Published in The Covington News – April 11,2020
As it is with many of us, I am trying to navigate my way through this quarantine-economy. This is the period of social distancing but I have always been in the social gathering business. Yes, I put all my eggs in the basket of being a live performer. In my head, I keep hearing the Dire Straits song, Money for Nothing, only Mark Knopfler’s words are different: “I shudda learned… to get a day job…”
Of course, plenty of people who have been secure in their day jobs are suffering, too. The biggest cliche of this era: these are uncertain times.
All of this is why I couldn’t help but notice: the Kroger is hiring!
This is playing into an old fantasy of mine. Just as during my childhood, I imagined what it would be like to be a grown-up, now I daydream about the old man I am to become.
For a long time, I have been intrigued by the idea of someday… someday becoming the person who brings the buggies into the store from the parking lot. No kidding.
Now, it behooves me to remember that the word “buggy” might be throwing a few of you off. I know that many who are reading this are not natives of the Deep South. Indeed, I was well into adulthood when I learned that those things with wheels that you push around in a grocery store have different names depending on which region you’re from.
In various parts of the U.S., they are known as carriages, trollies, or carts. Interestingly enough, all these, including buggies, are the names of vehicles pulled by horses. Also, there are those who call grocery buggies, “baskets,” but that is too easily confused with the basket that you carry around, rather than roll. Yet, I endeavor to be inclusive, so if you come from a part of the country that calls a buggy, a basket, to avoid confusion from here on out, we’ll refer to a carry-around-basket as a “handbasket.”
Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen a woman choose a handbasket at the store. It’s generally men that you see hurriedly grabbing these things from the stack by the door.
At the Ingles (a grocery store that displays red light-up letters to remind me that it is AMERICAN OWNED® ), they have a convertible handbasket that has an emergency extend-o-handle and wheels. These are for fellows who thought they could carry those two gallons of milk without any trouble, but those guys soon discover what they should have learned in fourth grade: a gallon of milk weighs eight pounds, therefore two gallons of milk is sixteen pounds, and they still need to get two pounds of cheese and several cans creamed corn and soup. And early on, they have had to slip the handles of the thing to the crook of their elbow in order to have access to the two hands required to open the refrigerator door and reach for said milk, so the handbasket becomes sort of a leaden purse. For some men, this can be humiliating, And these guys find themselves suffering further humiliation by putting the convertible tisket-tasket handbasket on the floor, extending the handle, and dragging it around. It is polite to avert one’s eyes when one encounters a pitiable creature such as this, who, by the time they sink so low, feel as though they are … descending to the sulfuric pits in that very handbasket. ( I am trying to keep this family-friendly.)
Another note to the non-Deep South native: You will notice that I used the definitive article “the” when I named the grocery stores: the Kroger…the Ingles. That is because there is generally only one of those stores in any given town, and we feel a bit of ownership towards the places we frequent. Although it must be said, there are actually two Ingles in my hometown of Covington, Georgia. An out-of-towner might surmise that because one store is to the east of the city, and the other to the west, we would say, “the Ingles East,” and “the Ingles West,” but no; what we actually say is: “the Ingles at the old-dead-Walmart strip” and the “Ingles at the old-dead-K-Mart strip.”
One more thing regarding the store-name definitive article: Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank are from Newark, New Jersey, and Queens, New York, respectively. When they came to Georgia and founded their big-box home improvement company, they thought they’d beat us to the punch by naming it The Home Depot, but everybody I know drops the “The” and just says “Home Depot.” We do that just to be defiant.
Now, back to my aspirations of working with the buggies.
Seriously, I have fancied the idea of taking that job when I reach the edge of my dotage and retire from the road. Of course, “dotage” is easier to recognize in others. But as it is, a couple of times now, I have been ‘umbled when people hiring me for gigs have asked, “Um… don’t you have any pictures that are more recent?”
If I “worked the buggies,” I would be getting plenty of exercise. And it would be socially satisfying. I would encounter a lot of children and their families, so I would get to be the kind of old man I liked being around when I was a kid – the kind of old man who sees the humanity in a child, the way the great songwriter John Prine has reminded us to see the humanity in old people; I would be the kind of old man who might look at a kid and say, “hello in there.” Maybe I would earn a nickname from the children. A cheerfully given nickname augments the soul, it changes who we are.
Maybe I would become, Mr. Buggy Man.
Yes, exercise. If I were to ferry buggies, I would have to be on my feet all day and in constant motion, so I would need to be fit and spry enough to dodge careless drivers. And one must be able to sprint; occasionally a buggy will make a break for it. The parking lot at my Kroger is a downhill slope away from the store. That particular topography — that slope — is why I choose that store for my shopping. After I’ve checked out and I leave the store with a mess of groceries, I can ride the buggy to my car. What I do is hoist up on the handle, elbows locked, and use my feet to brake on the rear wheels as a sort of skid-steer to control direction. It works like a charm. Remind me to show you how my shoes are worn out the next time you see me. Yup: tell-tale buggy-riding wear.
When my son Liam was a little kid, he mastered his own kind of buggy skill on the smaller grocery conveyances that I deemed, “annoying buggies.” When he was eight or so, he would get a running start in the store. He could fly and turn on a dime, grabbing his box of Froot Loops as he whipped around an endcap in one fluid motion. As you might imagine, I teared-up with pride.
The other day I said to Liam, “Hey, the Kroger is hiring!” My son was quick to remind me that during this pandemic, I am of the age of people who should be more cautious. He flatly discouraged me in – as they say – no uncertain terms.
• • •
You and I both know there are workers who are essential to keeping this life as we know it humming. For these workers, the stakes have changed. They are now putting themselves in harm’s way. Yesterday, I donned a construction mask augmented with a coffee filter and made my way into the store to procure life-sustaining food. There was a young woman cheerfully wiping down the buggies, not just the handles, but the entire top portion. With each one she finished, she rolled it to the next person entering the store. I took my buggy and said, “thank you,” hoping she could perceive the smile under my mask.
She said, “You’re welcome.” I made my way into the store where I indeed felt welcomed. And grateful.
Please, take good care.