Caution: Sexual references.
On a recent morning, I was pushing my cart through the aisles of WeShop, a large grocery store near my home, and overheard a conversation between two employees who were stocking the shelves. One of them said: “The boss told me to be on the lookout for customers who are loitering.”
The other replied: “Who cares how much time customers spend in the store? Aren’t longer visits better for sales?”
The first replied: “Not necessarily. The boss thinks that some of them are waiting for an aisle to empty out. They will then put small valuable items under their coats and sneak out.”
I thought about this snippet of conversation as I passed them. I indulge in what you might call an unusual hobby. I visit supermarkets and walk through the aisles, partly to purchase food but mainly for the pure pleasure of the experience. It was my plan to visit WeShop that morning but not to linger and certainly not to steal anything. I concluded that I was still on solid ground but I would be more cautious.
The reason for my concern is that nothing brings me more satisfaction than my supermarket visits and I didn’t want them to be interrupted. I can understand your sense of confusion about this so allow me to describe why I behave in this way. For most people, grocery shopping is merely a chore to buy food for the family. For me, a supermarket aisle stands as a perfect example of order and symmetry in our chaotic world. The stacked cans, jars, and boxes have aesthetic value. It’s like taking a stroll through a beautiful forest but, instead, a man-made and better organized one.
My sense of contentment is complete in a well-organized grocery aisle. Under ideal conditions, my fellow shoppers are not talking with anyone to disrupt my sense of calm. And I certainly will never patronize a store with loud music in the background or with annoying announcements over the PA — “Attention! Employee needed in aisle #3. There's a spill.”
My hobby, known as aisling among its aficionado’s, is widespread but largely unknown to the general public. In fact, an intense fear of shopping in large spaces is much more common and better known. About five percent of the country suffers from this latter condition. It’s a form of agoraphobia but also largely unrecognized for one obvious reason — people with the condition usually stay far away from the large stores.
There is some degree of specialization among aislers. I focus on the cereal aisle. I love the shape and contours of the boxes and their gaudy colors and logos. Unfortunately, the manufacturers have made some changes with their packaging that I find distracting. The box designs are becoming even more cartoonish. Just show me a stack of plain shredded wheat boxes with simple graphics and I will be a happy man. The stores are also offering smaller boxes to “reduce” prices. Aesthetically, I prefer the larger boxes over mixtures of different sizes.
Some of my fellow aislers prefer the produce aisle with its fruits and vegetables. I will concede that the vibrant colors of the items are fetching. There is also something to be said for pyramidal stacks of produce. Avocados or grapefruit or tangelos in an orderly arrangement can be arresting. However, I tend to view such displays as transient and unstable. We don’t need this additional tension in our unstable world.
I know what you are thinking. I understand that all of this aisling does give off the distinct whiff of OCD. I readily concede that some of my aisling friends do carry the hobby a little bit too far. Some may even get kicked out of stores for hanging around and arousing suspicion. I don’t ever visit a store on the same day of the week and I also limit my store visits to about 20 minutes. Everything is under control and I will keep it that way.
At the beginning of one of my aisling trips to WeShop several months ago, an unusual thing happened. I was strolling through the wine, beer, and liquor aisle as a prelude to a jaunt in the cereal aisle when I noticed a very attractive female shopper. She had aisler written all over her. Clearly a kindred spirit. How did I know this? First of all, she was pushing her cart very slowly. Secondly, she had only one or two items in it. Thirdly, she was smiling broadly. No one but an aisler will smile in a grocery store because shopping is a chore and not a pastime.
She glanced at me and I returned her look, nodding good morning, and said to her in return: “You seem to be very happy, perhaps even somewhat excited.” It was a dumb comment but not a bad ice breaker on the spur of the moment. And we were far from the bagged ice aisle, so my remark was truly spontaneous.
“I am indeed,” she replied. “This is my favorite aisle. The bottles all have different shapes, colors, and sizes. I know that many people prefer products that have a similar shape but I like the controlled ‘chaos’ of this aisle.” She was now practically beaming, which suited her and improved my mood in response.
“I’m Jack,” I continued, in our little, intimate pas-de-deus.
“I’m Maria. I have seen you here many times before but have been reluctant to speak to you. You seem so self-contained and happy that I did not want to disrupt your mood.”
“I am always happy to meet grocery store enthusiasts, partially those who ‘specialize’ in different aisles than mine. You obviously prefer bottles of wine, beer, and liquor. I prefer cereal boxes while others prefer fruits and vegetables. Still others like detergents and home goods. I often use the term ‘fourplay’ to describe these various types of aislers but you may think that this is too corny a line.”
“It has an appealing ring to it,” Maria responded.
“What a pleasure this has been, meeting you today and all,” I added. “I would like to get to know you better, given our shared interests. If I might inquire, do you come often?”
“About three or four times a week. I would probably come even more but I don’t want to overdo it or get caught in the act.”
“Do you come by yourself or with a friend?”
“Usually by myself but would certainly enjoy being with a friend if circumstances allowed it,” she replied in a somewhat coy fashion.
“Let me tell you a little secret that no one else knows about,” I said. “Behind the store, there’s a set of dumpsters. Between them and the back wall there is a cozy space that I have ‘organized’ and lined with cardboard. My little ‘den’ offers total privacy.”
“Unfortunately, the den has one small problem,” I continued. “Outdated produce is thrown into the dumpsters so there’s a little bit of an aroma inside. It’s not overwhelming but still there. I have spent time with produce aislers there and they seem to be actually turned on by the smell. You will need to decide for yourself if you like it.”
“All of this sounds very interesting,” Maria said softly. “I would like to visit your den, perhaps even right now,” she added, speaking in a more urgent tone.
“OK, then. I am going to head out and go to the back of the store. Meet me there in ten minutes — I will be leaning against the brick wall. We can continue our conversation inside the den and talk about whatever comes up.”
As arranged, we met by the back wall. We embraced briefly in the open and then squirmed together into the small space. Maria was breathing heavily and was pulling up her skirt as we crawled inside. For me, it was the perfect ending for the visit, dessert if you will. Almost as good as a stroll through the cake and candy aisle that I normally consider a bit too frivolous.
The next month went quickly. Maria and I coordinated our visits to the store such that we were able to meet in the “dumpster-den” a number of times during the month. Best times of my life, I will readily admit, outside of strolls through the cereal aisle. Then, unfortunately, things started to unravel.
On a Tuesday morning toward the end of May, I had just reached the cereal aisle and began to panic. Not all of the shelves were orderly and some of the price labels were askew or missing. Several boxes of Wheaties were tottering on the edge of the shelf. This was a serious problem, perhaps due to the actions, or inactions, of a new employee. I started to rearrange the items but then stopped, knowing that this was not allowed.
As I was trying to figure out my plan to put things back in order, I saw Maria heading toward me, waving excitedly. This was certainly not behavior I encouraged because it might draw attention to us. She pulled her cart alongside mine and blew a small kiss toward me. Another breach of protocol. Her face was flushed.
“Let’s skip our aisle visits in the store this one day and go straight to the den,” she whispered. “Our visits there have been too rushed lately — I am looking for a more leisurely and relaxed time with you.”
“Maria,” I said. “Can’t you see that this would cause a number of problems. The cereal aisle is in total disorder. This needs to be fixed right away. Let’s stick with our normal ways and meet afterwards.”
A look of dismay began to descend over her face. “Humph,” she blurted out. “I am not going to play second fiddle to a bunch of cereal boxes. I now understand where I stand in this pecking order. I hope that you will have a rewarding and orderly life. I am out of here.”
She then abandoned her cart in the aisle, yet another major breach of protocol that I needed to correct. She walked quickly toward the front door and I never saw her again.
Some of you may say that I behaved in an inappropriate manner with Maria and that my priorities were way off kilter. This is a reasonable conclusion that I respect. However, there is no shortage of female aislers. In fact, they outnumber men by a big ratio. In retrospect, I now understand exactly what happened between us. It was unwise of me to strike up a friendship with a wine, beer, and liquor aisler.
Stick to your own kind, my father used to tell me. Very wise advice. Cereal boxers tend to be more reliable, more dependable, and perhaps less flighty. Rumor also has it that produce aislers also tend to be somewhat erratic in their temperament. They vacillate between normal temperature and cold like the fruits and vegetables they so admire. Achieve balance and temperament in your life. That’s the ticket. The den will still be there when the occasion and need arises and I will be on the hunt for a new kindred spirit.