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Grocery Ninja

by | Oct 5, 2021

Everyone is good at certain things and lousy at others. That’s the way society works. We don’t expect our doctors to also be chefs. The best mechanic in your town likely doesn’t also do gymnastics. Maybe your local florist isn’t a competitive lumberjack. But all that’s ok, they’re already sleeping all night and working all day as it is.

(Yes, I’m sure you know a world-class physician chef who won silver medals in the uneven bars and tree-climbing, when they weren’t driving their hand-built bio-diesel van to deliver lovely orchids. Next, you’ll be telling me that Einstein was also good at hairstyling.)

I’m good at my job. I’m a good cook, I build a nice shed, and I’ve been known to take some pretty pictures. I’m a lousy bookkeeper, can’t remember the names of flowers in the garden, and my daughters will attest to my complete lack of hairstyling skill. I’m ok with the good and bad.

My wife and I have complimentary skills. Her strengths balance my weaknesses, and vice versa. We rely on each other and make a good team. She also knows that I have one essential skill that allows her to focus on what she’s good at. She can lock herself in the office and forget about who’s going to get the groceries this week.

Yes, groceries. I’m good at groceries.

You don’t become good at groceries overnight. As a child, I remember going with my parents to the local Red & White store. Cart full to the top, my dad peeling twenties off the big roll of bills he carried in his pocket. Choices were much narrower back then. I’m sure the cereal aisle was much shorter. (“We had two brands of canned vegetables available, and we were damn happy to have them!” I yelled, glaring at the clouds from my front porch.) We knew the store staff by name, and they knew us too.

When I was 15, I graduated to the next step, becoming a proud “Box Boy”, in a large grocery store on the main drag. White shirt and apron, black bow tie, dress shoes that hurt like hell. I bagged items in large paper “Super Sacks”, dodging traffic as I carried or wheeled large orders across the street or around to the back parking lot. I’d see if I could get as close as possible to cars as they passed, flapping apron nearly touching the rear bumpers.

My Assistant Manager was gruff grocery-lifer, who worked with my mother before I was born, which might explain why he seemed to yell at me a lot when I was stocking shelves. It likely didn’t help that my budding authority issues would emerge, asking, “Do you want it done right, or fast?” Apparently, that question was unwelcome.

But all in all, it was a good job. A teenage smoker, I’d go on “cart hunts”, cigarette hanging from the corner of my mouth as I wheeled the escaped buggies with the confidence of a gymnast mechanic. Coffee breaks were spent at the F.W. Woolworths lunch counter, two smokes in 15 minutes over coffee and pie. Pay was good, and payday was celebrated with a steak dinner with my buddy Ray, at a joint just outside town limits, where they didn’t ask for ID. We’d laugh about the customers, and the hapless cashier who almost got fired for cashing someone’s pay stub (not the actual paycheque).

When I graduated high school, I left to work for my father. The store closed down soon after, as the big chains started to re-invent themselves and break the collective agreements that made it possible for full-time staff to raise a family.

Years later, I don’t miss the job, but I still have empathy for the staff I see in grocery stores, even if they don’t pack my groceries anymore. I really appreciate the ones that are good at their jobs. I recently complimented a cashier on how he kept the items neat after he scanned them. He seemed surprised (I think he thought I was going to complain!) and then he looked really pleased.

He’s my kind of cashier. Not like the ones that keep shoving the items along like it’s a battle of wills. Don’t make me use my serious face. Look, I can pack faster than anyone in this store. Yes, I know there’s a crappy shelf at the end that pulls out. Those eggs you just shoved down hard enough to break one, that’s on you. Now get on the PA and get me another dozen.

One cashier remarked on how well I packed my purchase (you should see me throw cans from left hand to right!). Told him about three years on the front lines and he told his co-worker, “This guy is an OG!”

High praise indeed.

(Not, it doesn’t stand for “Old Guy”. “Original Gangster” is a compliment that all us cool kids use.)

My expertise goes beyond packing. I’ve checked the sale flyers in advance. My cart is organized by sectors – produce, bakery, meat, dairy and non-perishables. While I may have forgotten my list on the counter at home (that’s the Old Guy part of OG), I do know what I need, what’s on sale, and what’s a good deal. I know where to look for “Manager’s Specials”.

And I cannot stress this enough, I don’t touch every damn piece of produce trying to find the perfect one, because I’m not a sociopath who believes that everyone else should get my manhandled rejects at the same price I’m paying. If I pick up a real dud, I set it on the produce staffer’s cart.

If I only need a couple of things in an aisle, I park my cart out of the way and move swiftly down the path, Ninja-style, so smoothly that the other shoppers may not even see me, while they choose those five minutes to wonder what kind of crackers to buy, because THEY DON’T HAVE A PLAN!

It’s not a race …

Look, it’s not a race, but I’ve likely won, if the guy still looking at the crackers is any form of measurement. By the time he finally decides on the first box he saw, I’m putting my items on the belt, sorted by sectors, large cotton bags at the ready, reward app on my phone, debit card close at hand. Direct eye contact with the cashier. We’re in it together, so don’t screw this up.

And in the car, coolers with freezer packs awaiting the cold stuff. Stuff from previous errands out of the way.

Do I enjoy grocery shopping? No. I’m so very tired of it. Being bad at it will not help. I’m gonna win that race every time, come home with some bargains (only fools and billionaires pay regular price for toilet paper), and look at the list, still on the counter, just to be sure I got everything.

Brad Dale
Brad Dale

Dad to daughters. Daideo to Sprocket and Spark. Makes his wife laugh. Chief cook and bottle tilter. Proud owner of two sheds. Prefers looking through a lens, reading off paper, music over silence, movement over meditation. If there’s a hereafter, he hopes it has a waterfront view, nice lineup of cordless tools and a well-stocked workshop. Send feedback to:

Our Columnists

Pam Handley Pat Madill Stamp
Phil Koning Brad Dale
Natasha Wiatr
Dave Dale Natasha Wiatr

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