20140720.soulShop

We didn’t go out to eat much when I was a kid. Sometime during my family’s life in Oklahoma City, my older siblings so upset my parents by dropping the “f” bomb in a burger joint called Big Ed’s that they swore they’d never take us out again.

For several years thereafter, we looked forward to running regular errands together because we knew we weren’t going anywhere else for entertainment. We clung to the promise of adventure, never faltering in our hope of potentially shopping just long enough that we might get to pet a lobster, or that the bakery might give out some stale cookies. At minimum, we were able to tear down the aisles, ripping in-store coupons from the automatic dispensers while my parents sipped samples of Eight O’Clock Coffee and chatted with neighbors. When there was so much to get into while shopping, there was little need for pricey visits to amusement parks or summer pool passes.

The tradition of shopping in groups carried on for years. Leaving the house without family members translated to no less than insult. While I was in high school and college, my mom worked at a deli in the nicest grocery store in town, and sometimes my siblings, our friends, and I would take the three-mile trip there just to say “hi” and get a slice of cheese. Around that time, my father hated Starbucks coffee, but he would drive to the truck stop and buy a cup just to see my brother or sister-in-law. Shopping meant seeing and being with people we loved.

As an adult, I still love going on errands, but most of the time, I treat it as a way to get out of the house. Sometimes I invent errands just to drive down the street. For this reason, it doesn’t make sense that I find myself irritated when the employees of the local drugstore welcome me as I walk inside. I’ve never been antisocial, and I’d actually call myself a “people person,” but when I shop, my mission takes over and my desire for efficiency takes precedence—even to the point of idiocy. Despite knowing that I will inevitably scan something wrong and need assistance, I opt for self-checkouts whenever possible. When my husband and I grocery shop, I carry the list and we divide the duties like it’s a timed scavenger hunt. I cross off each item and we congratulate ourselves when we leave the store in less than 20 minutes.

Because I’m so anxious to get through shopping without interacting with anyone, I have to wonder why I make so many excuses to go in the first place. When I spend time reading the ingredient labels of jams and jellies, I see no one and nothing but keywords that tell me whether or not I should put this raspberry spread into my basket. Maybe I’m looking for some white noise or some new scenery while I continue living in an isolated but public space.

I should know better than to waste the unique opportunities that commerce affords. More than once, people have chosen to see and interact with me when they could have kept reading magazines, picking out tomatoes, or pulling on their shoes. In marketplaces, strangers have reminded me of the impact of cracking the surface of small talk in an increasingly impersonal world.

Once, when I was a teen, I was in a department store formerly known as Kaufmann’s, and my father and I were passing the women’s shoe department. He decided that we’d bargain hunt, and as I was pretending to browse, he hoisted an enormous box and called to me across the sale section, “What about these? They’re a deal!”

Upon opening the box, I laughed.

They were tan, fake-leather go-go boots.

After trying to reject his ludicrous suggestion a few times, I took the box over to the muted gray lounge chairs and sat next to a big, older middle-aged woman with a mountain of high heels and comfort wedges piled at her feet.

As I zipped up the long side of the boot, I began to feel like I was crossing the boundaries of my dirty tennis shoes and athletic sandals and into an entirely new sphere of footwear.

Then the zipper stopped mid-calf. The fun was over.

“Look! See, Dad, they don’t fit. Now we can put them back.”

He cajoled me, claiming that they’d eventually loosen up, and I blamed him and my mom for giving me huge calves. After arguing a few minutes, I noticed that the woman next to me had been watching. She was holding one gold sandal and pointed it at me.

“Honey. Your daddy gave you those calves, and now he’s gonna give you those boots—and if I were younger and I had your calves, I would wear them. Now. Are you going to put them back on and take a look in that mirror over there?”

She wasn’t asking me any questions, so I opened the box and zipped them up again, this time a little faster than before. After I’d put on both boots, I walked over to the slanted foot mirror with both baggy jean legs rolled above my knees.

“Now look!” she said. “Just look at those.”

The two of us looked together. She praised me and told me to turn around, again and again.

“You’ve got to celebrate those calves, girl. You look good.”

My dad watched us, smiling in the victory, and picked up the box. He assured me later that I had nothing to lose because they had only cost $12.

For weeks, I excused myself from not breaking them in because of the northeastern Ohio ice, but eventually I started to wear them with sloppy, ill-fitting vintage dresses I’d found at Goodwill.

That woman in Kauffmann’s didn’t know my parents were in the middle of a divorce or that I was always short on dates (although my horrible fashion sense and bad attitude probably gave that away). I’d gotten the ugly duckling story my whole life, and for that moment I got a peek into what it might be like to be a swan, all because she was willing to interrupt my teenage tantrum. No one ever told me things like that. Since then, I’ve told this story and called her my fairy godmother because she sent me back into the halls of high school with enough confidence to occasionally glance around to see if anyone else was watching me.

I would have thought that the insecurities of adolescence would have disappeared within the next decade, but they simply shifted and the stakes only got higher.

In my first semester of graduate school, halfway across the country from that Kaufmann’s,-I met another person who dared to breech modern shopping etiquette with encouragement I really needed.

Early in my program, I struggled with wanting to make a career of academia while writing creatively. I was still delusional and warily optimistic. When I shared this with a colleague, he charitably reminded me that “not everyone can be a Virginia Woolf.”

I admitted defeat, but didn’t expect the next blow. He eyed the black motorcycle jacket I was wearing.

“Don’t you think you’re trying just a little hard?”

Trying too hard—the words hit me because at 23, I was being called a poser for wearing something I would have always worn. I questioned if it was too edgy for a conservative Texas environment, and if I should moderate my tone.

At social events on campus, I feigned confidence and tried to figure out how to bust into the cool club.

When I wasn’t rubbing elbows at department functions, I entertained myself with weekly visits to the grocery store, where I could exercise wardrobe experiments in relative safety.

One afternoon not too far removed from the aforementioned jacket- shaming, I ventured into the store wearing a party dress—a faded black A-line with cherries and graying tulle. I’d paired it with red shoes and more glitter than Dorothy’s ruby red slippers.

It was that outfit that attracted her, and I was no longer alone. While I was inspecting some cucumbers, I heard a woman call to me.

“Hey! Girl! You, in the dress.”

She was petite and carrying a sack of tomatoes on the vine.

“I saw you from over there, and I was like, ‘I have got to tell her. I got to.’ Girl, you are working that dress. Um-hm. With those shoes, too!”

Shocked to receive such loud affirmation in the vegetable aisle of the H.E.B., I could feel myself turning my toes inward.

The woman grabbed the attention of another shopper passing by and physically stopped her.

“Isn’t that dress cute?”

The arrested customer concurred and I volunteered that I’d had it almost a decade at that point, and that I thought that the black was fading.

I didn’t tell her that it had been a dress I bought for a homecoming dance that I was never asked to attend, or that I’d worn it out the night of that forfeited dance to meet my future step family at Bob Evans in Medina, Ohio, so I could get some use of it. It was, in effect, another attempt at repurposing my disappointment.

That day, I forgot all of that embarrassment because she told me that I was lucky to look so good in something that I had bought 10 years ago.

I thanked her again for her spontaneous, enthusiastic compliment and walked away stunned so senseless that I found myself dazed in front of a wall of noodles.

An aisle over, a girl on a ladder stocking soups stopped me.

“I love your dress!”

It must be a catching disease, I thought. All of a sudden on my way to the car, I was slinking like my cat used to after we’d shave all the burrs from his belly fur. I felt naked and stupid for standing out. This grocery store was haunted with an eerie amount of goodwill and I wished I could escape before being waylaid again. Despite feeling awkward for drawing so much unexpected attention, it was better to know that being myself wasn’t considered “trying too hard.”

In front of the cucumbers and to the side of the tomatillos, I wasn’t trying anything. I was working it. Whatever it was, I do not know, but it was enough for me that day to forget that I might not be able to make it as a serious writer or an academic.

If only my biggest issue were stabilizing my image. Ten months after this second encounter, I’d find myself far more desperate for someone to really see me.

In less than a year, I had buried immediate family members, faced other family emergencies, gotten engaged and married, and moved an hour away from school in order to split the traveling distance with my husband, who was also in graduate school at a university an hour north of where we lived. I told myself that we were decadently poor because we were electing to pursue post-baccalaureate degrees when we were certainly qualified for jobs that would earn us as much money as we make now.

Between us, my husband and I were driving almost a thousand miles a week. To cut costs during our first year and a half of marriage, we couch- surfed several nights a week in the homes of gracious friends. We’d pack a couple days’ worth of food, our backpacks for school, and our duffel bags, kiss (or not kiss, depending on how things were going), and say our goodbyes. Despite our efforts to save money, our cars suffered and required more maintenance than we could afford. Only a couple weeks into this schedule, my car broke down while I was at school and I had to stay a couple extra days until I could pick it up from the shop and drive home for the weekend.

As I was thumbing through some women’s magazine in the waiting room of the repair shop, a woman walked in with an already-open snack-size bag of Cheetos and a Big Texas Cinnamon Roll in one hand, and a perspiring can of Hawaiian Punch in the other. She selected a seat catty-corner to mine. She set down the punch and Cheetos and tore into the cinnamon roll.

I eyed the snacks, covetous and judgmental, wishing I could taste the sweet, sticky plastic gum of that obnoxious honey bun, or the salty Styrofoam taste of Cheetos—neither item I would ever allow myself to buy.

She caught me.

Seeing more skinny-girl censure than hungerlust in my stares, she said, “You’ve got a cute little figure. I let mine go a long time ago.”

Although I knew I had been judging her junk food, I was truly hungry that day.

“Actually, I was just looking at your food. It looks really good.”

I told her that I commuted a lot and always ran out of food before I could get home because I ate everything I packed and I didn’t want to buy anything extra. That day, I’d had a brick of ramen, a handful of nuts, and some wrinkled fruit.

“Do you want something?”

Feeling embarrassed, I told her no, and we moved on to talk about Texas heat in July, her concerns for her young daughter, school, and my being a newlywed.

Suddenly, she left the room without excusing herself.

She returned with another Big Texas bun in her hand. She held it out to me: “Take it. Get it away from me.”

If I could have laughed, I would have; but I cried. When I couldn’t stop sobbing, the quiet elderly woman who had been impassively glancing through a stack of Woman’s Day magazines exited the room.

At last I could talk between hiccups and gasps, and I asked her if she’d ever had one of those days that are so bad that you can’t explain them.

She nodded.

“Well, you just made my day so good that I can’t explain that either.”

“Honey, we all need those days. There’s someone watching out for you.”

She pointed up.

I kept crying and shaking my head in that car care center lobby as I unwrapped the gift and began to eat.

We continued to talk, and she wanted to know if I knew Christ, and if it were personal. I was glad to tell her that I did.

When she believed me, she told me that one day when she was taking a walk, she noticed this little purple flower along the sidewalk that was so intricate. She said she’d never thought about how we unknowingly trample ones like it, never realizing how complex and delicate they are.

“It’s strange, though,” I said. “It’s so much easier to realize when we do that to nature than when we do that to people—and that’s really messed up. It’s much, much harder to forgive.”

Her face changed and she quit talking. I swallowed the last bit of the bun and waited.

After a significant pause, she shared with me that she’d been to prison for 18 years for being an accessory to murder in a gang-related setup.

I didn’t know what to say, and she didn’t wait for me to figure it out, either.

She looked at me directly and told me that I was the daughter of the Living God, and that I might need to spend some more time with Him.

“You,” she said, “are a part of a very peculiar people. Don’t forget that.”

I’m sure I told her I knew that. She told me her name and as she was giving me her number, the mechanic paged her to let her know that her truck was ready.

After she had left and the front desk paged me to tell me that I owed $700 that I didn’t have, I laughed and rolled my eyes, telling God that if He wanted to send me a check along with that half-crazy Pentecostal Christian, I’d really appreciate it. Better yet, God, why don’t you let the murderer pay for my new timing belt, and then I’ll have something to write home about—something readymade for the inspirational aisle of Wal-Mart.

When I walked up to the sliding glass window, I was somewhat surprised that my balance wasn’t paid and even more surprised when their credit card machine rejected my check card. I had to call my husband to dictate our nearly maxed-out credit card number over the phone.

It’s one thing for a stranger to make fashion suggestions to teen girls or to compliment insecure young women. In my case, it affirmed the value of my body and my style when I doubted myself. The last woman, however, took an even greater risk in getting too personal when she dared to question the state of my spirit. She didn’t know that I had been spending most of my long drives to work and class crying and screaming when I was sure that the closest car was out of sight. Although I had told her I was a Christian, I was spending a lot of time wondering if God cared about my sadness, and wondering if it would ever end. She didn’t have to know that because she saw me. Christ, through that woman, had publicly declared the worth of my soul when I had come to doubt its maker.

Three years later, I concede that I have yet to become as intrepid as those women I met. Since then, I know that I have become a more “conscientious consumer,” concerned about how things are ethically sourced or humanely produced; but it’s pathetic that I so fear judgment from the cashier when I forget my cloth sacks that I forego breaking the ice to let her know that I see her as a person.

Seeing is a choice, and it’s not without a cost. That cashier who always shuts down my attempts at friendly chit chat makes me want to quit trying altogether. There’s this guy in the produce department who always wants to talk to my husband and me about his ideas of adult entertainment, which always leads me one step closer to reporting him to his manager. Once, when I said “good evening” to another man, he wouldn’t let me leave for about ten minutes without ranting about the inexcusable dearth of mango trees in Dallas. Yet I have to believe that choosing to see people and venturing to broach conversation while shopping maintains eternal significance.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a story about when the Son of Man will return in all His glory, and both those who enter the Kingdom of God and those who must depart from it will ask, “When did we see you?”

Maybe, during that long and wonderful conversation, He’ll say, “I was at the store.”

Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund teaches EFL and writes when she can. She received her MA in English from Baylor University. Before moving to Texas, she worked as a journalist in northeast Ohio. She is co-founder of Present Ghost, a blog of creative writing and music.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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