By Florence Newman
It had been a mistake to go to the Safeway, even though the snowstorm wasn’t due to arrive for another two days. The aisles were already crowded with shoppers stocking up on bread, milk, and toilet paper–the Holy Trinity of disaster preparation everywhere. The stereotype of Baltimoreans is that they panic and rush out to the stores at the first threat of a snowflake, but this time their anxiety was justified: forecasts called for 18-24” of snow over the course of the weekend, with blizzard conditions possible. Still, you’d think that hitting the grocery mid-day, well in advance of the storm, I wouldn’t have had to contend with frantic survivalists. No such luck. My usual route through the store—a pass around the healthy perimeter, with brief forays into the shelves of preservative- and sugar-laden cereals, crackers, packaged dinners, and canned goods—was now an obstacle course of bodies and shopping carts. I navigated my own cart, part stealth bomber, part battering ram, among the rest, collecting provisions, then headed for the self checkout machines, which I use almost exclusively these days because 1) I usually don’t have to wait in line and 2) I like the autonomy of ringing up my own purchases, being in full control of the process (until, of course, the scanner goes out of whack). It never occurred to me that I might have another reason for preferring the machines to human cashiers.
The throng at the front of the store was so thick that it took me a moment to realize, in astonishment, that the two self-checkout lines snaked as far back as the lines for regular checkout. I almost abandoned my errand right there. But I hadn’t invested all that time and effort just to go home empty-handed. I decided to try the “15 items or fewer” lanes: those lines had to be shorter, or at least moving more quickly. Unfortunately, they were also at the opposite side of the store. “Pardon me.” “Excuse me.” “May I cut through?” Finally I reached the express lanes and positioned myself at the end of one of the lines. A woman nearby tapped me on the shoulder and pointed behind her: the line actually ended seven or eight carts back, midway down the aisle. One look at the impenetrable mass of folks waiting single file and folks milling around the aisle shopping and I resigned myself to wheeling my way down the next aisle over, rounding the bend, and joining the queue from behind.
I didn’t remain the last in line for long: a grandmotherly type looking particularly glum took the spot at my back. For a while, we made small talk about the weather. Then she mentioned that her bank had closed early because it had been robbed, leaving her without cash for groceries. The conversation sort of trailed off after that. I turned to face forward again. The young man immediately in front of me had his foot propped on the base of his cart and his head bent over the glowing screen of a smart phone. Every so often, without taking his gaze off the screen, he would give the cart a shove with his forearms, and grandmother and I would shuffle forward a few inches.
Suddenly I noticed a burst of color. It was a bouquet of bright flowers wrapped in cellophane in the child’s seat portion of the cart two spots ahead. The possessor of the cart was a tall woman with a dancer’s posture, graceful and erect, and gold-silver hair that swept up to show a bit of neck above her scarf. (I only saw her from the back, so I can’t describe her face—though I’ll bet it was beautiful.) She wore a dark wool coat, which stood out among the puffy jackets that made the rest of us look like a flock of Pillsbury Dough Boys. Still, I could hardly take my eyes off the bouquet. There’s a blizzard coming, for God’s sake, and this lady is buying flowers! I took in the other contents of her cart—two small whole chickens (or perhaps they were guinea hens), a bag of brown rice, some fresh vegetables. Then I looked down into my own cart: a four-pack of vanilla Frappucinos, two Fuji apples, a box of low fat Triscuits, a jumbo chocolate chunk cookie, and a packet of sugar-free gum (tropical fruit flavor). The necessities of life.
In my imagination, the tall woman sits at a linen-covered table, the flowers tastefully arranged in a vase at its center. Candlelight flickers over the silverware flanking a china plate full of fragrant slices of fowl, steaming brown rice, and roasted vegetables, as outside the frosted window the winter storm rages.
I glanced again at my own cart: what a pathetic scenario it brought to mind. I realized at that moment that the self checkout lane appealed to me not just because it improved my efficiency, not just because it enhanced my autonomy, but also because it shrouded my purchases in privacy. Ahead, the colorful bouquet drifted down the conveyer belt and disappeared into a bag. The clerk rang up the rest of the elegant lady’s elegant items, and soon she too had vanished. The young man in front of me, having pocketed his cell phone, began placing his stuff on the counter. Before long, it would be my turn. I had waited impatiently for a good half hour to reach the head of the line, and now I dreaded the prospect. There was nothing for it but to follow through. The gum, the jumbo cookie, the vanilla Frappucinos went up on the belt to be lifted and swiped over the scanner by the clerk’s beefy hands. “Busy day, huh?” I said. “Everybody’s getting ready for the snow,” I said. I was babbling, trying to distract the clerk from the hodgepodge of barely-comestibles I’d offered up for inspection. It turned out that my subterfuge was unnecessary: the clerk hardly glanced at what he was ringing up. Although his apron-clad torso remained turned toward me, he was looking over his shoulder at the other lanes teaming with other customers. I decided to take a risk: “Funny the kinds of things people buy during an emergency.” For a few seconds, the clerk faced my way, then his attention was again elsewhere. “We see it all,” he murmured. “Believe me, we see it all.”
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman
By Catherine Bruce
The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames exposed the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.
Copyright © 2014 Catherine Bruce.
Brooklyn for Brooklyn
By Jo-Ann Pilardi
(Click images for larger versions.)
The “Hip Shots” series of photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly,” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise is to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method the more frames exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting — a related series that may be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own images, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below.
Copyright © 2014 Jo-Ann Pilardi.
By Jim Sizemore
For several years, I’ve observed a homeless man in my neighborhood walking back and forth in front of my house each day, morning and afternoon. I live in the city, next door to a bar, and the sidewalk we share is just two red brick steps down from my front door. The homeless man has a flushed complexion and I suppose he could be a heavy drinker. But on the other hand, I’ve never seen him go into the bar next door, or into any of the many other bars along my street, which is a main drag with plenty of such places to quench a thirst.
The homeless man comes from somewhere west of my house—I have no idea from how far away—and he always walks to a shopping center, which is little more than a half-mile east. On the way back from the shopping center, he always carries two small paper bags, one with a cola beverage of some sort in a plastic bottle—I can see the screw-off cap peeking out from the bag. Since there are no bars in or near the shopping center, I have good reason to assume that the drink is non-alcoholic. The other bag, I surmise, holds his lunch, and perhaps even his dinner.
There have been long periods when I’ve seen the homeless man walking and holding his pants up with his left hand, appearing to have lost his belt. That condition usually goes on for a while—weeks, even months—and then he somehow comes into possession of another belt—or finds his old belt—because he no longer has to hold up his trousers. With both of his hands free again, he walks pretty much like you or me. That is, he walks like you or me except in the shopping center parking lot, where he avoids the sidewalk and claims the middle of a car lane. While strolling in the car lane, he does not look left or right, or behind him, or give way to the cars, so those of us who drive have to be careful to avoid hitting him.
One day about two years ago, the homeless man appeared on crutches, one leg in a cast that began below his knee and extended to, but did not cover, his toes. I don’t remember which leg it was, but what I do remember is that this was around the time that he and I began to make eye contact. After seeing each other up close a few times, we began to smile and nod at each other. That kept up a while, and before long we’d smile and nod and say “good morning” or “good afternoon,” just like regular people. But I noticed that when I carried my grocery bags to my car and we happened to pass each other in the car lane, we did not make eye contact or speak. I’m pretty sure that must have been his choice. If it had been up to me, we would have continued to smile and nod and speak. This is a very friendly neighborhood, and anyway, that’s just how I am.
For as long as the homeless man was on crutches, throughout the winter, he struggled to manage his little paper bags in all kinds of weather. After many months, he was finally off the crutches and walking with just the aid of a cane. This was in the spring, and around that time he also appeared to lose another belt, and throughout the summer I watched him wrestle with his cane and his bags in one hand, the other hand grasping the top of his pants. I don’t know what happened, or when it happened, but at some point I began to realize that things between us had changed dramatically. Now, no matter what the situation or location—or the weather, or the time of year—the homeless man and I no longer made eye contact or spoke.
So what happens on the day after Thanksgiving, comes as a big surprise. For the first time in months, I’ve decided to clean the very dirty plexiglass on my front storm door. This is a big deal because I hate to do windows of any kind. In fact, none of the glass in my house, except the front storm door, has been cleaned since I moved in some eleven years ago. So there I am standing on my little brick stoop, busy spraying and wiping down the storm door, and the homeless man comes by. He has long-since healed from his leg injury. And it seems to me that he makes a point to not look at me. But I won’t let this opportunity go by, and say, “Good morning, sir. How are you doing?” Without a beat, and without smiling or looking up, he replies, “Who can say?” and he continues on his way.