It was one of the high points of every week for him, driving into the village to go grocery shopping. Since he could have had all of his meals prepared by The Community, it gave him a feeling of being independent and it fit his self-image as one who bucked the system. He liked that feeling. And, then, of course, there was the simple fact that because they had opted out of the full meal plan, he needed to shop each week to keep himself and Sally fed. What’s more, he liked being in the supermarket and he liked walking the aisles, thinking about what he would cook that week, getting ideas, looking for the freshest produce and unblemished fruit.
He enjoyed being there so much, in fact, that he had taken to walking up and down all the aisles—even those where he would never buy anything, like the baby foods section—just to prolong his stay.
Perhaps his biggest reason—and one he would never admit—was that it sent him down memory lane every time he went. So many thoughts, so many memories, so easily triggered by something as mundane as the label on a can of diced tomatoes.
He was old enough to remember when you didn’t buy milk at the grocery store at all, when it was delivered in glass bottles by the milkman. (That would be the same milkman that appeared as a central character in the first dirty jokes he heard in the schoolyard.) That was back when milk helped build strong bones and was good for you and came from cows. What a far cry from now when milk’s fat content, antibiotics and pesticide traces could contribute to a slow death. And definitely not like now when all the milk that was safe to drink came from plants.
He enjoyed reminiscing about the days when milk tasted so much better with Nestle’s instant chocolate. He had learned how to make it from the television commercial with Jimmy Nelson, Danny O’Day and Farfel. He and his sisters would sing the jingle together: N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle’s makes the very best…choooooocolate! He could still hear Farfel’s mouth slamming shut at the end.
Oh, the power of early television advertising! He didn’t like Good ‘N Plenty, but he wanted to buy it just so he could shake the box like Choo Choo Charlie. He was no fan of Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, either, but he ached to smack it and crack it.
As a child, he hadn’t been allowed to go to the supermarket with his parents because they needed all the room in the station wagon with the seats down to carry the groceries home. They clipped coupons from the newspaper and drove from one supermarket to the next to take advantage of the different weekly discounts. They bought extra when there was a big sale on ice cream or meat and kept it in the freezer that they bought just for that purpose. The idea of having a freezer was pretty radical at the time. His father told them that it was a good deal because it would pay for itself in a year, what with all the money they saved on food.
Wonder Bread helped build strong bodies in 12 ways, but his parents bought the store brand because it was cheaper.
He got to help carry the bags in (brown paper bags that would be folded and saved, to be used as covers for school books, if nothing else), but he wasn’t allowed to put things away. There was a special system that his parents had and he would only mess things up. But the anticipation from seeing all those bags full of goodies covering the kitchen counter and table ranked right up there with the first night of Chanukah.
He was old enough to remember when grocery stores became supermarkets by adding another eight aisles of non-food items. At that point, you could get almost anything you needed right there in that one store. It was the 8th wonder of the world long before Amazon was a twinkle in Jeff Bezos’ eye.
He wasn’t so old that he remembered the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company stores. They were already being called ‘A&P’ by the time he came along. But he did witness the birth of Pathmark Supermarkets and even owned stock at one point.
He was old enough to have been caught up in the Swanson TV Dinner craze. He remembered the little folding tray tables that you would set them on in front of the couch in the den where the television was. He liked the ham but hated the peas and carrots. Lean Cuisine and Hungry Man long ago replaced Swanson.
Some of his old favorites were still around. You could still get Yodels and Twinkies, but neither had passed his lips in three generations.
He recalled buying freshly-baked lemon meringue pies as a special treat for his first wife. She was the one who taught him how to eat an artichoke without killing himself and how to soak the steamed hearts in butter. Funny…he couldn’t recall the last time he saw a fresh artichoke in the market.
Sally loved a nice baked potato and so he’d buy them individually wrapped in plastic. They were microwaveable in just 8 minutes. He’d only buy one or two at a time to make sure that they didn’t sprout before he got around to serving them. What a far cry from the twenty-pound bags his parents used to haul home and store in a dark stairwell behind the kitchen!
Standing in the middle of the cereal aisle, he chuckled to himself as he ran through the inventory of all the products that had been his favorites, on and off, over the years: Cheerios, Honey-Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Rice Krispies, Special K, Meuslix and Kashi (but not Wheaties or Grape Nuts), Maypo, Farina, Cream of Wheat, and Quaker Oats (but not Wheatina). Hell, as long as he was making a list, we might as well include Pablum!
He had never been a fan of the hyper-sweet Lucky Charms, Cap’n Crunch, Froot Loops or Count Chocula. For nearly 17 years now, he had rejected supermarket cereals altogether in favor of his own homemade granola.
Surveying the sea of brightly colored boxes that stretched out on either side of him, he wondered if civilization really needed this many cereals. Ignoring the evidence of his own mercurial tastes, he concluded probably not. Besides, 5 rows of boxes stretching down a 55-foot aisle made it really difficult for him to find the small box (not family size) of Kellogg’s (not Post’s) original (not extra crunchy) Raisin Bran for Sally.
In stark contrast, going down the pet aisle made him sad. Week after week, month after month, it never seemed to get any better. Why was it that seeing Alpo, Purina and Pedigree products reminded him of the pain of losing all the pets he had loved with all his heart and soul over the course of his entire life? Why didn’t they remind him of the good times?
He was old enough to remember when the supermarket used to be crowded in the morning. Now, you didn’t see anyone under 45. They all shopped on their phones with an enhanced AI app that knew when they were low on staples, placed the order, and arranged for delivery when they would be home. No walking aisles for them, no sir. No memories, either. And that was sad.
As a result of the child-bearing demographic staying home, there were no kids or toddlers in the stores, either. Alex liked that. He didn’t miss the tantrums thrown by the little imps when their parents refused them something. Good riddance!
This was also probably why the latest generation of shopping carts that had bar code scanners didn’t have the basket near the handle with leg holes where mothers could place their wee ones to keep them out of trouble. And, no, he didn’t remember if he had ever ridden in a kiddie seat like that.
There weren’t many people around his age there, either, mostly because they had given up driving which, in most cases, had been the wise thing to do. The majority of the older folks who were there were the ones who had never been able to master the technology that would allow them to shop from home. They tended to bag slowly and methodically, using a carefully designed system that would facilitate the transfer from bags to refrigerator and pantry once they got home. He prayed each week that he wouldn’t get stuck behind one of them in the lone check-out lane that still had a human cashier in charge. It’s not that he was on any kind of schedule or had to be somewhere, he had just become more impatient recently. He didn’t know why, but he was aware it was happening.
He assumed that his days of grocery shopping were numbered. He knew that at some point he would have to give up driving. He knew that at some point, he would become as slow-moving as his peers, and he didn’t want to inconvenience other people in that way. He knew that at some point, he wouldn’t be able to lift the bags and negotiate the transfer from car to pull-cart to kitchen counter top.
These are the kinds of things that Alex thought about as he perambulated down the supermarket aisles every Wednesday morning. It never got old. He knew it wouldn’t last forever and that sooner or later these weekly outings, too, would just be a fond remembrance. Sooner more likely than later. Until that time, though, he would enjoy his weekly strolls down memory lane and the feelings of accomplishment that welled up inside him from knowing that he was still an independent octogenarian.