Shopping at The Berkeley Bowl is something of a contact sport on a Saturday afternoon. It’s crowded, a surprising number of shoppers seem to have phones glued to their ear, and if you get in someone’s way they will cut you.
Off, that is. They will cut you off with their cart.
I ordinarily go in steeled for shoppers’ battle, but on this trip, I lost my nerves of steel.
Chalked up to experience
I chalk it up to experience. Back when I was in graduate school, I took a reporter job with The Frederick News-Post that paid me $9.65/hour. I happily agreed to cover the most far-flung towns in our coverage area because it meant I could pad my paycheck with mileage reimbursements, but still, I was not in anything resembling financial shape.
With maxed out credit cards, grad school tuition bills due (that tuition reimbursement benefit offered by the paper, it turned out, didn’t extend to my M.A. in Writing…because it was Fiction Writing…), and a mounting sense of dread every time I had to write a check, I took a second job in the mornings at a psychiatrist’s office. They only paid $6/hour, but they paid me weekly for my eight to ten hours of work each week. That money, which usually worked out to $40 after taxes, became my budget for all household items: food, toiletries, cleaning products, you name it.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. That sucked. I would shop sales at K-Mart and make very careful meal plans that allowed me to use leftovers from one dish in another. Luckily, five other reporters and I had a meal club three days a week—one person of the six of us cooked and brought in dinner for the rest of us, and we’d all eat together in the breakroom. That meant three nights a week (except for the once every two weeks when I’d have to cook), someone else bought me dinner.
I took a calculator to the grocery store in those days, and would walk around the store adding to the total as I put things in my cart. When I hit the budget limit, I had to decide: put something back? Or just stop shopping no matter where I was on my list? Grocery shopping took twice as long as it ever had before, and my anxiety mounted as my items rode the checkout belt toward the cashier. If my calculations had been off, I would have had to ask the checker to take some things back. I didn’t have any room for error.
When I left that job, I vowed never to have to walk through a grocery store with a calculator. But in the Bowl, even though now the calculator was on my iPhone (and yes, I’m aware of that sheer First-World-Problem absurdity…), it was back to that same pattern. Put something in the cart. Add it to the total.
Choosing economy over nutrition
The choices confounded me. Full fat peanut butter? Available for $2.99. Reduced-fat? $3.15. Ordinarily, that $.16 wouldn’t make a difference to me, but in these circumstances, it absolutely did. The full-fat version went in the basket.
The only option for jelly to go with that peanut butter was a huge jar of Welch’s grape for $2.98. It was way more than I would use in a week, so I couldn’t justify it. Everything smaller was some kind of gourmet, organic, whatever jelly or jam-nothing under $3.98. I found myself in front of the jelly no fewer than three times, raging against the prices, whining in my head about how much I hate plain peanut butter sandwiches.
I found single sticks of butter, which meant that was feasible, and a dozen eggs for $1.95. Celery, at $.59 for a bunch, surprised me as such a bargain. Carrots were available individually, and yellow onions were on sale, so I picked up the aromatics that would make pots of soup and/or beans tastier and a little more nutritious.
When I first got to the bulk section, the rolled oats bin was empty. I thought about going for the steel-cut variety, but to be honest, I haven’t even tried cooking those, and could not see purchasing a bag of anything I didn’t think I could convert into something edible. I would have no margin for error in that case.
I put a container of Quaker Oatmeal in my basket, but then, later, noticed the staff had refilled the bulk bins. I leapt at the oatmeal, garnering a bulk bag for $1.60 instead of the $2.89 pre-packaged container. “Is this stuff really better than that stuff?” asked an elderly man next to me at the oatmeal, gesturing first at the bulk option, then at the container in my basket.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s certainly significantly cheaper.”
That last-minute shift allowed me to pick up two pears (on sale for $.59/pound) and two Pippin apples, which were listed at $1.09/pound, but which the checker rang up as Gravenstein apples at $.89/pound. I didn’t notice that until I got home, but I probably wouldn’t have said anything, to be honest.
Where I did say something was when the woman weighing my bulk raisins handed the bag back to me. She had marked them as sweetened cranberries at $6.99/pound, rather than the $2.15/pound I was expecting. “I’m sorry—I think these are mismarked,” I said, handing them back.
She fixed the labeling, but I was glad I had caught it. Ordinarily, it’s the kind of thing I would have never paid attention to.
By the time I got to the checkout line, I had been shopping for nearly an hour, pacing back and forth in front of shelves that held items I wanted but couldn’t fit into the budget, and trying to find unobtrusive places to stand and calculate my total—a near-impossible task in such a busy store.
By the time I got to the checkout line, I had actually gotten nauseous, so anxiety-ridden by the whole experience that I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I remember what it’s like to do that kind of calculating week after week after week. I swore I’d never do it again, and it makes me sick that people all over this country have to do it every time they go to the store. I’m not talking about just the average person setting a budget and trying hard to stick to it. I’m talking about knowing you only have a set amount of money with you, and if you don’t make that amount, you’re going to have to face humiliation at the checkout counter.
As it turned out, my calculations were right, and the total for all my purchases, once the cashier took out the $.05 discount for my bringing along a canvas grocery tote, was $19.92. The cashier stood there, bemused, while I took a picture of the screen. I’m glad no one took a picture of my face, because I think I might have been green at that point.
So, no jelly, no ham hock to flavor soup, no tuna, no salsa, no corn tortillas, no American cheese and no ground turkey. Those were the things that didn’t make the cut when all was said and done. But everything else on my list did make it, setting me up for a spartan, but fairly nutritious week. I would be subsisting on a lot of rice and beans, but at least I had a few vegetables and a couple pieces of fruit thrown in there for good measure.