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The Perils of Grocery Shopping Without a Basket

Soon to be an Olympic Event

You came to the grocery store merely to pick up a few things, so you didn't bother to get a cart. You didn't even grab a basket. You figured you could carry everything in your bare hands. However, you were sorely mistaken. It turned out you needed milk, and while you were at the dairy case, why not get a dozen eggs? And you might as well grab some cheese.


The problem is you're already juggling the can of coffee, which was the item you originally came in for, along with the toilet paper you realized you needed. Not to mention the five boxes of Kraft Dinner you couldn't afford not to pick up -- after all, it was on for 59 cents a box -- and, by gosh, you couldn't return home without bread because you're down to your last few slices at home, and you suspect those may have gone stale.


By the time you get to the checkout, the coffee and toilet paper are wedged under your arm, the dairy products are teetering in the palm of your hand, and the three bags of ice-cold milk are dangling from what you can almost recognize as your little finger, if only its circulation hadn't been completely cut off. Under your other arm you've managed to stuff the five boxes of Kraft Dinner, the central one slithering forward in a pathetic bid for freedom, as well as a loaf of now completely squished bread.


Moreover, you have chosen to imitate a pro basketball player by grasping a large honeydew melon that, in an 11th-hour decision, you decided to bring home to your spouse as a surprise treat. To top it off, you're balancing a small bag of kitty litter on your head.


Should you be embarrassed? No. You didn't mean for things to turn out this way. You came into the store with every intention of picking up some coffee, and that was all. Things went awry only after you discovered that traversing the aisles has a magical way of jogging your memory and triggering the "Eureka" phenomenon -- "Hey, I need that item!" Worse, trundling through the merchandise stimulates fresh desire.


These forces are irresistible. You needn't be ashamed, unless you've sunk so low as to carry a grocery item in your teeth. That is going too far.


Under exceptional circumstances, however, you may take an item between your teeth. This should only be done once you have reached the checkout, and then only with certain items. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to bite and take a five-pack of gum or chocolate bars, but you must never use your mouth to get batteries. And when using this technique, watch the alignment of your body -- keep it upright for balance or you may lose the kitty litter.


Now that you have reached the checkout, having harvested as much bounty as the human anatomy can carry, you will want to unburden yourself as soon as possible, before your milk-laden little finger loses its battle with gravity, before the loaf of bread becomes irrevocably compressed into pita, and before the central Kraft Dinner box gets away from you.


Unfortunately, the checkout counter will be chockablock with someone else's groceries. Obviously you've got to wait until there's room for yours. There will be room when the rubber surface moves forward, as it does periodically, although science has not yet determined what factors must coalesce to cause this movement.


A short prayer may be in order. For example: "Please, God, let the rubber surface move forward before my wretched limbs and weary appendages give way." Eventually, your prayer will be answered and movement will take place.


This gives rise to an important issue: Exactly how far must the rubber surface shift before you can, in good conscience, deem there to be sufficient room for your groceries?

There are several schools of thought on this: Some shopping experts define "room for the next person's groceries" as a space wide enough to accommodate a large carton of juice. Others are more conservative and recommend waiting for a space that will hold an eight-pack of hot dog buns laid lengthwise nose-to-tail. More liberal authorities say it's perfectly acceptable to place slender items such as toothbrushes on the rubber surface as soon as there's room for them.


In the end, it's your judgment call. But remember: If the shopper in front of you puts down the plastic divider baton, this signals that it's open season for your groceries regardless of how small the available surface area is.


Interestingly, the perceived weight of your load will increase proportionally to the number of seconds you must wait at the checkout. You may encounter unforeseen delay. For instance, the customer in front of you might not be adept at using the Interac bank-card payment system.


In fact, no one is. Theoretically there is a 50-50 chance of swiping a bank card with its magnetic strip facing the right direction, but in practice the first swipe attempt is always wrong.


This causes delay, but you must take care not to pressure the shopper in front of you. You must avert your gaze and pretend to read the covers of the tabloid magazines on the rack beside you. Eventually the rubber surface will move forward and you may begin the cathartic process of unburdening.


You have suffered greatly, make no mistake. And the moral of all this is simple: When you enter the grocery store, get a cart. Or at the very least a basket. But do not attempt shopping with just your bare hands. It is the equivalent of riding a horse bareback, with no saddle, or playing football without a helmet. Some people do it, but things are much easier and safer when you have the equipment.


published in the National Post, January, 1999

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