Sunday, December 21, 2008

Storm Trooping

It's ben a while, but Sam Allis' Observer column from today's Boston Globe is so good I had to share it with all of you. Enjoy...

Grocery gridlock
Stuck at the intersection of storm panic and holiday stress
By Sam Allis, Globe Columnist December 21, 2008

Some men climb Everest without oxygen. Others sail solo around the world. The Observer shops at Roche Bros. the morning of the storm.

Experiencing a case of the vapors, I volunteered to do the food run Friday before the heavens opened. I realized the gravity of my mistake when I approached the large parking lot of the West Roxbury branch and witnessed what appeared to be a traffic scene at the Piazza Venezia in Rome.

You had your cars, blinkers on, waiting to take the spots of others, should they ever decide to leave. The exit process was routinely stalled by chats over car roofs between drivers and copilots after the groceries had been loaded in the trunk. They eventually got in, labored to put seat belts on, chatted some more, then pulled out with the speed of a yak.

Meanwhile, you had the car on the other side of the waiting car in front of you unable to pass because the waiting car in front of you was blocking the lane. You wondered at this point whether the other car was planning to steal the spot cherished by the car in front of you, leading to bodily harm. Then you noticed four more cars idling in the wake of the other waiting car. You looked back to find four inert vehicles behind you, too.

This arrangement rendered both parking lot exit lanes useless. It was gorgeous gridlock, so I started planning to spend the storm in situ with some Gatorade and Triscuits.

Suddenly I grasped the magnitude of the situation. I had walked into a trifecta of storm, early Christmas food shopping, and regular weekend shopping by people who had lost their minds.
Inside, the place was teeming with grown men and women dashing around the store like road runners, emitting stress every step of the way. They carried a sense of urgency reminiscent of the Running of the Brides at Filene's Basement. If they didn't get out fast, they reasoned, the authorities would find their bleached bones in the spring.

I vectored over to the deli section. This is the heart of the matter. This is where people in line watch their lives dribble away. This is where you find out whether any of that Zen stuff about acceptance is worth one Tic Tac.

The crowd was patient but tense. Men shifted their weight from one leg to the other. It was unnervingly quiet.

I noticed a guy named Bob Boynton reading a tabloid he had spread across a shelf of cheese nearby. I asked him how long he had been there, and he said close to 15 minutes. I glanced at his ticket for the deli. It read 307. I looked up at the electronic scoreboard on the deli wall and saw 281.

A lunatic friend of mine was also there Friday morning, I learned. In a separate countdown, his ticket read 337 when the scoreboard read 275. Let's be clear here. There is nothing in the deli section worth waiting that long for. You come home empty-handed, claim they ran out of the potato salad, and hunker down for Defcon 1 if that doesn't fly.

Bob informed me this was not the worst jam he'd faced there. That would be a Saturday after Thanksgiving some time ago. A chill came over him as he said, voice rising: "I'll never go again. Never."

Bob not only had the patience of Job, he had news you can use. He told me the absolute best time to go shopping all year is after 6 on Halloween night: "You've got the whole place to yourself."

The hordes of people kept pouring in. One of the kids working in the vegetable department exclaimed in mock horror, "It's the end of the world!" Someone asks for canned goods. "Aisle 2," he said and then slipped back to his "The Martians Are Coming" voice: "They're everywhere!"
Over in the cereal section, I ran into an older gent named Pat. He looked around and shook his head. "These people are nuts. The idea that you need to stock up for a week is crazy. It's one day, maybe two," he said. "I can't get past anyone in the aisles."

Pat's on to something. The storm panic is now on par with market collapse, driven largely by local TV that hypes storms. Think storm as entertainment.

The signature TV storm scene is a reporter in a parka with the station logo prominently displayed on it standing in North Attleborough in horizontal snow. His future in television is inversely proportional to the direness of his situation. After informative exchanges with the anchor - "Just how bad is it, Bob?" - said anchor cuts out with, "Be careful out there."

This rite is part of the larger scheme where weather people now start with the wind chill in lieu of the temperature. Just give us the temperature. We're big boys and girls, and we'll take it from there.

Back in Roche Bros., I see a kid on his knees unload a carton of butter, four sticks to a box, onto a display case. I watch customers assemble and look down transfixed, as if they're staring at a dead body. Then they dive for the stuff like pelicans for fish and disappear.

I asked him what's going on. He shrugged and said, "I put 120 units out 20 minutes ago, and they're gone. I don't know how butter became this 'before the storm' thing."

My favorite shopper is a woman in for pickles. That's it. Pickles. "I just want some bread and butter pickles to go with my grilled cheese sandwich," she explained, irritated that the store only had bread and butter pickles with no sugar added. "What's the fun of that?"

Sam Allis can be reached at


SM said...

I hate going to the grocery store on a normal weather day. Going during a storm? I would basically have to be held at gunpoint to put myself through that madness.

Chris said...

SM - I am with you on that!