The Earth is a very populated planet, even after factoring in the fleeing billionaires. According to a recent survey that I just made up there are over 20 billion people roaming around, and although there is no scientific explanation for why this is they all visit my local grocery store whenever I am there.
There was a time when this wasn’t too much of a problem, as American grocery stores once sported aisles wider than Ike’s shiny new interstates. Such space wasn’t a luxury, by the way. Well into the 1980s, according to federal law aisles had to be two hair-do’s wide, be they bouffants, Afros, or hair teased higher and wider than Jon Bon Jovi’s. (I’ll never forget the sight of two would-be hair metal guitarists in aisle six of the Rockin’ Ralph’s grocery store on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard, their teased bangs locked together like sheep horns after they both lunged for the same pack of Top Ramen.)
While our hairstyles have shrunk by at least 80 percent since the Aqua Net days, our backsides have widened 180 percent. This is in part due to the fact that the average grocery store carries 49 different varieties of sugary barbecue sauce which, by the way, are the only items in the store that cannot be purchased with pieces of real Oreo cookies mixed right in. And what’s a “real” Oreo cookie anymore? That once ubiquitous black and white cookie can now be found in over 100 varieties, including DQ Blizzard Oreos, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Oreos, and Red Lobster Peppercorn Panko Calamari Oreos.
Americans love grocery variety, and they have the thighs and bellies to prove it. All of those choices take up a lot of space, though, so the once boulevard-wide aisles of the local grocery have been reduced to narrow alleyways barely wide enough for two carts to pass without rubbing. The situation is even worse in boutique grocery stores: The average width of a Trader Joe’s aisle is 8.75 inches. (Incidentally, if you happen to bump another cart while passing simply shout “Intimidator 3!” and keep moving. You’re in the lead now.)
And so with 30 billion people on the planet, many of whom are now the width and same general shape as a 1975 AMC Pacer, making one’s way through the corner grocery store presents many logistical challenges. Yes, and most of those challenges can be if not eliminated then at least mitigated if when we’re shopping we try to remain small. The good news is that this kind of small requires neither exercise nor diet; rather, all you really need to do is pay attention to the space that you occupy. Here are some examples:
Drive on the right side of the road. Or if you’re reading in a country where grocery carts are called trolleys, drive on the left. The point here is that we all know how traffic works, and while those laws may not apply in the grocery aisle life simply flows better if we share common practices. Another good traffic rule to follow is….
Stay in your lane when turning corners. What happens when you’re turning left at a busy intersection and you don’t stay in your lane? You run into opposing traffic. It kind of makes sense, then, that if you hug that tortilla display at the end of aisle three you’re probably going to bump into the poor chump turning right at the end of aisle four, doesn’t it?
Park on the shoulder. Let’s say you’re toodling along and oh boy! A BOGO on Vienna sausages, what luck! Go ahead and fill up your cart with mystery meat, but shove that trolley up against the shelves first. Better yet, stash it behind one of those annoying cardboard displays that merchants block half of the aisle with. Sure, somebody might want to get to the merchandise your cart is blocking, but without question somebody will want to get down the aisle you otherwise would have blocked with your cart. Speaking of which…
Don’t park your cart on one side of the aisle and then stand next to it and stare at the other side of the aisle. For the duration of your visit, you are the width of your body plus the width of your cart. Bend over to look at the bottom aisle and you’re even wider. Even a small child or Tom Cruise can block an entire aisle simply by squatting next to his or her cart while looking for the best deal on a gallon jug of Miracle Whip.
Only split lanes when it’s safe to do so. Where I live it’s perfectly legal for two motorcyclists to ride side by side provided that traffic conditions allow for it. The same concept holds true for grocery stores. Bring the whole family–heck, bring your sprint cycle class–but single file it when the joint is jumping. This is especially true if you’re a two grocery cart family. Blocking the whole aisle like a chunk of Velveeta blocking an artery is not being small.
Turn your cart sideways near the checkout stand. This is probably my favorite move for staying small in the grocery store. Most stores leave a wide gap between the checkout stands and the merchandise aisles. The checkout lanes themselves are normally two carts long, so beginning with customer number three the queue backs up into this no man’s land separating shopping from paying. During busy times this whole area turns into a traffic jam of city center proportions.
Now, remember that whole “you plus the cart is your width” math? When you’re standing in no man’s land this math changes to your length–you’re blocking roughly six feet of intersection simply by standing behind your cart, which is pointed toward your future cashier. This is why when I’m number three or four in line I turn my cart sideways and stand next to it. I’m now essentially on the no man’s land median–opposing traffic can get past me on either side.
Focus on your transaction. Your turn to check out is not a good time to play with or talk on your phone. You may think that you’re a great multi-tasker, but Chet the Bag Boy has asked you three times if you want paper or plastic and the stupid little ATM card reader is screaming “BOMP BOMP BOMP” trying to get your attention because you didn’t press the enter key after you typed your PIN and the cashier is politely repeating “Sir? Sir? Sir?” because she needs your date of birth for that case of White Claw you picked up for some reason. Meanwhile, the line behind you is backed up all the way to–hey look, Vienna sausages are on sale! May as well grab some of these while I wait….
No bagger? Start bagging your own. Purchasing a squirt bottle full of Grey Poupon hardly elevates you to the ruling class. I don’t know about your grocery store but mine always seems to be short about 30 baggers, and the two on duty are usually busy running to do price checks on 50 gallon drums of gluten-free Ragu. Don’t just stand there like the Marquis de Frankenberry: Grab a bag and start jamming your purchases into it. Every minute your groceries are rolling around at the end of the conveyor is another minute that the poor schlubs behind you have to stand in line, so bag as much as you can until help arrives, which often it doesn’t. Besides, bagging groceries is fun. It’s like 3-D Tetris.
Put your cart away. Don’t just be small inside the store. Dumping your cart in the middle of the parking lot can block as many as four parking spaces. Just roll the damned thing to the cart corral. Heck, ride on the back of it like a scooter and have some fun while you’re at it. Whee!
There’s room for all 40 billion of us at the Piggly Wiggly if we simply exercise a little situational awareness, or what was called common courtesy back in the days of bouffant hair-do’s. There’s even a bit of satisfaction inherent to being present for what you’re doing–for being aware of the space that you occupy at any given moment and how that affects the world around you. Give it a try, and if it’s not to your taste you can always try some of those new Cool Ranch Oreos. There’s a whole display of them blocking aisle six.