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Just Another Point of View: Learn all you need to at the grocery store

Former managing editor of the Times newspapers as well as the Lake Oswego Review, Kelly is now chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.Ever since Robert L. Fulghum admitted several years ago that “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten” — in a best-seller by the very same name — I’ve been tempted to go to that same well myself. Not that I know anything about kindergarten (they didn’t have it in our town when I was that age), but other, similar concepts keep coming up.

Like, all I really need to know I learned on the basketball court. I built an entire philsophy of human behavior around how people play hoops.

Then there was all I really need to know I learned in the Navy (which also worked, in its way), not to mention all I really need to know I learned in a newspaper office.

Now I’m thinking in a completely different direction. My newest philosophy is: All I really need to know I learned at the grocery store.

Let’s face it, everything about life can be learned at your typical grocery store. All the big lessons are there: money changing hands, kids growing up wild because nobody tells them not to run around like idiots, married couples bonding over buying decision.

At the grocery store you have people who observe the conventions of civilization, exhibiting courtesies, exchanging pleasantries, etc. Then, of course, there are the evil-doers — the ones who cut you off on your way to the checkout, knock you down to get to the produce or just leave their cart in the way to wander around in the oblivious fog that surrounds them.

Ironically enough, I believe that poor grocery store behavior is somewhat reflected by the kind of store one is in.

In Costco and WinCo Foods, for example — where the prices tend to be lower than some — people are almost like stock car racers. Even though the aisles there are super-wide (essential because the carts are the size of dump trucks), you’re doing great to get through a day of shopping without being involved in at least a minor crash.

Meanwhile, at the fancier stores (like Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, New Seasons, etc.), the very same people who sit in their SUV’s at four-way stops and wave everybody else through are irritatingly magnanimous (“No, no, I must insist that you get your milk first”).

The other person who lives at our house (and she does far more shopping than I do) has observed that men shoppers exhibit a semi-hilarious habit of pulling their cart nonchalantly behind them, rather than pushing it. Her theory is they are trying to hide the fact they’re doing something as beneath them as, you know, grocery shopping.

Still, generally, they’re a passive lot and not as inclined to ram into you as the folks behind their carts.

I suppose I’ve probably made it clear in the past that I’m sort of an organization freak, which is one of the things that makes the chaos of the supermarket especially trying. It was probably someone like me who devised the shopping protocol at the main commissary at the Mainside Navy base in Pensacola, Fla., when I was stationed there.

That store — for the time, it was huge — was a work of art, and I never saw another quite like it. Everyone entered the store through one door, picked up a cart just inside that door, then proceeded throughout the store simply by following the big arrows on the floor. From the time you entered, until the time you left, there was only one way to go — forward. If you missed something, too bad, you could get that next time you were in.

WinCo and other local stores have a little of that flavor; you enter one door and exit another — but in between, there is no limit on which aisle you can go down (or up), so it’s still very much a pro-choice store. The Mainside commissary was one endless series of one-way aisles from beginning to end.

We need more of that kind of order.

The other confounding thing about grocery shopping is the size of the items you can buy. The first time we went to Costco, my friend Janie took a moment in the parking lot to compute how much she had just spent on this package of toilet paper the size of a Honda Fit. After poking her calculator for several minutes, she announced the per-unit price was pretty much the same as if she’d bought it at Fred Meyer.

And it’s always a treat, we think, to go to the Canned Food Grocery Outlet. We’ll go several miles out of our way to stop at one. Not only are the prices amazing — you get brands you never see at any other local store, like Wolf brand chili. In a blue can! — which is awesome.

When the other person who lives at our house and I go shopping together, we’re a well-oiled machine. For starters, I’m the one who remembers to take in the reusable bags. I’m also the one who takes the old plastic bags to the recycling area. Then, after we tag-team the hunting and gathering part of the shopping adventure, I scurry down to the other end of the conveyor belt (at WinCo, anyway) and do the bagging while TOPWLAOH chats up the checker (carefully watching every key stroke) and then pays the bill.

The other way I pay for my keep is loading (and later unloading) the trunk.

Former managing editor of the Times newspapers as well as the Lake Oswego Review, Kelly is now chief of the central design desk for Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, and he contributes a regular column.




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