in aisle 5. But not today. Today, someone has decided to move everything that was in aisle 5 to aisle 8, everything in aisle 8 to aisle 6 and everything in aisle 6 to aisle 3. There's never any announcement or preparation for such change, nor any noticeable improvement in organization. It's just the way a supermarket molts, apparently. After bumbling around for half an hour, I've got the tissues. Veteran male shoppers using lists supplied by their loved ones eventually develop into the type of higher being they need to be to figure out what the heck it is those who've written the list want. Carrying around a dictionary is useless when working with the list; you have to just use some common sense. Thus, scribble that looks like "Frofh pilot" is obviously "Fresh pitot." What looks like "Sdli chseee" is, of course, "sliced cheese." I've begun to think, however, that the entire shopping experience is a conspiracy by the cellphone companies, since while cruising the aisles, I always encounter desperate men yelling loudly into their cellphones: "Do you still want me to get it even if it's not Tnuva?" and other such gibberish, reduced by the list to babbling fools. The new technology has changed the way men shop. I think I saw a guy taking a picture of the avocados with his phone the other day to send to his wife, to see if she thought they looked ripe enough. The chicken counter's another one of our favorite places, where each visit presents a challenge: Are they going by numbers today or not? Usually after a few kilos of wings and some chopped meat have been processed for someone, one can figure this out. No numbers means relying on the trust system. "I'm after him and he's after her, but she's just gone out for a second but is behind him," usually suffices as an explanation to hopeful types sidling up to the counter. But we're all doomed, because the woman in the red coat is buying enough meat and chicken parts to feed the population of a mid-sized African country. NINETY MINUTES later, we're nearing the finish line, having raced back to replace the perennial leaking bag of milk, and have made it to the checkout counter. Choosing the proper line is vital, because an efficient checkout girl can save you at least 10 minutes getting out of this hellhole. That is unless you run into the silver-haired lady, who is paying with a check from a third party, or perhaps the treasury of a Third World country for all the trouble it creates. This check now goes on a long-distance marathon, from the checkout girl to her manager to a second manager, to be run through the register backward and forward, when it is then signed, sent off again, perhaps to the emir of Bahrain who must endorse it, and finally returns, at which point the woman's ID card is examined and she signs the check yet again. Wherever you end up, the first question asked by the girl at the register will always be the by-now famous: "Kartis mo'adon?" At Rami Levy, where I shop, I have been asked this question dozens of times, but I have yet to see anyone produce such a card. When I ask for one, they're never available, and just asking for one at the front desk usually draws a quizzical look, as if I'm on a search for the Holy Grail. LUCK IS with us, and a rare Jerusalem species - the green-speckled grocery bag boy - has made an appearance and has begun to actually bag our groceries for us, a rare treat in itself. Hours later, back home, however, we try desperately to undo the knots he obviously learned from Houdini, but that are keeping us from dipping into our humous. All packed up, it's time to appear before the man with the best job in the country - the fellow who stamps your receipt. This guy's got the cushiest job in town, but today, for some reason, he lets us by without being stamped. Sensing something's amiss, I linger, hoping he'll change his mind, as if some great Order of the Shopping Cosmos has been violated. Feeling rejected, I nonetheless set sail for the parking lot. Back outside to the car and yes! The trucks are gone. Wobbling my way with a now full wobbly cart is much more difficult, since gravity is now even more against me, but I tough it out with just a glancing blow to a Peugeot and make it to my vehicle, without cracking the eggs. Returning the cart is my next challenge. Shoving into the line of carts ahead of me proves fruitless, as these have been brought over from a different branch, and don't have the same key-lock release system. Suddenly, however, God smiles on me and there, off in a corner of the lot, is a mate to my cart. The joining of the two is like driving in the Golden Spike, and my five-shekel coin's been released. Life, my friends, is good. I drive off, before noticing the four items I was meant to return that I misread from the last list. Seems no one asked for creamed kale. Go figure. Half an hour later, the bags are brought into the house, and I'm a hero. The wife and kids surround me, singing my praises as if I've just returned from the war. For a minute. Then a voice says: "I don't LIKE Honey Nut Cheerios." And that's when I'd give anything to have my hands on a very full, very wobbly shopping cart.