This isn’t going to end well. I tried to talk myself out of it as I pulled into the parking lot. The engine was still running so the AC would continue to work against the sweltering August heat outside, my mind not yet made up. The list I’d penned earlier was shoved into my purse between my wallet and checkbook. You don’t have the bags. Gah! I’ve gotten really good at remembering to bring them. In the beginning, I’d forget them all the time and then, in what always felt like a parsimonious choice, I’d buy new reusable ones to avoid the bag tax.* Every. Single. Time. So now I’ve got PLENTY of bags. At home. Not with me. Go home, come back when you’re better prepared.
* The bag tax is not a thread of fiction woven in for flair. It’s a real life thing. Connecticut, for a time, was charging a $0.10 tax for every disposable plastic bag used. That cost to businesses was, of course, passed on to their customers. Now, those bags are banned entirely, statewide, and instead stores are charging customers $0.10 per paper bag. Because they can. And for the record, KAREN, just in case there’s one of you reading this, I’ve been using reusable bags since before they were trendy. Certainly long before they were required. But only when I remember to bring them. Alas, debating disposable versus reusable and/or the merits of taxes is not why we’re here today.
I turned off the music and reasoned with myself. I have a list. That IS ‘prepared.’ They’re a retail establishment. Surely they’re equipped to handle customers who forgot their bags at home. I can do this. I cut the engine, donned my facemask**, shouldered my list-bearing purse, and marched toward the grocery store entrance.
** Also a real life thing. One that everyone in 2020 / 2021 knows well. But, just in case I’m rereading this in my golden years, COVID a thing in the distant past, I’ll not wonder if I was about to rob the grocery store. But I digress….
Lingering near the door for a moment, I unloaded my purse into the basket at the front of the cart meant to keep squirmy toddlers contained so they can’t lick random stuff. Shit! Without bags, I can’t take a scanner. The scanner, for anyone whose grocery store doesn’t offer such luxuries, is THE way to go. You scan your card at the machine, the machine spits out a price scanner, and you can scan-and-bag items as you shop so that when you’re done, all you have to do is hand the scanner and your payment to a cashier. Granted, while shopping, you’ve already spent so much time bagging and rebagging and shuffling items around enough times to have checked out the old fashioned way three times over. Still, it gives shoppers an illusion of efficiency and probably cuts down on payroll for the grocery store. But what good would a cart full of unbagged, scanned groceries do me? I teetered for a moment there, right on the edge of caving in and buying yet another handful of reusable ones. Then, No. I’ll just do it oldschool today. Shop for the stuff and check out with a cashier at the end. No biggie.
I wandered into the store at the produce department where my freedom from the scanner was immediately apparent to me. Sweet baby Jesus, I don’t need to print any stickers! See, you’ve got to scan everything before you bag it when using the scanner. Even the stuff that doesn’t have a barcode to be scanned. Which explains the scales throughout the produce department that spit out barcode stickers for the fruits and vegetables you’re weighing. Very handy to scan but sometimes a pain in the buns to have to look up all the produce items to print the correct barcodes. I bought produce with reckless abandon, tossing cukes into the cart without even twisty-tying the (non-banned, totally legal, yet still very plastic and disposable) produce bag. Bananas. Broccoli. A pineapple? No worries. The cashier will look them all up for me.
There was no real option other than walking aisle by aisle because my store recently remodeled. I call it “mine” because it’s the same grocery store I’ve shopped at for over two decades. But in truth, it’s never really mine, is it? Because they keep rearranging the aisles to keep me befuddled, wandering by the same endcaps repeatedly while trying to find where they moved the goddamn spices THIS time. (Pro tip: Do NOT spend any time looking for books or anything to read other than the rags offered at the checkouts. I tried last week, en route to visit someone at the hospital, and came up empty. No crosswords. No word seeks. Not even a Sudoku. The aisle is GONE, I tell you!) So by the time I’d made it to the midway part of the store, my list was midway crossed off and my cart was midway full. I’m not used to that. I’m used to seeing three or four “in-progress” bags of groceries in my cart. The random heap of items that was staring up at me almost made me uneasy. It looked too messy. Too unorganized. Don’t be silly. Groceries have been piled into shopping carts since the dawn of time, or something. It’ll be fiiiiine.
Near the last few aisles, I began to come to terms with the fact that I’d soon have to endure checking out. With an actual cashier. True, I could’ve gone to a self-checkout lane. But no. I’ll zip through there quickly if I could’ve otherwise gone through the ’12 items or fewer’ cash register but not with a full cart. It would only end with me doing something wrong (like resting my purse on the scale, which the register does NOT appreciate), the machine shutting off and blinking the overhead light to alert staff that I need unsolicited assistance, and/or me feeling flustered. I eyed my FULL cart of groceries and recalled the laminated signs the store used to post in the bagging area to remind employees to “strive for five.” Five items per single use bag. The presumed intention behind the policy was so little Granny can lift the bags from her trunk and into her house without straining, I guess. But the actual consequence of the policy was WAY more disposable plastic shopping bags being used than was necessary. Come to think of it, perhaps we should blame the “strive for five” policy for single-handedly creating a need to ban single-use plastic bags. Fuck. Was my store’s “strive for five” policy nothing more than a thinly veiled, venal plan to charge for paper bags?! And how many paper bags will I need for….all this?! Maybe I SHOULD just but more reusable ones.
I lucked out in terms of no lines at the checkout area. As it turns out, shopping on a random Thursday evening immediately following a microburst that left parts of town without power isn’t a popular choice. Which worked in my favor. I unloaded my groceries onto the belt, thankful that I remembered how, and greeted my cashier, each of us smiling, I’m confident, under our facemasks. You can tell by the crinkle at the corners of the eyes. Hers were old enough to be crinkly, like mine. Anyway. My luck didn’t run out there. Not only did I find a cashier without a line…but also she had a bagger stationed at her checkout! The bagger’s eyes were not old enough to be crinkly but he was unmasked and I can report with authority that he didn’t smile once. God, am I really that old? That this kid looks like, well, a kid?
Baggers are elusive beings in our store. (It’s “ours” at this point because I’ve had the whole shopping trip to get peeved about them “striving for five” and constantly rearranging aisles. Like, it’s still my store. But also, I’m not willing to take full and complete ownership of it, either.) The bagger drought is what caused me to try the scanner method for the first time, in fact. Because I would routinely find myself trying to unload my cart onto the belt while also bagging my stuff at the other end and trying to expedite payment to avoid that long, awkward stare from the cashier when you don’t manage to finish payment before they’re done scanning your order. Because they always seem to stare awkwardly rather than bag your items for you. Because that’s your job when there’s no bagger. Even if you’ve picked a checkout with a bagger who happens to wander away before it’s your turn. All I have to do is work this debit machine? Good golly, what’ll I do with all the free time I’m going to have?!
“Will you be needing any bags today?” the cashier asked. I hesitated. She could taste the hints of a reusable bag sale, I’m sure of it. “Paper will be fine, thank you,” I replied. I couldn’t see her mouth but I imagine she snarled a bit. Hey! Cut me some slack! I’m at this store every week, sometimes more than once. I ALWAYS have my bags. She scanned items. The bagger bagged items. And I stared awkwardly for a change. I’m queen of the world! When the cashier finished scanning, she began to help the bagger with bagging. “I’m going to put the eggs in this bag. With the bread on top,” she said, making direct eye contact with me, speaking slowly. Got it. It’s been a while, but I think I remember how this bagging process works. “Do you want this in a bag?” the boy asked, lifting up a quart-sized container of drain cleaner. Of course I did. But the way he asked it led me to know that the correct answer was, “Uhm. No? I guess not.” I took it from him and set it in the basket beside my purse. “How about this?” she asked, holding up a container of spring mix. Are they serious right now? I fake-smiled, thankful for the still-crinkly eye corners and the facemask, and took the lettuce from her. I tossed it on top of the bread which, if memory serves, was on top of the eggs. And then? The bagger lifted the watermelon half, wrapped in its slightly moist, very thin layer of plastic wrap, and shrugged. Actually shrugged. We stared awkwardly at each other until finally I tossed my purse over my shoulder to clear space in the basket for the unbagged piece of fruit.
That was the last of it, thankfully. I pushed my cart out of the store, took off my mask, and grumbled to myself about how much I hate that store. (It’s not even “ours” anymore. You can HAVE it!) As I loaded my four overfull paper bags (and six or seven random unbagged items) into my trunk, I reminisced about simpler times when a shopper could stop and shop at a stored called, aptly enough, Stop & Shop without a care in the world. And I dreamed for a brighter future in which I remember my damn bags, can take a scanner, and limit the peopling required of me.