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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Supermarket Maze Memoirs

The automatic doors open themselves to let the customer know he may enter its walls and engage in the time-honored ritual of the hallowed monetary exchange. Taking three steps inside, one immediately realizes there are barriers that may alter the master plan. The dastardly merchants have erected a fortress of toilet paper rolls to ward off enemy forces and lead them not unlike sheep in a direction away from an easy escape toward the exit. Just as important, by the exit are the checkout lanes, and if the opposition were to attempt to go through these backwards they could infiltrate the lower flanks without warning. So these must be fortified with shopping carts and little spiral wire cables, which only the very expert in tactical maneuvers could ever hope to scale. One inadvertent touch of them and blaring alarms may give away your location. Translation: operation bravo failed. So don’t even think about going there. It’s barbed wire under cover.

The unsuspecting shopper encounters signs throughout the store that are strategically planted to grab attention away from otherwise accessible routes. Arrows pointing to deals that no one can refuse. “Hmmm… must purchase more cinnamon-flavored pork rinds… Resist, resist…” You’re being led through the store without quite realizing it. Psycho-economists have mapped out the most commonly followed routes and intentionally placed shopping decoys at every juncture.

Meanwhile, over in aisle 7, in the lane of least resistance resides a planted shopping cart full of clearance items, which just so happens to be encroaching on my highly complex escape plan. These are items nobody will ever buy but which serve as a nice blockade. You thought they were selling them, but they’re only there to impede you. The neon poster board and exploding graphics are merely diversionary tactics at work. “Buy the whole store for $5! (*-while supplies last)”

In a stealth attempt to find a new pathway, I inadvertently run into a pallet full of boxes. Curses. These guys are good… Engage pallet counterintelligence mechanism, which catapults me inconspicuously into the diaper aisle, where no one would suspect mischief about. Safe for now.

You get the distinct impression that obstacles are the name of the game here, but then they also start placing secret agents to intercept you. They hire people with a limp to push carts and walk almost backwards they’re going so slow. Then you get into the dosey-doe of either passing in front of them while they’re looking at an item on the shelves, or trying to squeeze behind them in the six inches they’ve left for you without knocking over the macaroons. You move to go in front of them, and they advance forward. You move to go behind them, and they back up. It’s all by design. This is where the background music comes in handy. I was stranded in the middle of an aisle for six minutes once doing the waltz to the Pet Shop Boys. Some days I forego my regular exercise routine and just go up town to pick up a bag of egg noodles in G minor.

And have you ever had your shopping cart wheel suddenly get a flat from out of nowhere, bringing your shopping expedition to a screeching halt? That accident was programmed from a remote command center high above the main floor of the store. It’s because you were progressing too rapidly through the store to cause you to fully reflect on the sublime nature of your imminent purchase. Take it all in. Enjoy the atmosphere. It’s a hap-hap-happy day. Dance to the music. It’s happy-buying music, dang it. Go ahead, buy more. It’s what John Travolta in bell bottoms would do. You should be spend-ing, yeah…

Store security is merely a cover-up for their plans of espionage. From the observation room, your every move is plotted. Each step is monitored for intent and depth charge compliance (I learned that on Desperate Housewives, although I’m not sure what it means. Actually, I’m not sure what anything on Desperate Housewives means, which makes it so intriguing…). From the moment you become either Joe or JoAnn Customer, you are a marked man and/or woman, because you have what they want — cash. Or even if you don’t have cash, you have plastic, which transforms into cash.

Behind the two-way mirrors lies your worst nightmare, tracking you like a bloodhound on steroid-flavored Alpo fortified with niacin and 8 essential vitamins, basically part of a watchdog’s nutritious breakfast. One false move, and it could mean no more pleasant shopping excursion for Mr. Joseph Customer. Stay on the path, and they keep their distance. Stray from the path, and it’s their signal to interfere.

Some store worker at the end of aisle 4 wants me to try her samples of bratwurst. She’s also shishkabobbed an entire moose, and got another one on the spit for the afternoon crowd later on. With a full barbecue grill set up, her goal is to keep people bottlenecked there. The brick and mortar is a little much, but you’ve still got to admire the dedication. Common respect aside, it’s best to avoid the samplers. Once they have you in their lair, you’ve purchased four packages of their most expensive item, and even though you’ve squandered your mortgage for next month, you can rest knowing that you’ve got enough mini-sausages to feed a small army, or A Very Brady Reunion, the former of which you should bring with you the next time you shop if you want to hang onto your wallet.

One can sense a covert maneuver afloat, with store clerks peeking around the corner wherever you’re not looking. They call each other on their walkie-talkies, plotting your moves with utter precision, the way that only they can. Just be forewarned that if you hear “Customer clean-up on aisle 6,” it’s probably a good time to make a run for it. Trust me — you don’t want to be that customer.

But then the worst — the worst of all possible roadblocks was about to greet me as I negotiated the potato chip aisle… It was… the dreaded forklift of doom. Nobody messes with the forklift of doom. As I stared down the forklift driver and we casually regarded one another, a curious thought went through my head. What does he want? He wants me to stay on the trail of the maze and find the cheese. Let him make the first move. If I can get him caught mid-turn against the pretzel display, I could possibly get away. Suddenly I was saved by a middle-aged women who infiltrated the area on a reconnaissance mission for Doritos. Chips lovers unite!

The deli section always seems innocuous enough, but you soon find it’s teeming with insurgents ready to hurl pastries at you to take you off your game. I made the mistake of getting too close to the potato salad display, which was actually very beautifully done in an ornate Byzantine decor, but I was instantly accosted by a revolutionary with visor and nametag asking “Who dares pass? Give me the password,” she intoned in a quasi-guttural voice that made Cookie Monster sound like Marge Simpson impersonating Ernest Borgnine. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but I had to persevere. I looked her squarely in the eye and said without flinching, “If Nostradamus had your jowls, he would’ve surely eschewed the cinema.” To which this caught her off guard just long enough, and I gave her a nod as if to suggest that I had made a salient point, and she said with a puzzled look and a raspy air portending of a clogged garbage disposal, “Close enough, friend. Pass…”

I had just penetrated the inner sanctum of the maze without so much as a whimper. I was this close to making my purchase and being freed once again out into the wild. All that was left was the cashier. The one who approves or disapproves of your monetary offering. The one who can blow your cover by calling in reinforcements over the loudspeaker. The one who scans everything you’re trying to remove from the store. And probably magnetizing the items with trace minerals.

Sometimes at the checkout counter they try to divert your attention. “Paper or plastic?” Always take plastic, because if you say paper, they’ll take that as a sign of weakness. “Regular or unleaded?” The questions were getting trickier now. “I’ll take the usual.” “Very good choice, sir.” She was testing my mettle. This clerk thought she had me where she wanted me. “Innie or outie?” Hmm. Nice try. So I responded, “If I were an outie, could I do this?” And I gave my best Hans and Franz pose without also giving myself a hernia, to which the clerk raised her eyebrows in awestruck deference. (that’s not easy to do) Keep it coming… “Rolling Stones or Beatles?” Now it was getting serious. I pondered for a moment the significance of my impending response, the implications of which could resonate across generations. I looked her squarely in the eye (since I had now perfected that move), and in near-perfect diction and an unabashed level of moxie that Genghis Khan would’ve killed to have, I confidently spouted, “The narwhal was Mick… but Ringo… round the rosie.” And I nodded. I’d done my homework, and it showed. All the clerk could do was hand me my walking papers, and my mission was complete.

I had escaped the supermarket once more, and as I took my bags along with those other customers who also successfully navigated, we were pushed through the checkout lanes like pinballs through their slots, where in someone’s eyes I’m sure I must’ve achieved a high score.

1 comment:

Jeff Crandall said...

The paper/plastic discussion is a literary classic. Most entertaining as usual. We need to get you more readers...

Perhaps we should collaborate on something...

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