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An Unlikely Meeting in the Grocery Store


The first thing I noticed when I got to the grocery store was that the vegetable section was depleted. And he noticed too.

“I’m looking for squash. Can you believe this squash? This is not squash,” he said, pointing to the few anemic-looking vegetables stacked up in the cooler.

His face was familiar and so was his voice, though I couldn’t place him. He was probably in his mid-40s, dressed in a white karate outfit, and he was wearing no coat, even though it was a chilly January day. But that wasn’t how I knew him - I’d never taken karate before and neither had my kids.

He flagged down a store employee to ask about the squash. I kept shopping, pushing my cart around the produce aisles, unable to find any green onions or kale myself.

Which was unusual, given this particular grocery store. It was no Whole Foods, but it was in the nicest part of town and the shelves were usually brimming with stock. And unlike the store near my house, it was never hard to find someone to help you when you needed it.

This store oozed the aura of white privilege and I was acutely aware of it. And I felt shitty for still wanting to shop there. But I knew this store like the back of my hand – it was built when I lived in this section of town twenty years ago, when most of the land was still just fields and a few minor roads crossing through.

Now it was the upscale neighborhood, full of McMansions and a nice elementary school and plenty of quiet roads and trees and tennis courts – clearly catering to the upper class - and the grocery store reflected that.

So I was perplexed to not find any green onions or kale on a Saturday afternoon.

As I switched my attention to the fruit it hit me why this grocery store stranger seemed so familiar – it was because he looked remarkably like Pharrell Williams. He was taller than Pharrell (by quite a bit) and his skin was just a hint darker – he was not quite as exotic looking as I’d describe Pharrell Williams to be. But the strong resemblance was definitely there.

My cart neared his again and he made another offhand comment about the sad state of the squash. His tone, his inflection, the cadence of his words felt oddly familiar to me, but he didn’t sound a bit like Pharrell Williams, even though he looked like him.

A moment later it hit me - he sounded remarkably like Barack Obama. So apparently there was a Pharrell Williams look-alike, Barack Obama sound-alike, karate-dressed man roaming the usually-well-stocked-but-not-today grocery store in suburban Virginia, in search of yellow squash.

I commiserated with him about not being able to find the green onions or the kale. But instead of responding to me about vegetables, as I expected, he looked me in the eyes, paused for a moment, and said to me “You’re a pretty girl.”

What the hell??? I thought to myself as I hastily pushed my cart to the left, heading toward the dairy section. I did not acknowledge his comment…I was speechless… What the hell had just happened?

He’d said it as I was moving past him, so I responded to him with neither a “thank you” nor a “screw you, jackass,” either of which seemed appropriate to the situation. I just kept walking and shopping.

But his words would not leave my head. I was angry. What was he thinking, saying that to me? I was a stranger in a grocery store in a nice part of town. The words “You’re a pretty girl” echoed loudly over and over in my head, bouncing around relentlessly as I tried to make sense of them while filling my cart with bread and shrimp and coffee.

I’m a 47-year old woman, thankyouverymuch, you may not call me a girl. And I sure as hell am not pretty.

I was out on errands that day; the grocery store was my last stop. After I loaded up my car outside the previous store, I glanced at myself in the rear view mirror and quite frankly didn’t like what I saw. My hair looked thin and frizzy, it was too flat and had a weird limp curl on one side. I’d put on the minimal amount of makeup to exit the house - just enough to feel like I could go someplace other than the gym.

My glasses didn’t seem flattering – instead of the modern hipster look I hoped for, they just seemed big and thick. I didn’t like the way they made my eyes look that day, but they were the best glasses I had for driving, so I wore them. It was function over fashion.

So excuse me, Mr. I-Say-What-I-Think-in-the-Grocery-Store, I am not pretty today and you may not call me pretty any day.

I kept shopping, focusing on crossing things off my list, but this guy’s words overtook my thoughts and I could not shake them.

I was angry at him for saying that.

But I was also angry at myself for ruminating about it.

And at one point, I found myself feeling guilty for chastising him in my mind. “He paid you a compliment, Susan, why are you bent out of shape?” I actually asked myself if I myself was the one at fault. “Am I the one taking this the wrong way?” I couldn’t help but wonder.

Who am I really mad at here, I asked myself. Am I annoyed and taken aback by his out-of-place comment? Or am I annoyed at myself for not responding to him? Or am I annoyed that I’m dwelling on some stupid two-second offhand compliment by a grocery store stranger who lacks a social filter?

Or am I annoyed that I disagree with him? That I was thinking thoughts exactly opposite to his just a half an hour earlier?

Probably the latter.

By this time I was steamed at him but even more steamed at myself.

I headed to the last section in the grocery store and Bill Cosby came to mind. I thought of him and the women who allege that he violated them. Now I want to make it clear than in no way, shape or form do I think this stranger’s random comment to me compares even a teeny, tiny fraction to what those women claim to have gone through (and I believe them, because there are so many of them and their stories are so similar, but we’ll see what comes to pass in the coming months).

However, it frightened me to observe in myself just how quickly my thoughts could spiral from “What a creep” indignation to self-doubt. “Susan, you’re a jerk for thinking bad thoughts about guy who was just trying to be nice, what’s wrong with you anyway? Get a grip!

It’s scary shit and it’s a slippery slope, that’s for sure.

I shocked myself with the lightning speed that I grew to doubt myself, questioning my own thoughts, feelings, and intentions, and allowing a random stranger to undermine my self-esteem.

And surely he thought he was doing me a favor.

I can see how condescending, bigoted, and misogynistic politicians get voted into office. God help us from Trump and everyone else.

I wrapped up my shopping and pushed my cart to the check out line. Unlike most grocery stores, this one has excellent service almost every time (of course it does, given the demographics of the people who shop there) so I knew I’d be out with minimum hassle, no matter which register I chose.

I just happened to pick the one with the Pharrell-Obama karate guy finishing paying for his groceries.

I considered switching lines, but he was so close to being done that I didn’t bother. I started to unload my groceries onto the belt.

He thanked the checker, then saw me behind him, gave me a smile (a natural smile, not a lecherous one, in case you’re wondering) and said with a tone that could have come directly from Barack Obama’s mouth “Have a nice day!” It had that rhythmic, staccato delivery and a punchy, upward inflection on the final word in the phrase, “day,” that was so familiar, just as Obama would say it.

I replied to him “You too,” and tried not to think too much more about it, giving him and his intentions the benefit of the doubt.

He turned away from me and the back of his karate uniform was fully visible. In the middle of his back was embroidered a large snake, the bottom portion of its body curled up but the top portion of the snake reaching ominously upward as if to pounce. It occurred to me that the whole image was rather phallic, with the snake’s bulbous head protruding from its coiled body below, its tongue suggestively bulging from its mouth (or was that my imagination?!?), but what the hell do I know about karate uniforms anyway? Maybe that’s not so unusual to see on the back of a karate uniform.

Underneath the snake there were some words, embroidered in that asian-style of printing – the kind you see on paper placemats in a Chinese restaurant. And the two big words embroidered in red, right under the phallic snake, said “MASTER THIS.”

And right then and there, in the middle of an uppity suburban grocery store with a week’s worth of groceries spread out in front of me, I had a feeling that I’d just been schlonged.

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