Monday, August 14, 2006

shopping after midnight

I habitually postpone my grocery shopping until after midnight. That's when the tony stores -- Whole Foods, Andronico's, Draeger's, Mollie Stone's -- and the foodie stores -- Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, and even Trader Joe's -- are all safely closed, shut tight for the night. Nobody whips up a little amuse-bouche that late at night; no need to rush out for some monkfish liver and quail eggs. (I'm amused to see that Monterey Market's web site has been hacked. I didn't know that the slow food movement had such passionate enemies.)

But after midnight is when Safeway and its all-night kindred major grocery store chains shine.

Slow food? Fast food? Nah -- you're thinking of something else, something upscale, something downscale, something trendy, something greasy and enticing. This is medium food, cuisine for the lazy, the mediocre, the not-too-hungry: food for people like me. It's neither so lip-smacking that you have to wolf down half of it on the way home nor so disgusting that you can't bear to look in the mirror after you've eaten it.

Medium food. Ordinary food. Safeway Select packaging and affinity card bargains.

But it's medium food in the middle of the night. And that makes it special.

In the middle of the night you don't find whole families stalled out in the cereal aisle. Nobody's Ritalin is wearing off ("Sweetie, don't knock that over! Someone's going to lose his videogame privileges tonight. I mean it!"). No chubby little fingers grabbing at the stock shelved at impulse purchase height, spreading nursery-school diseases among the general populace. Nope. It's people like you and me shopping late at night.

Purple-haired punks who don't want to be seen doing anything so normal as buying Baked Lays Low-Fat Potato Chips. Speed freaks cruising for Snickers Big Bars and Scotch tape. Drunks replenishing their Safeway Select Premium Vodka stash. Gangstas and their posses boosting 48 oz. plastic bottles of Mountain Dew. The recently divorced and the career unemployed. The night shift workers. The EMTs, the stalkers, and the sociopaths. We're all attracted to the bright lights. SAFE WAY.

The only person pushing a supermarket cart at this time of night is me. Most people have a small red basket hooked on one arm or an item or two in their hands (or indiscreetly protruding from a pocket or purse). They're not shopping for much: their needs are immediate, urgent, compulsive.

Except me. I'm planful. Not only am I pushing a cart; I'm consulting a long list. I stop now and then to cross off items with my Uniball ONYX fine point pen.

Lunch meat
Lemon grass
Mrs. Renfro's Jalapeno Slices

The list is long and detailed.

I cross them off methodically, one by one, as I fill my cart with medium food. Soup. Green peppers. Garlic. Microwave popcorn. Nothing too good; nothing too bad.

You have to be creative to shop after midnight.

"Just how similar are jicamas and kohlrabi anyway?" you ask yourself.

They're both root vegetables and they're both shaped like alien spacecraft. But kohlrabis are in stock late Sunday night; jicamas are not. Surely a substition can be made.

That's the way it is in the wee hours. You have to be adaptable: the produce section's been decimated. You'd think people actually liked to eat broccoli.

And corn? Nobody ever has enough corn to eat, even after they've consumed gallon after gallon of corn sweetener (annual per capita corn sweetener consumption increased to 79 pounds in 2003). The corn display looks like a flock of magpies has recently descended upon it. Corn silk clings to every damp surface. Husks are scattered hither and yon. Only a few sad abandoned ears -- ears with misshapen kernels and brown rotten spots -- remain.

But it was broccoli I was after, and much to my surprise, I could put together a half pound of the stuff gathering from the edges of the bins and combining crowns with flowerets, organic with locally farmed.

Face it: broccoli has as many cuts as beef.

It's not until I got to the in-store bakery that I realized why medium food is the answer to all the universe's unasked questions. As I examined the the last straggling Bismarks bathed in the surreal light of the donut case, I noticed the crucial message overhead:


Got that? Not 12, as you learned in elementary school. Not 13, as in "a baker's dozen." But 14. As in, "We'll go you one better." As in, "We're a nation of abundance." As in, "Too much of anything is just enough."

That's what it's all about. 14 when you wanted 12. When 6 would actually do. You've got 14. Now deal with it.

The store staff is in the middle of reshelving by that time of night. Stacks of boxes are everywhere, creating a splendid obstacle course for me and my grocery cart. It's a slalom ride down the catfood aisle, especially if you make challenging rules for yourself. Push off once and don't put your feet back on the floor 'til you get to the end of the aisle. Mind those greeting cards!

Even though those piles of cardboard boxes look sturdy, it's surprisingly easy to knock 'em down.

Every once in awhile, an over-eager shopper (such as myself) breaks into one of the unopened cardboard boxes. Sure, I don't really need Tide today. But it's really nice to know there's enough for me to buy the sale maximum. ("Limit 6 to a customer!") It's one of the perqs of shopping late at night.

The cereal aisle is always the most problematic venue in the store, even if you go to Safeway bright and fresh in the morning. So many choices. There's the major label stuff, the Post Grape Nuts (although surely no-one eats those rock-hard little cardboard nuggets, do they?), the Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes ("They're GRRRREAT!"), the General Mills Wheat Chex (a crucial ingredient in classic Chex Party Mix as well as being adjacent to this complete breakfast).

So many brands! So many flavors! So many variations! With red berries or without? With nutty nuggets or without? Vitamin fortified! Essential nutrients! Brown sugar and cinnamon! A big delight in every bite!

My head is already spinning by the time I get to the store brands. The Safeway Wheat Pockets. The Tasty Toasteos. You can convince yourself that they taste just the same as the name brands. Just the same. Not at all strange. You don't want to pay for the advertising, do you?

Yes, they taste just the same, except they're off by just a little bit. I don't know what it is. You have to suspend disbelief and say it over and over. They taste just the same. Repeat it like a mantra for the cost-conscious. Just the same. Just the same.

Nah. They're not.

And there are always the obligatory odd natural and organic cereals that taste like ass: the Wheetabix and the Barbara's Puffins. They've gotta be good for you. Certainly you can't be sidling up to that big bowl of mushy Wheetabix because it tastes good. It tastes like ass! You might as well crouch down next to the cat and have what he's having. Uncle Sam cereal? You do know about flax seeds, don't you?

Finally there are the scary big cello bags of flakes with marshmallow nuggets. I don't want to talk about those. They bring to mind trailer parks and powdered milk. Cousins marrying cousins. Built-in dinettes with vinyl cushions that stick to the skin on the back of your legs. No. Let's not go there. This is a midnight shopping trip, not a descent into rugged terrain of the human psyche.

I myself like to eat cereal that's been endorsed by celebrities. If Eggo Maple Syrup Cereal is good enough for Johnny Depp wearing eye liner, it's good enough for me.

Actually, what really happens in the cereal aisle is more dangerous than I'm letting on. I usually go for the high-shelf cereals. A girl like me (we'll say for the sake of vanity, petite) has to climb to get a box of Shredded Wheat. During the day, this kind of thing usually brings a stockboy running.

"Can I get that for you ma'am?"

Ma'am. I hate being called ma'am. No. You can't get my goddamned cereal for me. I'm gonna scale the giant wall of cereal and get it myself.

Late at night, I don't have this problem. The 5 stockers that staff the store late at night are busy keeping their eyes on the other shoppers (the guy stuffing pork chops down his pants and the wino paying for his entire order with pennies) or they're flirting among themselves (it must be lighting that attracts them to one another?). They're definitely too busy to bother with someone who is doing a Human Fly imitation in the cereal aisle. Ordinary, ordinary, ordinary. Nothing to get excited about.

The worst part of these late night shopping trips is the checkout line. There's no such thing as a 9 items or less line at 12:23am. You get in the one line. You wait. You pay. You go. Except everyone else has one or two items (and that pack of Winston Reds or Merit Ultralights they'll buy at the checkstand). I come wheeling up with my month's worth of groceries, complete with obscure and numerous vegetables -- lemon grass, kohlrabi, a sack of 20 limes -- all of which require the proper code be entered, and everyone behind me in line glares.

So I'm faced with the obvious dilemma. Do I let the guy behind me go ahead? How about the guy behind him with a Lean Cuisine and a bottle of Chablis? And the sour-looking lady with the Hershey bar -- how about her? No-one else has this many items.

I keep it simple. The cop with the bottle of Refreshe drinking water? He gets to go. He's got a gun. The armed robber behind him? He gets to go. He's got a gun. The loony dude with the People magazine with Jodie Foster on the cover and a faraway look in his eyes? He gets to go. He's got a gun.

The rest of you? You gotta wait your turn.

My vote, by the way, is to keep Pluto as a planet. It's very destabilizing to have facts you once memorized turn into nonsense. 9 planets. There are 9 planets. This isn't like String Theory, where you expect it to go bad at any instant.

This is truth. And truth, like Hostess Twinkies or other fine medium foods, doesn't go bad overnight.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

loved your story so much am forwarding to friends. i was looking for built in dinettes and found you. i laughed and related execpt i am an eary morning shopper at wal mart and i fell your pain. thanks again, linda

5:46 AM  
Anonymous Kaitlin said...

I am really enjoying your blog. I began by reading your blog on the midwest, and have been jumping off and following the links and ended up here. My only objection is your use of the word "'tards." It has been used in both of your articles I have read and is so out of character with the rest of your writing, as it's so crude and off-putting to me.

4:20 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Okay, Kaitlin--I'll change this word to something more neutral. Others have had similiar reactions to yours, and I really can't say much in my own defense.

There are *reasons* that our culture adapted some norms of political correctness.

I consider myself appropriately rebuked.

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Whitney said...

This is hilarious and well written. I haven't been in the middle of the night shopping in awhile. I am leaving tonight around midnight knowing that it will be worth it not to maneuver traffic on the highway and in the aisles. Amazingly there are 3 groceries stores in my area that are open 24/7. The worse part about grocery shopping for me is that I live rurally and it takes 45 minutes to get there. Will definitely be recalling your humorous post while I am perusing the aisles tomorrow morning.

3:59 PM  
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1:54 AM  

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