Thursday, July 07, 2005

Whenever I Call You Friend.

Consort and I were shopping, and he peeled off to get some carnivorous things for himself. When he came back, he found me waist-deep in conversation with a woman tending to a full grocery cart and two small children.

“…but this one here,” she said, gesturing to the toddler currently trying to climb her pants, “still nurses at least three times a day”

“Are you going to wean him?”

“He’ll go to day-care part-time in September; I think it might happen naturally then”

As Consort read the back of the Pirate’s Booty bag, she and I discussed our mutual dislike of a certain playground mother (You know her -- whatever snack you bring out, no matter how wholesome, she wrinkles her nose and says “Oh, you let her eat that?”). We segued into our longings to have a pedicure and what we heard of a local summer camp program. Finally, we wound down.

“This was great,” I said sincerely. “I guess I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah, take care” she said as she peeled her children off the box of fruit popsicles.

“You, too. Good luck with your son’s night terrors.”

Consort and I walked in one direction, she in another. After a second, Consort asked me “Do you know her from the park?”

“No, we know people in common, but we’ve never met there.”

“Is her son in our school?”

“No, she’s thinking a progressive, child-led educational model”

Consort waited a beat. I thought about what kind of soup to get. He finally said, “So how do you know her?”

I looked puzzled.

“I just met her. We were going for the same juice boxes.”

The Grocery Store Friend: a phenomenon of the parents of small children.

Actually, that might not be entirely accurate. Perhaps when I am eighty, I will engage in long conversations with elderly strangers I meet in the pharmacy. But before having a child, I had never experienced a brief yet highly pleasurable social interaction based on both people needing an Ariel toothbrush and toothpaste which squeezes out in the shape of a crown. In my twenties, rushing into a store after work to buy cat food, cat litter, a Harper’s Bazaar and a Lean Cuisine, it never would have occurred to me to say to another single woman “I notice you’re going for the Purina Premium Plate”.

But there is something disarmingly intimate about shopping with your kid. Your own relatives might not know your kid can talk you into opening the pretzel bag in the store with one well-pitched “Mommeeeee”, but everyone in your aisle now does. You might be able to convince your sister that your kid eats her vegetables just for the sheer joy of building bone and muscle mass: the people around you in the grocery store know you’ve held up a broccoli head in one hand and a box of Oreos in the other and said, “I see you eat one, you get the other. Capisce?” You see another mother with a small child and a hunted expression at which point you’re likely to say anything.

If you don’t have your child with you, it’s a little trickier. In order to bond with the Grocery Store Friend, you must let them know you have one of those charming creatures yourself much in the way guys manage to indicate to each other they’re Mets fans or own Porsches. Most mothers would find a woman without a child who is interested in talking about thrush to be somewhat unsettling. I try to work Daughter into conversation subtly.

SCENE: Quinn and woman with infant in bucket seat are waiting for cheese counter guy to come back from wherever he grates Parmesan. Quinn smiles at the woman, who smiles politely back. Quinn glances at baby.

QUINN: What a lovely…baby (Baby is wearing yellow. Stick with gender neutralities). Look how alert the baby is!

(The baby is alert. The baby also has a hairline which resembles a beret which has slid nearly to its eyebrows, but only on one side. Quinn dearly hopes this child has a grandparent who does laser hair removal.)

MOTHER: (Proudly) Yes, very alert.

(The conversation stops. The cheese man cometh, but only to tell us the grater is stuck, and to give him a minute. He leaves again. Silence reigns. I decide, in a discreet way, to bring Daughter into the conversation. I scan the child frantically.

QUINN: What wonderful…socks the baby is wearing. My daughter had socks like that.

MOTHER: How old is your daughter?

Okay, it wasn’t a graceful leap into the conversational abyss, but when Cheese Guy finally came back, we were discussing breast pumps and her ambivalence about going back to work at the end of her maternity leave. I had also determined, much to my relief, that the child was a boy.

So, you may ask, why work so hard? Why can’t I just enjoy the silence of my own head while remembering whether I need to buy peanut butter? Because I like these interactions. If you’re lucky, you hear an interesting story and get a lead on cheap school shoes. If you’re not lucky and it turns out that, even though you have exactly the same items in your baskets, you couldn’t have less in common and find each other confusing and irritating…So what? You dip your toe in, you dip your toe out, and you pick up a pound of apples.

There are a million stories in the produce section.


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