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In Providence: Aisle nine

If you’re like me, the only way you wanted to end a wild Saturday night out when you were in your 20s was a trip to the local grocery store.

As someone who gets depleted from complex human interaction and/or someone not laughing at a joke I made three years ago, it’s important to find activities that soothe your anxiety. For me, that’s grocery shopping late at night when I can wander the aisles of a supermarket, bask in the fluorescent lighting, and say things like, “Why yes, I do think I’ve earned the fancy tortellini this week, thank you very much.

I’ve been writing more and more lately about the erasure of random late-night activities you can do in Providence like singing Journey at the IHOP or going to an after-hours party that somehow turns into an MLM pitch meeting. While more of our pre-COVID life is returning to us, the 24-hour spots are still stuck in a 9 to 5 cycle, and supermarkets are no exception.

Blaming the Passamaquoddy isn’t even an option, because as someone who has always preferred to grocery shop after midnight, I can tell you that the “I Need Ingredients for Baking a Torte at 2am” way of life has been under attack for quite some time now.

In fact, whether a place was near an all-night supermarket used to be one of the factors I took under consideration when house hunting. When I lived in North Providence, the Stop & Shop on Mineral Spring Avenue was always deserted, save for one lonely employee who I’m pretty sure just walked out one night and never came back. When the store cut its evening hours and I asked one of the cashiers why, she informed me that people were just walking out with carts full of food without paying on a nightly basis. It was then I remembered that I used to have to go find the one man left in charge whenever I wanted to pay, and most of the time, he always seemed more than ready to let me make a run for it while he looked the other way.

Missed opportunities abound.

Once that location wasn’t an option for my insomnia hijinks, I switched to the location on Branch Avenue, and reader, if you are a people-watcher like I am, you have no idea the bounty that used to be available to us around 1:34am on a Saturday.

I don’t know if it was because that particular market was the last 24 hold-out in the state for a while or if it was the unique location smack dab in the middle of downtown, the north side, the east side, and what I have to imagine was some kind of space vortex, but the mixture of humanity you would see inside that Stop & Shop was like a Lovecraft story adapted by Eugene O’Neill with a film treatment by Werner Herzog.

One night, while convincing myself I was not too tired to attempt beef bourguignon because Julie & Julia had been on HBO, I found myself in the meat section standing between the hottest doctor I have ever seen in my life, still in his scrubs and looking at lamb, while on the other side of me, a woman in her early 60s wearing a bathing suit top and what looked to be a shawl and sandals just sort of … hummed and listed to a song only she seemed able to hear. 

By the way, this was February. There was snow outside. But in a supermarket on Branch Avenue, time is what you make of it.

When I grabbed my beef and moved on, I heard Joni Mitchell and Hot Doc strike up a conversation and I immediately detected a flirtatious tone. As I finished up my shopping, I kept running into them in different aisles, and it was clear that they had really developed a rapport and were probably going to go home together.

Meanwhile I was heading back to my place for “Clean House” reruns and a bag of the Doritos limited fish and chips edition.

(There was a reason it was limited.)

This branch was as sparsely staffed as my ex on Mineral Spring. They had one cashier who always seemed invested in what everybody was buying. She would try to guess what you were going to make as soon as you put something down on the conveyor belt.

“Lettuce, huh? You gonna make a salad? You could make a nice salad with that. Pineapple? I wouldn’t put that in a salad. But you could have that as a snack the next day. Shampoo? You gotta wash your hair with that. Maybe before you make your salad.”

It was like an episode of “Chopped” where she was the only judge and nobody ever got to try the food. I miss her to this day.

The day I turned 28, I gave myself a little treat, and by treat I mean, I decided to stay up all night making pasta salad. The kind you would take to a cookout, except I hate cookouts and I was going to spend the next day eating it out of the biggest bowl I owned while I watched all Lord of the Rings for the seventh time.

A snag was hit when I tried checking out my four items to see if my cashier friend could guess what I was making and the woman in front of me seemed to be buying quite a bit.

But oh, how I didn’t realize the gift that was before me in that very moment.

You see, on my birthday eve, I encountered, in the flesh, an extreme couponer.

I was beyond excited.

I had so many questions.

She purchased at least two tons of laundry detergent and didn’t pay for any of it.

It wasn’t one of those historic moments like on the television show where the store actually has to pay her, but it was pretty close.

For as long as I live, I will never forget that birthday, the sight of someone buying 42 cans of olives, or the cashier saying–

“You like olives? You could make a nice pizza and put some olives on it. That’s after you do your laundry. You must have a lot of laundry.”

Now I shop during the day, like any old pedestrian. 

The aisles are crowded.

There are lots of checkout lines.

Nobody tries to guess what I’m going to do with my arugula.

There are no hot physicians hitting on Stevie Nicks impersonators and when I leave the store, I always find myself unenthused about whatever it is I just bought.

I suppose when you’re talking about groceries, that’s a normal way to feel about it, but oh, reader–

It used to be so much more.

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