Claritin, Peanut Butter, a Six-Pack of Beer, and Condoms

I picked up the entertainment section of the newspaper this morning. I don’t know why they call it that. I’ll admit that I’m occasionally curious to see which celebrities are having birthdays (I share mine with Bono, Fred Astaire, and the Nazi book burning), but I’m never surprised that I haven’t received an invitation to any parties. Really, the entertainment section of our town’s local newspaper is more like a half page of excerpts from tabloids you may see when standing in line at the grocery store. They put them on those racks—next to the gum and candy bars, directly above the conveyer belt on which you put the food you’re about to purchase—because they are literally the last thing anyone ever thinks they’ll actually buy.

“Let’s see, I’ve got the cucumbers, lettuce, cereal, paprika… lactose free milk … Oh, no! I’ve forgotten my Star Magazine! And how convenient! I don’t have to lose my spot in line; they’re all right here!”

No. I tend to think they’re strategically placed there because reading them—even just gazing at the gaudy cover stories—can make your stay in queue more pleasant. Just you try to guess whose got a fantastic beach body this summer! (My guess is Julia Roberts. That girl’s got real class). It makes it easier to ignore the screaming child in the grocery cart behind you. And it can be so dreadfully boring waiting on the eighty-year-old lady in front of you, who I like to call “Gladys,” who has spent the last five minutes taking yogurt and eggs out of her cart onto the conveyer belt only to realize she simply can’t seem to find her checkbook. “But I had it just yesterday,” she remarks nervously. “Let me look in this pocket…”

I’m sure it’s in there somewhere, Gladys!

Sometimes I feel like helping the elderly in situations like these, just because I can’t stand to watch the mixture of confusion and embarrassment on their faces. It’s as if there’s a general fear among old people that if they don’t find their checkbook—or Medicare Cards, coupons for cottage cheese, etc.— an emotionless man in a black suit and aviators will appear and calmly escort them out of the store, into the back of an idling unmarked van, and drive off—never to be seen again. I want to help these strangers because I know that at some point in my life I, too, will be in constant fear of being led away simply because I’ve misplaced my bifocals. As one grows old, I’m sure the fear of being put to pasture (or taken to the glue factory, depending how pleasantly your parents describe the finalities of life) becomes less irrational.

But for now, being a twenty-something male with hoodlum written all over me, and not wanting to cause more of a fuss, I stare casually at the cover of Us Weekly. A Kardashian sister and some girl from a reality show are apparently both pregnant. Without actually opening the magazine, I can only assume there’s something relatable and universal about the article that I can identify with. They look so thin and their complexion so clear. I wish happiness rained on me that way.

And look at Globe—it seems that Jennifer’s not over Brad (a forlorn love that transcends all relationships and socio-economic spectrums) but is probably over John Mayer. I wonder if she’s heard that John pines for her nightly? Maybe. And she definitely would if she read the cover of National Enquirer on a regular basis, like I do.

From time to time I wonder what the harm would be if I actually picked one up and read it while standing there in line—informing myself who’s hot and who’s not—but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it. Unlike the brat screaming in the cart behind me, I’m very aware that everything I do while standing in the checkout line could bring unwanted attention to myself. Not that you have a lot of options, but if you do somehow manage to do something really stupid while waiting—like allow your devil child to pour a half-gallon of milk all over the groceries you haven’t bought yet because the old woman two customers up is counting out exact change—you’re essentially stuck there for the duration.

Sometimes it’s just best to try and go unnoticed as you might have when buying condoms for the first time in high school, or when you’re filing through airport security. I like to think that with each obstacle our nation overcomes, we, as Americans, become more and more progressive, finding common ground and accepting broader views of society. But no matter how enlightened America has become since the sexual revolution, seventeen-year-old boys will always sheepishly hide the box of Trojans under their jacket until they’re at the register, glancing around nervously in case a teacher or friend of their parent’s happens by. And regardless of how much air travelers have relaxed since 9/11, there’s always going to be that underlying tension because now everyone at the airport is a terrorist.

It’s best not to wear anything flashy if you’re going to fly, but you don’t want to dress down too much or it will seem like you’re trying too hard to be ordinary. I saw on the news last week that the NSA has undercover profilers trained to spot just that sort of terrorist activity. Nondescript slacks, nondescript button-up shirt, socks, comfortable shoes, and you should be good to go. Oh, and always wear a belt. The act of removing it prior to walking through the metal-detector will draw attention away from that suspiciously ordinary look on your face.
Then there’s that robotic female intercom speaker politely asking travelers not to leave their luggage unattended. She asks—with a familiarly saccharine voice so unsettling when hinting there may be a dangerous chemical weapon laying around—that if one does see an ownerless suitcase outside Gate 14, to please contact airport security immediately. People should run from it like it’s a bomb because, well, it very may well be one. Then, presumably, the bomb squad will come and clear the area, do a series of tests before deciding whether or not the bag and its contents are actually dangerous, and then blow it up in a controlled environment anyway—just in case.

Whereas the opposite will happen if you abandon your grocery cart for thirty seconds because you forgot to get ketchup a half aisle back. Shoppers have the tendency to see an unmanned shopping cart and assume the contents inside are on sale. Instead of running away, they’ll hawk it like vultures. It doesn’t matter if there are no signs explicitly stating “40% off,” or if it contains what appear to be personal belongings, such as a purse or baby, grocery shoppers are looking for the best deals and thus will stop at nothing to get them. Why the government doesn’t need to spend more energy preventing grocery cart bombings is beyond me, because they’d be pretty effective targets...

At least in airport terminals there are signs everywhere reminding you to have your two forms of identification ready. If they had reminder signs like that at the supermarket “Did you remember your checkbook?” perhaps Gladys wouldn’t be so embarrassed right now, and I wouldn’t be so bored. There’s also the conveyer belt you put your belongings onto. It’s a minor difference, but at a store you purchase things; while at security, you’re liable to get something taken away from you, like toenail clippers, or an important flash-drive with your nearly finished term paper saved to it, because you actually worked on it while you were in California despite your mother’s contention that you wouldn’t. As skeptically as some supermarket cashiers might look at me when I arrive at the register carrying peanut butter, Claritin, a six pack of beer, and condoms, I’ve never had one prevent me from purchasing them in the interests of national security. Thank God I don’t have to take off my shoes right now.

So here I stand, waiting in line at the grocery store to check out and I do nothing. There’s nothing to laugh about. The part of me I wish I knew better, the adult that doesn’t stand helplessly or avert his eyes, has finally looked up and is watching the old woman in front of me as she puts her worn clutch back into her purse. If I had bothered to look sooner, instead of making such a point to stare off into space, I would have noticed how much she resembles my beloved grandmother who passed away last fall. The creases at her moist blue eyes, her white hair, her thin wrinkled skin. If I had looked closer I would have seen, if only for a moment, a woman I loved and miss so much standing there upset, alone, and embarrassed. I would have been ashamed to have done nothing, yet I that is what I do.

Have a nice day! The cashier chirps.

There is no personal choice involved Gladys’ aging. It’s unsparing. It’s sad. It’s inevitable. As she walks away through the automatic doors, out into a world she knows better than most, single plastic sack of groceries firmly in hand, I’m glad there’s no unmarked idling van waiting for us at the end of this line. I step forward and get out my wallet, swipe my card, and wait for the young cashier to finish scanning my items.

Will that be all?

Yes, it will be, and I take my bags. I look back and give a closed smile to the patient mother in line behind me. Her son’s tempest has quieted, and he’s staring absently in the direction of the candy and magazines.

“Do you want one?” She asks him. “Have you been a good boy?”
He smiles sheepishly, knowing he hasn’t, but nods anyway.


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© 2009

I Have Seen Death's Face

Charlie Naramore