This feature originally ran on August 3, 2003.
Throughout my teenage years, my dad had this annoying habit of forcing one of my brothers or me to go with him to the grocery store. Since I was the one with mild social anxiety disorder I was usually at home and therefore was most often chosen as his celery-stalking sidekick.
I hated going. Picking out bread isn't exactly the kind of character-building activity your average 16-year-old looks forward to. I would try to get out of it but was never able to come up with adequate reasons not to go. Saying that I'd rather stay home and watch TV while he went out and shopped for my food wasn't an excuse easily swallowed by the old man. I couldn't rightly say, "Sorry Dad, but there's a Simpsons rerun on that I have to watch. We're out of cookies -- get the chewy kind!"
So I went. A lot.
Certainly my father would rather be watching TV, too. After a long day of work, the last thing anyone wants to do is jockey for position in a giant, congested space full of other people competing for the same stack of beans, each of whom is just as unhappy to be there. Grocery shopping is a laboratory rat maze, conducted on a gigantic scale -- a mega-research project that food makers and vendors operate in order to understand why and how we make decisions. Hot or mild? White or wheat? Butter or margarine? Crunchy or smooth? Left or right? Like rats, we're unwitting subjects; all we're looking for is something to eat. Our activities are monitored, our eating habits are tracked, our spending trends are noted and our taste buds are targeted. Marketers know more about what's in our stomachs than we do. I'd prefer to keep my cheese-filled hot dog addiction to myself, thank you.
Nonetheless, at least once a week, usually more, we would wander the fluorescent-lit maze collecting provisions for the next few days. He took point while I trailed behind, fetching spaghetti sauce or orange juice like some organ grinder's monkey. Non-food related conversation consisted mostly of me responding to his queries about my day that school was "fine" and that I had learned "nothing," but by-and-large I simply moseyed behind in a lackadaisical stupor. While I wielded considerable influence over what types of cereal my brothers ate, I would have given up that power faster than you can say "Cinnamon Toast Crunch."
Fig1. The aisles of a supermarket: torture to any teen.
He shopped and I followed, nervous that somebody would see what a loser I was for being stuck in a grocery store when I should be out partying and losing things like inhibition and virginity -- the narcissistic reasoning of a teenager. He would often ask me what I wanted or what we needed or if I'd happened to notice how much milk was left the last time I'd opened the fridge. I was rarely able to offer an adequate answer but that never stopped him from asking. Mostly he was just thinking out loud as he pictured our pantry in his mind. It's hard enough knowing what one person's needs and wants are. For him to know what the house needed -- with three teenage boys under roof with unpredictable growth spurts, persistent appetites and poor appreciation for the dangers of refined sugar -- is a task tantamount to being elected president or programming the alarm on a digital wristwatch. What for me was a necessary-but-evil ritual in which I was convinced that strangers were judging me was, for him, a monumental exercise in memory and clairvoyance. Having one of his progeny with him was less about companionship than about having an excuse to talk to himself without involving the staff of the nearby psychiatric hospital.
Being a regular, I became an avid observer of human behavior. A couple of instances spring to mind as particularly interesting.
As with most instances in which strangers are forced to interact with each other, grocery shopping affords many opportunities for violence. I remember returning from an assignment to get a head of lettuce -- one of the few tasks I was moderately capable of successfully completing -- to find my father and the cart near the bagel containers. I could see the tension in his body as I approached. He was angrily eyeing a man a few feet away who peered back with similar distaste. It was immediately apparent that the shit had hit the fan and I had stepped into the room while it was still in the air.
"Who are you, the Lone Ranger?" said my father as I moved into the wingman position. The man, who was much smaller than either of us and had unkempt curly brown hair didn't take the question literally. He responded in a tone and volume that men adopt when trying to sound both threatening and clever.
"Yeah, well your wife--" His eyes shifted to me. "Oh, I see your wife's already here," he said, apparently trying to imply that I was my father's wife, which struck me as rather unreasonable because wouldn't I be his husband? By the very nature of confrontation, though, logic takes a back seat to a desire to demean the other guy. Most males when faced with conflict opt to either attack a man's family or call into question his sexual orientation. This guy had done both. One thing I had to admire about him however and still thank him for was his sense of self-preservation, an instinct that rarely turns off. He left immediately and quickly, which was a smart move considering we both outnumbered and outweighed him.
Fig2. To fight over bagels is not kosher.
But the Lone Ranger wasn't free from danger just yet. My father was pissed and he wasn't about to let some little pipsqueak have the last word. Telling him that he should use tongs to get bagels instead of his hands is one thing but insult his children, his manhood and his marital status and you're asking for it. I had to step in his way to stop him from giving chase. There are certain, rare instances when wailing on a guy is a really good idea, but this wasn't one of them. Visions of policemen hauling my father away in handcuffs while paramedics treat the Lone Ranger for tong-shaped puncture wounds filled my head. I could almost see the fleet of squad cars parked outside the store, their flashing lights advertising my genetic lack of impulse control. The cops would collect our cart as evidence, taking my chewy cookies with them and bystanders would stand, gawking and whispering, "Some guy went nuts... He tried to kill that man... I think that's his husband over there, the one holding the lettuce." Our pictures would be in the papers and the attack would be the talk of the town. I couldn't let that happen.
We resumed shopping and for the first time in my life I was content to just shop. But impulse and anger make for a volatile mixture and my father was in no short supply. Without saying anything, he somehow gave me the slip, leaving me with the cart. I frantically looked around, trying to remain calm and listening intently for the sound of shouting and scuffling or breaking glass and for the telltale wail of police sirens. Finally, and much to my relief, he appeared around the corner. His adrenaline had apparently run its course because he seemed more relaxed. "I was gonna let rocket here do the talking," he said, brandishing a fist and chuckling. He was no longer out for blood, just bagels, and I breathed easy for the first time in minutes.
On another trip, we were just getting ready to check out when I noticed a woman looking at my father. She was older, rail thin, had brittle white hair and moved at a glacial pace. Her jaw was on the floor, stretching her wrinkled countenance into one of pure elation. There was no mistaking the target of her attention and it didn't take long to figure what had her so enraptured. "You're Burt Reynolds!" she exclaimed, her voice a near-orgasmic mix of surprise and certainty. Of all celebrities, my father resembles Burt Reynolds the most, but that isn't saying much. He has a thick mustache, dark, combed hair and a somewhat round face, not to mention two eyes, a nose and a chin, but the similarities end there. Burt Reynolds isn't such a bad celebrity to be mistaken for, a lot better than hearing "You're Dom Delouise!" or "You're the Fargo guy!", but still. My dad reacted with nearly as much surprise as she did and a heap of unnecessary yet justified embarrassment and told her she was wrong. He apologized for letting her down but his message didn't get through. She was convinced. And to someone with deteriorating cataracts, it's a perfectly reasonable mistake to make.
Fig3. This is not Eric's father.
I watched the scene unfold with a certain delight. Her bony arms were in front of her as if the Virgin Mary had just appeared next to the Jesus candles in the salsa aisle and she shuffled towards him in slow motion, not once taking her eyes off his face. Clearly, Burt Reynolds was high on her list and I couldn't help but wonder under what context she'd celebrated the former sex symbol. She'd probably followed his career from its inception when he was the ruggedly handsome main character in the dreams of unsatisfied women, through the '70s to his days on the big screen killing opportunistic sexual predators in the South, right up to his later years in which he defied all odds by proving that a man can be a member of AARP and still turn heads. I imagined her collection of his movies gathering dust next to her television console and the stack of aged magazines in her attic bearing his trademark confidence and composure. She'd aged with Burt Reynolds, watched his hair fade and his skin sag along with hers. And now here he was, four feet from her, in a working-class suburb of Chicago shopping for pretzels and noodles with an awkward teenager. But she didn't notice me or the noodles: She was star struck. "Burt Reynolds..." was all she could say as we moved to the checkout lines, thankful, not for the first time, for our ability to out-walk the elderly.
I saw her again a few months later as we were exiting the store. My father didn't see her but she sure saw Burt Reynolds. She gasped, her eyes widened, her hands moved towards him reflexively and she wanted to say something but we left too quickly. I like to think that she believes she actually saw Burt Reynolds. That she tells her children and grandchildren about him, how she almost touched him and how handsome he was in real life. I like to think that she's dusted off those old magazines, carefully reads through them, loses herself in the pictures and looks forward to her next trip to the grocery store for another glimpse of Burt. Possibly fighting over bagels.