Story Time – Grocery Forensics

Pictured: Good decisions.

There’s something out there I like to call “grocery forensics.” It tries to make educated guesses regarding the activities, beliefs and attitudes of those in the past based on the material evidence they left behind – limited to their messes in grocery stores. And while it isn’t a traditional science in the same way as, say, archaeology, they share many similarities. At least for the purposes of writing this article.

For example, I wouldn’t recommend wasting $100,000 on a degree in either.

The picture above is the sort of thing I run across from time to time in my shopping adventures. Shopping isn’t all that mentally stimulating when you’re just walking down aisles and following a list. It’s like the lamest scavenger hunt ever, only without an actual reward at the end.

When I first started seeing this sort of thing, it was easy not to notice. The workers at Wal-Mart seem pretty good at it, after all. Though, I’ll admit leaving stuff in the wrong place on the shelf is probably a skill honed by years of being paid at near minimum wage. In the same position I doubt I’d expend a lot of effort going above and beyond for a company that determined employee pay by taking the level at which they’d be violating federal law and adding a dollar.

(Though, I hear it’s going up, so maybe my days of grocery forensics are numbered?)

Even once I started noticing misplaced items, they were easy to ignore. A box of taco shells in the soda aisle because someone was lazy. A generic item in front of a brand name because someone was careless. It wasn’t something that bothered me much. Except when someone leaves refrigerated meat in, say, electronics because seriously, why?

As time went on, however, I realized there were much sadder stories at play.

Look at the above picture, which I now realize should have been much lower, because I’ve barely referred to it before now. Or did I misplace it on purpose? Is this whole thing getting ridiculously meta?

No, so here it is again.

Pictured: Good decisions AND good blog layout decisions.

I’d forgive you for not seeing the issue right away. Your senses might not be as keenly honed from years of being bored out of your mind at the store. What we gather from this picture is that some individual eats canned pasta. Is that detail alone inherently sad? Yes. Yes, it is. Just because I do it doesn’t mean it isn’t.

But it’s worse than all that. As this individual was walking through the aisles, they noticed this display and realized, “Oooh. You know what’s even better than canned red slurry? Margaritas!”

Or even worse, “Oooh. You know what’s even better than canned red slurry? Margarita mix!”

“Sure,” you say, “but aren’t you being a bit hard on this theoretical shopper? I mean, don’t we all need an iced drink in the dead of a punishing Pennsylvania winter sometimes?”

No, but I see what you’re getting at.

This wasn’t just a person who wanted an off-season drink, though. This was a person who came to the store – from the discarded cans we can safely assume seeking something at least food-like – and picked up two cans of the thing ramen eaters usually buy when they want to be even more disgusted by their poor eating habits. And they left actual (almost) food behind to buy a drink. Mix.

Were they out of money? Did they realize they ate last week and were sick of it? Was someone taking the Food Stamp Challenge and wanted to fail worse than Gwyneth Paltrow when she bought a bunch of limes and herbs? I can’t think of any scenario where the context makes this any less weird.

Pictured: More good decisions.

This isn’t a bag of pretzels left in the cracker aisle because someone changed their mind on what snack they wanted. It’s like finding a bag of bread in the paint supplies. Because neither story makes any sense to me.

Still, these are the sorts of mysteries that keep me going. And it’s what keeps me coming back to the store again and again. To put food on the table. I mean, not in the sense that my grocery forensics work is making me any money. I literally mean, I go to the store to buy food and then, after cooking it, I put it on the table.

Sometimes people even eat it, though I do have a toddler. I’m a realist about it.

Seeing things like a full shopping cart left abandoned next to the seafood really do make you wonder what people were thinking. To me, it just reinforces the idea of “sonder” – the realization that the people around you are living a life as vivid and complex as your own. It also reinforces my hypothesis of “sonderp” – the realization that the people around you are bad at living and are generally making stupid, stupid decisions.

Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to stare at my archaeology degree and shake my head for the next hour thinking about how smart I am.


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