December 2, 2012

How We Blindos Do Things, Part 8: Groceries


Along with the usual “how do you write?” and “how do you find your house?” and “how do you find the bar?” questions, every once in a while someone will ask me how I buy groceries.

            It’s not a bad question, and my usual response is “randomly.” It’s not that far off the mark. More often than I’d care to admit I’ll get home to find I’ve accidentally bought blueberry-flavored beer, or a box of corn starch, or a jar of artificial chicken-flavored fat. I have almost no use for any of those things (though the fake fat can come in handy sometimes). As you might imagine, this can be very frustrating, usually the result of not paying attention. I’ll know what I’m reaching for and where it should be, but if I’m standing six inches to the left of where I should be and don’t notice that I’m grabbing a jar instead of a box, well, there you go— the fridge will now be stocked with artichoke hearts just waiting for the right occasion. Not being able to see what I’m grabbing is what cost me a reasonably lucrative career as a petty thief.

            Yeah, when you’re a blindo who lives alone, groceries can be a real son of a bitch, but a necessary son of a bitch. In order to pull it off with at least a seventy percent success rate, I’ve worked out a system. Whenever I find myself confronted with a new grocery store (and I mean fairly small places—forget about the likes of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. I don’t know how the perfectly sighted find shit in there, let alone put up with the rampant assholery), first thing I need to do is make a mental map of the layout. This takes Morgan’s help. I’ll tell her all the things I might regularly be looking for, and she’ll lead me around the store a few times on a few occasions until I can find everything myself. After that I’m on my own and the only thing that can really fuck me up is when the store, for some godforsaken reason, decides to reorganize all the shelves. It happens more often than you can imagine—and once it does, I’m screwed for a while.

            Okay, now that I know pretty much where things are supposed to be and I’ve established a few permanent landmarks to get me there (second cooler from back, handle to the right, top shelf second carton from left, etc.) the next trick is finding exactly what it is I’m looking for in and amongst all the overwhelming thousands of other products surrounding me.

            (It is pretty sick if you think about it, how much crap we cram into supermarkets. When he was bitching about American excess and decadence back in the thirties, Maxim Gorky had no idea how bad and insane things would get.)

            The trick, I found, came from all the phenomenology I studied back when I was a philosophy student. Who knew that shit would ever come in handy? But phenomenology, see, in part at least, is a matter of paying obsessively analytical attention to what your senses are doing. Since I can’t use my eyes to just, you know, read the damn label, I have to use everything else at my disposal. It sounds obvious, but it’s trickier than you might think until you put it to regular use.

            (I’m not allowed to discuss blindo superpowers, so I’ll try to keep everything on an earthly and comprehensible level.)

            It seems pretty banal to say that most products are shaped differently, but most products are shaped differently. But what if you’re looking for a specific kind of beer on the shelf? That gets a little tougher, but different beer bottles are shaped and decorated differently as well. Some have shorter necks, others have paper labels, some have foil labels, some are made out of heavier glass, and the texture and molding of the glass varies. Six pack cartons are shaped differently, too.

            But that’s the most obvious beginning. Things have different textures and densities and sounds if you shake them. No two breakfast cereals weigh or sound the same. Wonder Bread feels different—both in shape and density—from real bread. If you turn a flimsy plastic pint container upside down, blueberries don’t sound like grape tomatoes. The textures differ on all the assorted brands of coffee bricks. Different brands of soup come in different-sized cans.

            So if you’re the type who’s adamant about your brand loyalty, finding what you’re looking for usually ain’t all that difficult.

            What this all means is that I spend a lot of time in the grocery store wandering slowly up and down the aisles, fondling things. I’ve all but got the system down, but it still tends to make store employees and other customers a little nervous.

            The real hard part—and the trick I haven’t quite cracked yet—is taking that one level down. Once you find the brand you’re looking for, finding a specific item of that brand is a crapshoot. There’s no discernible difference that I’ve found yet between a brick of espresso and a brick of that abomination, decaf, or between regular real beer and useless non-alcoholic fake beer. I’ve been fooled on both counts, which eventually prompted me to switch over to brands that aren’t constantly trying to fool me into buying abominations and uselessness.

            Beyond dramatic differences like that, there’s a cheap marketing trend that started a few decades back that has gotten completely out of hand. Namely, a single, simple product—chips, say, or cranberry juice—suddenly being released in a dozen different varieties. The packages are all identical to the touch, but the contents are vastly different. Suddenly it’s impossible to find regular damn orange juice anymore; it’s all fucking “orange-pork” and “orange-leather.” It’s an aggravating trend that unfortunately seems to work like a charm on the sheep, and screws me up no end. Remember plain Doritos? They used to exist. But now more than anything, this insistence on flavoring every damn thing out there is what plays hob with my grocery shopping. I thought buying a goddamn bottle of water would be the easiest thing in the world—until they started adding aloe chunks to some of them.

            Of course all this nonsense could be solved quickly and easily if I just switched to a fresh produce diet exclusively, or simply asked some kindly old lady for a little help. But neither one of those is going to be happening any time soon.


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