Someone is talking to me hurriedly, softly. I'm staring at Anaheim peppers. Looking at the peppers, I ask: Why does Safeway have to advertise the prices for two items? Just tell me the price per item. Not that I can't divide a number by two. I can. I can do long division in my head. Two digits into three is my limit, though. When I fill up my gas tank, I divide the miles from the last tank by the gallons used so I can track the mileage. Usually, I'm hurriedly doing this while pulling out of the gas station. Driving, dividing, deciding on where to head next. What's the traffic like? Punching up the traffic map on my smart phone. 26mpg. Good. No change in mileage. Don't have to worry about car maintenance.
Is Safeway going to charge me more if I buy one? They don't say. I peer at the little print on the two-for-XX-dollars sign. Really though, does it matter to me? It'll be a difference of a few cents. Not enough to make me buy two peppers. But it irritates to have to think it through.
What? Have I found everything OK? Sure, sure. I guess so. It's the produce guy. He's talking fast about the specials. Did I want to try a raspberry? Did I know the seedless grapes were on special? I shift from thinking about misleading advertising to the produce guy. Slowly I realize he's got some kind of disability. I can't shake him. I push the oversized cart down the aisle. Why are there random stacks of specials placed on the corners? I can't turn this big cart around them without squeezing the folks coming the other way. Over my shoulder, I hear the produce guy talk-whispering at me, but I'm concentrating now.
Shopping here is tense. It's like many places in the city now. A nervous energy permeates. I think of the Safeways we used to go to when I was a kid, freshly arrived in San Francisco. 1975. The carts were smaller. They didn't have those radio-controlled brakes that suddenly grind to a halt if you push the cart past the boundary of the parking lot. We were pretty poor then, but the closest Safeway was the famous one in the Marina District. It had and has a view of the Bay, and of the Golden Gate Bridge. Famous, because it's allegedly a pick-up joint for singles. Seems doubtful that was ever true. We'd walk through the store, loading up on bulk items for our family of six, picking out Asian canned goods or Mexican items that we'd have never seen in our grocery store in Dearborn Heights, MI. Avocados. Tortillas. The store was quiet. You could feel the fog if you walked by the electric doors. The aisles clean. No advertising stickers on the floor. People pushed their small carts down the right side of the aisles, like they were driving, sticking close to the side of the aisle.
Ahead of me are young people. Too young to be so large. They are pushing their carts, oblivious to others, doing that rolling gait people do when fashion requires them to step with their heel on the extra fabric of their baggy jeans. We're all executing a random walk - dodging each other, dodging the piled, undesired goods on special that lean in, threatening to topple. I'm just as intent on not getting run into as I am on picking out goods. Cheap plastic boxes hang at head level with blinking LEDs. Coupons wave in my face. Tiny banners flying for the corporate nations of Nabisco-landia and Nestle-stan. I'm tempted to slap the boxes off the shelves so I can navigate freely.
There's a Safeway downtown near Jackson Square. I remember a decade ago staggering through the empty, clean aisles. Tipsy, after a nice dinner out with friends and maybe too much wine. No matter. I'm on foot, so no danger of a DUI or worse. I'm by myself, looking for Ben and Jerry's. The store is quiet, the Financial District types have gone home long ago. Somehow I can feel the weight of the skyscraper above me, but it feels all right. It's the only Safeway I've been in that is in a skyscraper. A different kind of inner city pressure than the pressure I'm feeling tonight.
Tonight. The grimy carts of my fellow shoppers are filled with canned cranberry sauce. Vodka. Lots of bags of snack foods that I don't even recognize. There's a whole universe of snack foods I don't know about. Something about the packaging though, tips it off. A sort of electric look to the bags and molded plastic containers. Yellow seems a common color for snack food packaging. It jars to look at it. But look at it I have to as I push towards a cashier. Whoops, no, have to change lines. The woman at the front is arguing with the cashier about an advertisement or a coupon. Most times I come here there is someone arguing about a coupon.
We used coupons too, when I was a kid. I don't pay any attention now, but we did then. Actually, we paid much more attention to the labeled prices for staples. I got good at dividing two-digit numbers into three digit numbers. We tried hard to buy at the lowest price/weight. Back then, there was not a mandate to label the price/weight that we have now. So, I did the arithmetic when we shopped. Not that anyone reads the price/weight on labels at Safeway today. But the numbers are there. I see them when I look at the misleading "2-for-XX-dollars" advertisement signs.
At the front of the line, I volley the customary Safeway cashier questions: no, no, yes, cash. Goods in the cart, I push out the door. Cool air in my face. I trundle the cart through the stained asphalt parking lot just like everyone else. Away from the doors and people now, I run with the cart and gain some speed. Jumping up with my feet on the lower bar, hands on the red plastic cart handle, I ride through the parking lot like it was 1975.