The Observer: Aisle-land Sketchbook

The Observer: Aisle-land Sketchbook

Illustration by Ward Sutton

The first thing to know is that, name be damned, it’s not in Hyde Park. It’s in Oakley. Which is to say, 4520NINE, not 4520EIGHT. And because I’m not an historian or a crack Googler or even, in this era of Fox News, altogether sure facts are necessary to tell a story, I’ll sidestep the issue of whether the erroneously named Hyde Park Plaza was built up around the equally erroneously named Hyde Park Kroger or the latter was tacked onto the former or both appeared simultaneously, originally conceived as synergistic, conjoined siblings and successfully delivered as such. Regardless, I have no doubt the misdesignation is intentional, a real estate developer’s cunning attempt to apply an up-market, old money patina to lowbrow, thoroughly modern mundanities like RadioShack, Jersey Mike’s, and Great Clips.

The second thing to know is that, zip code treachery be damned, Hyde Park Kroger (HPK) is my grocery store. Has been since the epoch of Albers and Fazio’s and Liberal, remains so in the modern era of Remke and Meijer and Satan’s House of Tainted Chinese Foodmakings (Walmart). Perhaps more tellingly, HPK gets my nod over five Kroger stores the corporate website swears are closer to my house, a loyalty I ascribe to four factors:

Size: In the years since HPK was built, the footprints and offerings of supermarkets have exploded. These newer, sprawling omniplexes are perfect for those with unlimited time and pathological buying impulses, vast bazaars where one may browse diamond earrings before picking up a magnum of Albanian Prosecco, pairing it with the appropriate Lean Cuisine (Tortilla Crusted Fish) and some bespoke creamy coleslaw, then scoop up a special deal on a seven-piece set of so-so patio furniture. My cozier-yet-complete HPK saves time and shoe leather without sacrificing the slaw.

Stock: HPK is the only store in town where every single one of the highly specific, admittedly esoteric, accept-no-substitute items that regularly make my shopping list—from the brand of Szechuan sauce I like to line-caught coelacanth jerky—can be found in one place, no bothersome second stop required.

Familiarity: I know HPK better than John Boehner knows the inside of a tanning bed. If called upon to do so, I could navigate my way from the “bagels” in Bakery (Note to bagel lovers: those quotation marks are earned) to the extra virgin coconut oil in Health Foods blindfolded—a skill I’m still puzzling over how to monetize.

Acceptance: Store management and employees have seen me tipsy, high, sober, crashing, depressed, exultant, ravenous, stuffed, employed, underemployed, on the dole, crack of dawn, dead of night, racing the clock, time to kill, in sweaty running gear, semi-formal wear, and black tie. Each mood and condition has been greeted with an indifference that, to me, rises to the level of nurturing.

Point being, I have a bond with HPK. A relationship. Other than my home (where I also work), it’s the place I spend the most time. More fundamentally, it’s my feeding ground, a lifeline of sustenance ingeniously manifested as an inexhaustible, flabbergasting buffet of scrumptiousness (not counting tinned meat products). And in terms of staying power, it’s outlasted three dogs, five therapists, six cars, eight jobs, and America’s moral authority. Frankly, at this juncture, I’m more likely to change my sexual orientation than my grocery store.

 

During the late decades of the previous century, HPK had, according to the unsubstantiated buzz, week to week, the highest revenue of any supermarket in the region. These days, with booming McMeccas like Mason and West Chester, I’d be surprised if that’s still true. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Because damn if the place doesn’t jump pretty much all day long. So much so that for the swiftest, least impeded experience, the smart shopper gets in and out between 7:47 a.m. and 8:09 a.m. This is the 22-minute window after the third-shift stock clerks have replenished the shelves and hauled away the associated cartons/clutter but before the elderly, retired Hyde Parkians with nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it, shuffle in to obliviously congest the aisles in an all-BasKart reenactment of OJ’s low-speed chase.

 

My wife, Lauren, and I roll into HPK two to five times a week. One visit’s a full-blown, we-have-no-food-in-the-house expedition; at least one other is the product of defective memory (driving home: “Crap! We didn’t get the dog’s prescription.”); some trips are necessary due to poor planning (putting away our purchases: “We just spent $150 and we still don’t have anything for dinner.”); rounding things out are spontaneous incidentals (preparing dinner: “We need chocolate pudding.”) and emergencies (watching TV: “We need chocolate pudding!”).

 

HPK is a living organism, dammit. Meaning it’s undergone a few remodelings and reconfigurations in its time. A rejiggering of the aisles and tweak to traffic flow here, the addition of a department and carving out space for a “brand partner” there. Each is, in its own way, traumatic. A transformation of an entity one considers entirely sufficient and thoroughly familiar into something jarring and perplexing, a modification on the order of one’s mother getting a nose job: the change may please the owner but, waaaah, where did Mommy go?

An illustration: with the last remodel, two new features were built just inside the main entry: The Little Clinic, and abutting it, a HoneyBaked Ham outlet. Now every time I go in I’m faced with a paradox: Does the store want me to live or die?

 

Overall, the layout largely adheres to the industry paradigm: a perimeter of fresher, more wholesome fare—meats, seafood, dairy, produce, et cetera—with a mouth-watering poison center—shelves chock-a-block with cans, boxes, and bottles of factory-shat, processed irresistibles. Dive into that hydrogenated wasteland and you may hear tell of God’s Nosh, a singular gastronomic amazement made of 100 percent sugar, 100 percent sodium, 100 percent saturated fat, and 100 percent preservatives. Some say the tale is apocryphal, others claim Frito-Lay and Melissa McCarthy had an edible baby.

 

HPK’s cheese shop—a.k.a. Murray’s—an oval island catty-corner to the deli (itself located just beyond the near-perpetual throng awaiting service, their uncalled numbers, limp and damp, pinched betwixt sweaty fingertips atremble with salami withdrawals) should not be missed. They have several cheeses in their cooler that cost, per pound, about what I paid for Lauren’s original wedding ring. I leave it to others to decide which is nervier.

 

Time: the mid-1990s. Place: the men’s room near the pharmacy. For years, a bright red, plastic screen bearing the words “Say No to Drugs” above the logo of some organization I can’t for the life of me reliably recall, covered the drain in the urinal. Every time I used that plumbing fixture, I couldn’t help but gaze down and wonder how many vulnerable young men had been rescued from a life of addiction and misery by the wise and well-placed counsel of that caring, pee-spattered strainer.

 

Lauren’s very careful about what she puts in her body. She avoids gluten, artificial sweeteners, refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sodium, lactose, whey, saturated fat, preservatives, dyes, chemicals, anything raised or processed in China, and less intentionally, foods with pleasing flavors. This eating strategy requires diligence, so when she’s considering buying a new product, its label (or in the case of competing products, labels) must be pored over and fully analyzed. No doubt Lauren will live longer than I, but by my calculations, all her additional years will have been spent reading food labels.

 

“Look where you’re going, you idiot!” “Outta my way, moron!” “Die, grandma, die!” Such invective is a hallmark of road rage. (Be advised: I hold the trademark on that third phrase.) Almost daily, we hear reports of shouts escalating to fist fights, even fatal shootings, ugly confrontations triggered by some stranger’s rudeness, inattention, disrespect, near miss, or direct hit.

Odd then that I’ve never seen or heard of an eruption of “aisle rage.” Apparently, while we’re marketing, no offender—not an erratically weaving cart pusher, child-wrangling couple barring access to the dairy case, nor on-a-frantic-mission maniac darting blindly around an endcap only to cause a chain reaction of others to stop short—nothing can strain our patience, derail our magnanimity. Something about “driving” a cart, it seems, dampens our animus toward the world of “morons” around us. Is it the lack of investment in our carts? A vulnerability we feel outside our steel and glass husks? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just the halo effect of a shared proximity to so many cookies.

 

The rumor that HPK is a big singles scene—that on Thursday nights in particular men and women roam the premises prospecting for a hook-up, employing coded produce arrangements in their shopping carts to communicate an openness to commingling their victuals, as it were—comes and goes. If this is or ever was true, I’ve not witnessed it. Then again, I don’t speak cantaloupe.

Also, I’m way at the other end of the spectrum. Not only am I: a) married, and b) not interested in meeting strangers of either gender at the grocery store, I c) don’t even want to run into people I know. To bump into acquaintances at the grocery store is, at best, a distraction from the task at hand, at worst, an awkward revelation. Do we really want to know a neighbor or colleague has need of Preparation H, or God forbid, a life that includes Velveeta Cheesy Skillets Dinner Kits?

Even more aggravating is the afterwards. Because should one’s chance encounter happen early on, the up-one-aisle, down-the-other nature of marketing sets up a re-meet in every subsequent aisle. And what’s the protocol for that? Say “Hello” and chat some more every time? Silent nods? Avoid eye contact? Sweet Jesus, the only etiquette question I want to grapple with at the store is: If done with respect, may I ask the obese driver of the motorized grocery cart whom I suspect is simply too lazy to walk for proof of handicap?

 

Depending on day of the week, time of day, and solar flare activity, a variable number of “demo ladies” (my blanket term for the men and women who prepare and/or serve up complimentary bite-size food samples) are stationed throughout HPK. The tidbits they dispense excite people to the extreme, inciting an instant rush of the ravenous well-fed, customers and employees alike, a scene that makes refugees awaiting bags of rice to be thrown off the tailgate of a food aid truck seem like models of restraint by comparison. The underlying good news here is that if America really wants to boost voter turnout, it can easily top 90 percent by simply serving free slices of fried wiener on toothpicks at polling places.

 

Truth: One evening, late, in Cereal, Lauren executed a nod-nudge-ahem combo that wordlessly instructed me to check out the approaching figure. I did. It was Dracula. Not a guy in a Dracula costume. Not some goth kid. Dracula. The talc-pale, widow-peaked, toothy, formally and anachronistically dapper, ageless vampire himself. His face was passive, though the lines around his eyes showed some world-weariness. For the first time, I realized Count Chocula wasn’t just a cruel trick on kids.

 

One minor HPK anomaly is the location of its Produce Department. In many, perhaps most, supermarkets, produce is at the front of the store, the first thing one comes to. At HPK, however, it’s in the back corner, nearer the end of one’s journey rather than the start. The advantage of such an arrangement is that by the time we get there, there’s precious little room left in the cart to accommodate a bulky bag of kale or tub of baby spinach.

Yet the fruits and veggies neatly arranged on the department’s low shelves clearly don’t need me when there’s Power Ms. Formerly known as La-di-da Hyde Park Woman until a trip to Whole Foods revealed the true La-di-da Hyde Park Woman is someone willing and able to pay $8 for a pineapple the size of an onion, Power Ms. is part of an unallied army of independent roughage addicts. She dominates Produce, owns it. Don’t know her? Be on the lookout for: Female, white, 30–45, affluent, trim, unsmiling; wearing stylish workout clothes (facial flush or beads of perspiration from a just completed workout optional) and pristine athletic shoes; hair (often, but not necessarily originally, blond) pulled back tightly in a ponytail; a consummate multitasker always on the phone or texting even as she compares pints of raspberries or groks a cucumber; exhibits a penchant for superfoods, organics, Real Simple–endorsed obscurities, and out-of-season fruits from Third World countries with dubious human rights records. Do not approach. You are not worthy.

 

Sizing up the lines at the checkout lanes, our mission accomplished, I often wonder: Does anyone else hear “Taps”?

 

Dear Woman at the Checkout (And You Are Always A Woman) Who Not Only Still Pays By Check But Doesn’t Even Start Filling It Out Until The Order’s Completely Rung Up,

Stop.

Thanks,

bw

 

Two five-pound bags of sugar, a dozen cans of assorted flavors of 9Lives cat food.

Four bottles of brut champagne, a three-pound chub of Kroger brand ground beef, six cans of mushroom soup, two spray-pump grout cleaners, the latest Vanity Fair.

A bouquet of flowers, a can of Hormel chili, four loaves of rye bread, a 12-pack of Charmin Jumbo rolls, Tic-Tacs.

Two bags of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, two bags of Cool Ranch Doritos, three bags of marshmallows, a large rawhide dog chew, dental floss, jumbo aluminum roasting pan.

Looking at what the person behind me in the 15 Items or Less lane loads onto the conveyer belt, it can be a challenge to definitively decide whether it’s a grocery order or an art installation.

 

Dear Cashier Who Handles My Wife’s Scrupulously Selected, Quite Tender, Rather Dear Fruit Like It’s Your Opponent’s Head In A UFC Championship Match,

Stop.

Best,

bw

 

To give you some idea of how long we’ve been going to HPK, in the early years our rule of thumb was one (1) full paper bag of groceries = 15 bucks. Today, we’ll leave the store with a single pork tenderloin or jar of face cream for the same amount. An even sadder commentary: the face cream is to smooth the creases produced by the worry that the truly effective wrinkle cream is $40 a jar.

 

Dear Customer Who, Despite Long Lines At Every Checkout Lane And No Bagger At Yours, Will Not Put A Single Item Of Your Giant Order In A Bag,

Start.

Sincerely,

bw

Word is, when Kroger opens their new Marketplace in Oakley Station later this year, HPK will close. But who knows? Maybe it won’t. It’s not like I’m in the decision loop. Either way, one thing’s for sure: I’m not gonna be switching to any store that doesn’t have the decency to deny it’s in Oakley.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue.

Illustration by Ward Sutton.

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