I arrive at the supermarket to do some food shopping. My first stop is the deli counter. The long line of impatient elderly people waiting for luncheon meat has enough canes and walkers between them to start small medical supply store. I take a number.
“Serving 55!” the tired teenaged boy behind the counter shouts. “Now serving customer 55!”
“That’s me!” a grey haired old woman yelps frantically, waving her ticket like she’s won the lottery. “I’m next. Don’t skip me!”
I sigh and look at the paper stub in my hand. It reads 67. I have a long wait so I decide to get some other shopping done. The produce section’s next to the deli so I pick up onions, garlic, green peppers, carrots, asparagus, broccoli, prepackaged baby spinach, tomatoes, and some lemons and limes. I take a pass on buying potatoes. My roommate still has a twenty pound sack of rice under the kitchen counter. I bag everything up and cast a glance at the deli counter.
The “Now Serving” sign clicks over to 56.
I head over to the dairy section at the other end of the store. I grab a carton of eggs, a quart of milk, a pint of heavy cream, yogurt, and one of those little snack packs of chocolate pudding. I know I’ll be to tired to cook one night so I pick out a frozen pizza. I walk over to another aisle and throw a loaf of seven grain bread into my cart. Another aisle provides a jar of olives for my martinis. I look at my watch. Several minutes have elapsed. I head back to the deli counter.
“Now serving 58!” the teenage deli man calls out. “58!”
I shake my head in amazement. The Himalayas will erode into dust by the time my number’s called. What’s worse, the line of old people at the counter has doubled in size. Olive loaf must be like crack cocaine for people over seventy-five.
The worker behind the counter’s valiantly trying to fill everyone’s orders – but that’s tough when slicing meat for old people. I worked in a deli when I got out of college. I feel the deli kid’s pain. I remember how the seniors would shriek “That’s too much! I’m not gonna pay for that!” whenever the meat I placed on the scale crept .000000005 ounces over the geriatric bologna weight limit. To this day I cringe whenever I hear an oldster say “Slice it thin!”
Suddenly I hear the high pitched whine of an electric motor. An old lady in a mechanized scooter, the kind with the wire shopping basket perched over the handlebars, pulls up next to me, almost running over my foot. The look on her face is one of simmering rage.
“How long is this line?” she snaps.
“Pretty long,” I reply.
“What number are you?”
“Could you get me a number?”
I reach over and pull a ticket out of the dispenser. It reads 75. I hand it to the old woman She regards it with obvious displeasure.
“I’ll be dead before I get to the end of this line,” she harrumphs.
“I guess when your number’s up, it’s up.”
“Huh?” the old lady asks, squinting at me curiously.
I head back into retail mêlée to pick up some big ticket items. The seafood case yields a tasty looking piece of swordfish and I snatch the last ribeye steak out from under a chubby housefrau preoccupied with pushing her pudgy fingers into every package of ground beef she can find. I remember I have pork tenderloin and chicken breasts in the freezer so I stop with the major protein purchases. The steak and the fish are already costing me $20. Visualizing the week’s menu in my head, I decide I’ll make a chicken and pasta dish with pepper and onions on Wednesday and bake the pork tenderloin with fresh rosemary on Thursday. I’ll have the steak on Saturday and make swordfish risotto tonight. Add some curried egg salad, tuna fish sandwiches, pizza, leftovers, and going out for dinner at least once ……if I play my cards right I’ll have enough food for ten or eleven days.
That just leaves the deli counter. I’ve been making a concerted effort to not eat too much processed food – but I love roast beef and Swiss cheese sandwiches slathered in mustard and mayo. As I head back to the deli I pass by the self serve bakery. Maybe I’ll get a nice roll for my sandwich. Mmmm. The bakery has cheddar cheese rolls. Perfect.
An old man cuts in front of me but, respecting my elders, I decide to say nothing and wait patiently. Ignoring the wax paper and plastic tongs at his disposal, the old man fingers every cheddar cheese roll in the tray with his bare hands. He even sniffs one and puts it back. So much for getting cheese rolls. There are still a few European sandwich rolls left. I’ll get one of them.
As if he’s reading my mind, the old man starts moving his bare hands towards the European sandwich rolls. No way am I letting the old bastard get away with this.
“Sir,” I say firmly. “Please use the tongs.”
The old man whips his head around and looks at me like I’ve threatened to reduce his Social Security benefits.
“What did you say?” he barks, his eyes narrowing into suspicious slits.
“The tongs are there for a reason, sir,” I reply, trying to remember I’m speaking to one of my elders.
“Screw you!” the old man says.
I’m not surprised by the man’s reaction. I pull my thousand-yard waiter stare out of semi-retirement and lance the geezer though a rheumy eyeball.
“Sir,” I say evenly. “How would you like it if I touched your food?”
“Jerk!” the old man says, wheeling his cart away in a huff.
I chuckle and shake my head. Being old doesn’t mean you can’t be an asshole. At least the man’s grubby hands didn’t touch my European rolls.
I bag up some rolls and head back to the deli counter. The “Now Serving” sign reads 65. I decide to wait until my number’s called. I notice the old woman in the motorized cart is now parked in the handicapped space next to the deli counter. No, you read it right the first time – my supermarket has a handicapped space next to the deli counter. What’s next? An expectant mother zone?
Finally my number’s called. I order a quarter pound of roast beef and half a pound of domestic Swiss. The kid behind the counter look relieved to be serving someone in striking distance of his own age. My order’s ready in a flash.
Finally it’s time to pay for my purchases. Since I hate those computerized self-serve lanes I look for a register manned by a human being. To my chagrin, I notice that the hygiene deficient old man from the bakery is in the “Twelve Items or Less” lane with a cart brimming with stuff. I’m behind a woman shopping for a family of thirty.
As I wait on line I think about what it must feel like to be old. My parents are in their sixties and I’m beginning to catch glimpses of how they’ll act when they’re ancient. My mother will be one of those friendly, talkative types and my Dad’ll be the guy wearing a winter coat in August. I like to imagine I’ll end up like Hugh Hefner, the eighty-one year old babe squiring founder of Playboy, but the odds are good I’ll turn into a hermit type that dotes on his dog and is surrounded by books.
Finally it’s my turn. The girl at the register rings me up. The total’s $62.34. I feel like grumbling about the high cost of living but I stop myself. It’s not the cashier’s fault prices are so high. I give the girl some cash, bag my purchases in politically incorrect paper bags, get my change, and walk out the door.
As I head to my car I spy the hygiene deficient old man throwing the last of his shopping bags into the back of an old Cadillac. After he slams the trunk shut he carelessly shoves his shopping cart away from his car, not caring where it ends up. I watch the cart pick up speed as it hurtles downhill towards a parked car. Since I’m too far away to intercept it, all I can do is watch helplessly as the cart smashes into the side panel of a new looking sedan. Ouch. That’ll leave a mark.
I shake my head. That old man’s probably been an inconsiderate bastard his whole life. Despite my occasional Logan’s Run fantasies, I have no problem with elderly people. When I think about it, growing old is a privilege. Some of my friends never made it past 35. But advancing years doesn’t guarantee wisdom. If you’re asshole when you’re forty the odds are good you’ll be an asshole when you’re seventy.
I hope I end up like Hef.