The Grand Union supermarket is completely out of place here in town. Large and bulky, it sits awkwardly on Milford's outskirts, its parking lot empty and longing for customers. Inside, hundreds of fruits and vegetables sigh in their refrigerated homes, just waiting to be fondled, thumped, felt. The aisles are all but deserted most of the time, a few cashiers and a stockboy wandering the aisles, straightening bags of potato chips and jars of jam that haven't been touched in ages.
It's not that people in Milford don't need food, it's just that Grand Union, time and time again, is passed over for its larger, newer, brighter counterparts. The Shop Rite, the Price Chopper, the Super Wal Mart. They're bigger, and cheaper, and they have more than one register open at all times. The selection they offer is grander, fresher, than the Grand Union's, their buildings are whiter and fancier, boasting bakeries and real butchers. Their rows throb with activity, shopping carts rolling in all directions, piloted by countless residents. The Grand Union has none of that. Muzak falls from hidden speakers, serenading the lonely store and its few shoppers, and the fluorescent lights hum overhead, passing the time until the hour of closing rolls around.
The clerks, most barely past sixteen, chat with one another over empty aisles, hardly paying attention to the few people who graze the store in search of the one last-minute item they forgot at one of the bigger stores. A bottle of Coke, a pack of hot dog buns, some Tylenol. Their big rush entails no more than five people, causing a delay in checking out that feels like hours. The cashiers know the customers, and people chat as the register beeps its way through the conveyor belt of purchases. They talk about family, school, work, or gossip while the customers dig for money and the cashier bags the items. The process takes forever.
But today, it's different. Today, our tri-state area is limited to only one grocery store. With a flood shutting down all other alternatives, people have no choice but to swarm the Grand Union and buy the things they were hoping to get at Price Chopper. The cashiers look at each other over lines that morph from one or two people to twenty, moving items over the scanner with a speed to which they are not accustomed. There are actual people in aisles, filling their carts with salad and dessert and feminine products.
Today, I needed Ginger Ale. That was it. And normally, I head to our Super Wal Mart for such purchases, because shopping at Wal Mart allows me to spend a minimum of fifty dollars on things I don't need. And, that, I enjoy. But a main road that leads to the now-flooded Wal Mart is closed, its yellow lines beneath the murky overflow of the Delaware. So I drove into Grand Union, the insides of a store that I've only ever seen when I was running low on something and needed it now. But I had to cruise a spot in the parking lot, and inside I had to wait while people surveyed the selection and blocked the row of soda. And, having secured my three bottles of Ginger Ale, I headed to check out.
Before me were five lanes open, an occurrence I've never - never - encountered in the GU. The lines leaked away from the registered and slithered through the passage between checkout and aisles. People leaned on their overstuffed carts, or shifted the weight of their purchases from one arm to another as they waited. The Express lane pulsed with people, their one or two items bobbing in their impatient arms, while they looked around in disbelief. Frustration set in on the customers, who rolled their eyes and checked for other cashiers. I can't believe it's taking this long. I only came in for one thing. Who are all these people? was written across their faces as plain as day. But with Milford being gateway to all points beyond it, what with the interstate and most main bridges closed, foreigners trickled in, stealing the time, and spaces in line, from us residents.
With my bottles cradled in my bare arms, I made my way to the shortest line. It had just been opened, and the purchases of the lady before me were steadily making their way over the scanner and into her bags. Perfect, I thought, as I noticed myself moving forward, and my fellow shoppers in their respective other lines standing still. I can't believe my luck.
And then, it happened.
"That'll be $32. 78," the teenaged cashier, who was so new she hadn't yet earned the rights to the navy blue Grand Union shirt worn by the rest of the employees, said to the woman in front of me.
"Okay," she said, setting her young son in the seat of her cart. She dug through her massive purse. And there it was: The Checkbook. She flipped the green checkbook case open while simultaneously clicking her pen to life. "Can I just sign it? I mean, do you guys fill it out?" Her pen hovered above her personalized checks, waiting for instruction.
"Uh, no?" the cashier replied, more questioning than telling, apparently confused by the notion of her filling out her customer's check.
"So, it's not like Wal Mart then? Where I can just, you know, sign it, and give it to you, and then the computer fills it out for me?"
"No," said the cashier, with more authority this time.
"Oh. Uh, well. Okay then." The customer nodded, apparently accepting the cashier's disappointing news. "Well. I'll just, uh, fill it out then."
My three bottles of Ginger Ale just sat there, inches away from being scanned, halted by this woman's confusion. I looked at them, so close, yet so far. I looked at the woman.
"How much did you say it was again?" She squinted her eyes at the register.
"$32.78," sighed the cashier. People were beginning to pile up behind us, their groceries gathering like angry villagers.
The lady ripped the check from her book and handed it to the cashier with a smile. The cashier, who had just begun staring into the distance, accepted it gladly, and furiously typed numbers into her machine.
"I'm gonna need your ID," she said.
We all waited while the lady pried it form her wallet.
The register beeped angrily, little number signs taking the place that just moments ago displayed the lady's total. She cashier looked past me, to the customer service desk behind me, and picked up a little white phone and waited for an answer. "It says over limit," she hissed into the receiver, "but it's only for, like, thirty dollars."
The customer service rep, who was right behind me, hung up her phone and spoke over me to the cashier. "You just need manager approval. Page Dave."
And she did. And we waited, each of us in the line madly surveying the store for Dave to appear. I watched the other customers in the other lines, the ones I was moving ahead of, as they collected their bagged items and strode through the automatic doors to their waiting cars. One line emptied entirely. AND CLOSED. A sigh traveled through our line.
Dave emerged from the juice aisle and ran up to our cashier. "It says over limit," she explained again, "but it's only for thirty bucks."
"I have money in my account," Check Lady announced, as though we were all doubting her financial health.
"Of course, ma'am. That's fine. Actually, it's because you wrote a check at our other store this week. That's all. No problem at all," said Dave, typing his override into the register. "Now," he said, turning his attention to the cashier, his smile and his pleasant demeanor remaining constant through the exchange, as though unaffected by the exponential rise in his daily traffic, "you just have to write over limit on here, and you're all set." He patted the cashier on the back and looked at those of us standing in line. "You guys have a nice day now."
The receipt printed, and the Lady of the Checks was on her way. In less than a minute, my bottles were scanned and paid for. All that waiting, for that.
The thing is, even if I had been in the Grand Union a few days ago, when it was all but deserted, I could almost guarantee that I still would've gotten stuck behind someone writing a check, or someone who picked the one jar of salsa without a barcode, thereby requiring a price check. I always pick the wrong goddamn line.