Last Saturday, during a very busy period at the grocery store, I had a line of about four carts waiting at my cash register when this harried black woman appeared in front of my register with her two kids. Each kid had a bag of frozen corn, and each one bought it as its own individual transaction.
I think this was because, since the didn't want their purchase bagged, they were eligible to enter in the weekly draw for a $20 gift certificate; each customer who doesn't require us to use a new bag gets to enter.
Then, she opened up a small backpack and pulled out four navel oranges that, she said, her husband had purchased and that she wanted to return, in exchange for a bag of lemons.
"I'm buying these because they have seeds in them," she said of the lemons. She leaned in as she spoke with me, wide-eyed and intense. "I'm returning these because they don't have seeds in them, and I won't eat citrus without seeds."
Finally, by way of further explanation, she added, "Because, that's science."
I gathered that what she meant by science was 'genetically modified.'
The return was no skin off my nose, and the store was far too busy for me to take the time to explain that navel oranges were seedless as the result of simple plant breeding, propagated by grafting, and had been so long before GMOs. There'd'a been no point at all in trying to explain that no matter where you are on the GMO-skepticism scale, 'science', per se, is neither good nor bad.
The store's about equidistant from some of Kansas City's most privileged and most desperate neighborhoods. I've had customers come in and ask in a drawl, "Can you buy red wine on EBT?"
The other day, someone bought about ten cans of tuna and, as I was ringing it up she said, "EBT won't pay for cat food, so I buy them tuna." I once had a woman at the other end of the wealth spectrum tell me that the can of crab she was buying ($11.80) was a treat for her cat, too.
Most of the customers fall much closer to the middle of that spectrum. I note the prevalence with which white, apparently middle-class customers buy food with credit cards. Some of them are probably just running debit cards as credit transactions for reasons of security, and others probably pay their balance off every month and are running up travel points, or whatever. But many of them are splitting transactions between cards, and declines are frequent enough. I think, It's food; you don't want to be paying interest charges on it long after it's been pooped out.
Yesterday, a dad came through the line with two girls about seven or eight years old. One of them was in a full halo rig (an external fixator holding her head in fixed position over her shoulders.) As an ex-motorcycle racer, I'm acutely aware of what that piece of medical equipment means.
When she walked away, I could see a surgical scar high up on the back of her neck. She'd had a high cervical fracture. Except that she had no neck mobility at all, she was walking normally and the scar was well healed; it had to be about time to remove the halo. She was going to be OK.
But just seeing it made me shudder; a kid that young who'd obviously been that close to spending the rest of her life as a quadriplegic.
Within an hour of seeing that, a young woman came through my line. She was bald, and her face was swollen with chemo drugs. There was a band-aid holding down some kind of IV shunt in her arm.
She was pushing a little tiny baby in a stroller. A kid that couldn't have been more than a few months old. The woman seemed cheerful enough. I didn't ask any of the obvious questions.
What was she being treated for? Was it some cancer that she knew she had while pregnant? Had she waited to have her baby before getting chemo? Surely you can't have chemo when you're pregnant. Or had her cancer been discovered after she gave birth? What was her prognosis? I tried to imagine having a tiny baby and knowing there was a good chance you'd never see it grow up.
When I applied for a twelve-buck-an-hour job at a grocery store, a big part of my motivation was the knowledge that, at my age, no one would hire me back into the ad industry and that the writing was on the wall for, well, writing about motorcycles for money. Half the reasoning behind taking such a menial job was simply that $12/hour was better than nothing. But another big part of it was that the work I'd done for the last decade was, mostly, pretty lonely. Although there were occasional days that were really fun and stimulating, the reality of life as a freelance writer is long consecutive days spent whacking away at a computer keyboard with no social interaction at all. I was lonely.
I was also along way from the edges of the lives of strangers.