The Free Cart

The sun is working its way across the sky when I arrive at Aldi. The chore of grocery shopping is not enjoyable for me. Groaning at the sea of cars in the lot, I grab my reusable bags and scrounge for a single quarter. The parking meters hungrily devoured my reserve last week, but I find a bust of Washington gleaming at me from under the passenger seat. I slip him into my pocket, ready for our hostage negotiations with the shopping cart.

Standing at the doors to greet me is a petite, elderly woman with a large woolen overcoat. Her head is wrapped in a lightly colored scarf.  She is meek, squinting in the sunlight and scanning the parking lot. Her image brings to mind that of the typical grandmother, small children by her side. They giggle as she charms them with compliments on their height and smiles. I assume she is waiting for a partner or caregiver to meet her on their shopping excursion. Nanna makes eye contact with me and calls out, “Here is a cart for you.”  I warmly thank her and offer her my quarter. She declines, stating that someone gave her this cart earlier. I respond to this sweet sentiment, “Thank you for paying it forward.”  She nods as she shuffles off to the rest of her life.

I enter the store and brace myself for the awkwardness of the event. Before me is a sea of people, standing and staring at a cornucopia of goods; a blur of products, plastic and promises. I weave through their carts and indecisiveness. Some are aware of their surroundings and move to the side of the isle to let me pass. Some are too busy gawking at cereal to notice a small bottleneck has occurred in the aisle.  A well placed “excuse me” unclogs the corridor.

There are still those who never acknowledge my presence. I like to assume that they are lost in their own world, but then I remember the green pick-up truck this morning. The confederate flag on the back of the cab brutally whipped the air in front of me as I followed behind the truck into town. The simple fabric is a reminder that there are those who may not acknowledge me for a multitude of reasons.

My thoughts return to the present moment and the task at hand. Dancing comes to mind as I maneuver through the aisles with the other customers. Eye contact is commonly kept to a minimum, but I choose to smile and look into the eyes of everyone I pass, acknowledging that we are all in this moment together. The doorways to potential friendships obscured by the uncertainty and fear we all carry. I exchange jokes and greetings with the adventurous and brave few who are comfortable with sharing their voice and scant moments with me.

I finish in the frozen food section and find my place in line with several other people. We are all silently practicing the necessary patience for this task. Of course phones are prominent in this section as they provide the means to avoid contact with the people around you. Our only interaction comes when something affects us all. “A line opened up over there,” I tell the elderly man behind me. He is unsure for a moment but decides to take advantage of the opportunity. Clutching his loaf of bread and gallon of milk, he hobbles towards the newly available checkout.

I chat with the woman in front of me, passing our short time together with conversations about nothing and everything. The skill of small talk is strengthened with every one of my shopping trips, and I particularly enjoy the banter with the cashier. My favorite topics include the volume of people, how they are doing, or a quip about an overheard conversation with the previous customer. I have rarely met a cashier at this establishment who is not a genuinely nice person. While bagging my groceries, I contemplate my experiences, noting that everyone in this store is cordial. I think this is indicative of how people in our community are good to each other. I like the idea of living in a place where everyone is friendly.

When I finally leave the store, two men in flannel walk towards me in need of a cart. I give them mine and decline the quarter they offer me in return. I explain that it was given to me earlier, and I just want to pay it forward. Both men beam at me as we part ways.

I hope no one pays for that cart all day long.

(Photo Credits: Nicholas Trietsch)

Leave a Reply