I remember wanting to make an Asian recipe once that required a few ingredients not found at my local supermarket. I went in to this tiny Asian-Mart and even though I only needed a couple of ingredients, I was instantly overwhelmed. What seemed like an easy task was suddenly daunting. I went down each aisle, one by one, searching for a picture or a word that looked remotely like the items I needed. I walked down each aisle, several times, back and forth, back and forth. It took me forever. By the end I was sweating through my clothes and my brain was burning out of frustration and anger. I knew that anyone who saw me could guess that I might need help, but no one offered to help me. I found what I was looking for, but I left with a sweat-stained shirt, a red face and a tired mind.
It was humbling.
I have not forgotten that experience, that ONE time I went searching for TWO items in a teeny, tiny Asian mart.
Today I was walking through the aisles at my local huge supermarket, as I always do, as methodically as possible. We were crunched for time, because my husband and I brought our two kids with us. Because we were shopping during dinner time, I passed them their supper – a single cold tortellini at a time – out of Tupperware that I had shoved in my purse on my way out the door.
We had made it all the way to the end of the store and collected our eggs, milk and cottage cheese from the dairy case and were making our way back up the main aisle towards the checkout, with a few items we missed on our list to pick up on the way out.
That’s when I saw her, out of the corner of my eye.
Her cart was at an odd angle. Her eyes were slightly bulging, searching. She was gripping the handles of her shopping cart tightly. I saw her head turn as she watched a few people before me pass her down the aisle ahead of me.
As I neared her our eyes made contact. She lunged.
She cut me off with her cart all askew and thrust a pamphlet towards me. It had a picture of infant formula on it. I looked closer as she pointed, and in broken English, she asked me if I knew where she could find this.
I looked more closely at this woman who had violently cut me off with her cart. She didn’t look scary. She looked like she needed some help.
I could see the baby aisle from where I was, but even on the way she kept asking where to find the “milk”. I remembered how hard it was to find anything in a supermarket stocked full of items, especially through eyes fatigued from anxiety on top of the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights.
I led her to the aisle and helped her pick out the exact formula she had pointed to. Together we compared the labels, double-checking the words, the pictures, the shape of the carton.
I was no longer in a rush. I put a finger up as my husband walked by and said, “I’m helping someone” and he just nodded and waited.
I asked her if she needed help finding anything else. She pantomimed, she faltered, she tried to describe a diaper, without saying the word diaper, or privates, or anything closely related to urination or bowel movements. It took us a minute, but we figured it out. I took her an aisle over to the diapers and showed her which diapers I used, and based on the weight of the baby she was buying for, what size to buy.
She pulled out a few samples of lotion. I did not recognize the lotion so suggested that maybe we look in the bath section, so I walked around the corner and started inspecting the options. I turned around and she had not followed. I went back and she was still standing there, looking at her papers, papers which would not give her any useful information about lotion. She saw me return and I heard an audible sigh of relief. She let me guide her to the aisle with the lotion. I explained that I didn’t see the lotion that she needed, I asked if the lotion was for the face, or for the diaper area, and since it was for the face, I picked what I thought was probably best, Cetaphil, and told her it wasn’t what she showed me but I thought it was likely a good choice. She pulled out a paper, scribbled on and torn from a doctor’s prescription pad, with the words, “Cetaphil” on them and when she compared the text on the bottle I was holding with the words on the prescription pad she smiled brightly and nodded and thanked me again. Several times.
The grocery trip was a good reminder. If we’re able to look up above our carts, and make eye contact with those around us, to notice what other people need, it usually makes helps us put our own insignificant worries and issues in perspective. Like feeding your kids cold tortellini out of Tupperware for dinner. Eh. They’re fine.