I never intentionally choose the crappy grocery cart. Who does? But I always, always, without fail end up trudging through the produce section, squeaking, thumping, rattling, or worse, stalling because of lopsided wheels that I’m convinced exist to torment individuals like myself.
And each week, as I white knuckle through the canned foods aisle, my cart leaning to one side, I ask myself the same questions. Why don’t you return the shopping cart as soon as you know it’s the jacked-up variety? Why do you sheepishly apologize to other shoppers as you bump along? They’ve had crappy carts too. And last, why are there so many of these wild carts?
Yesterday, as I attempted to tame my shopping cart at the Winn Dixie, all eyes on my battle (or so I thought), I asked myself one more question, “Dear God, why must I be a spectacle every time I run out of toilet paper and Toaster Strudels?”
My answer was annoyingly accurate and brought me back to 1988 when spectacles were nonsense.
In fifth grade, I tried out for the softball team. I know what you’re thinking. You? You have no athletic ability. You have no coordination. And you only exercise to eat as much fried okra as your cravings beg. All of this is true, but once upon a phase, I was a jock.
I was that age teetering between too old for Barbies and too young to lock my bedroom door and listen to music all afternoon. But I also lived in a neighborhood crawling with boys. Seriously. Around every corner, in each yard, hopping over all the fences were smelly, gross, and obnoxious boys. In those days, I spent most of my time roller skating and daydreaming, sticking to the smoothest driveways and avoiding the sidewalk cracks and potholes that New Orleans is famous for.
“Oh! Look at Annie! I’m so dainty in my purple roller skates,” the boys would mock me. Then off they’d run to some impromptu tackle football game in the yard of whichever kid’s mom was least likely to get up from her soap opera and intervene.
This was also around the time my brother had officially moved out and gotten married. My brother loved baseball. He loved football. Grit was his drug of choice. He was cool and inspiring, but he was gone, living three hours away and only around on holidays. Somewhere between missing him and being pissed off at the nasty boys, I threw off my skates, tossed on my brother’s Oakland A’s baseball cap, and joined the boys in the mud. It was a year of coming home for dinner sweaty and smelling like a goat. Skinned knees were a constant and never healed because they were perpetually re-skinned. Santa brought me footballs and baseball bats instead of dolls and fancy clothes. I burped a lot and made fart noises with my armpit (everything I loathe my sons doing today). But I had fun. I didn’t care what I looked like or how silly I appeared to others. The neighborhood boys respected me and my brother loved the stories of my adventures. So I decided to seal the deal by trying out for the softball team.
Of course, I didn’t make it. Not even the first cut. I had about as much athleticism then as I do now. But the difference is, back then I didn’t care if I was good or not. I just kept on playing and roughhousing in the afternoons until the following year when the music teacher encouraged me to audition for the choir. And then, well, the rest is history. We were eleven by that time anyway. Boys were no longer rowdy playmates. They made me curious.
But this doesn’t mean my all-in mentality vanished with my softball glove. I went through phases the way some people approach an all-you-can-eat buffet at a casino. I couldn’t get enough. I read, researched, watched documentaries, investigated, and even dressed the part. So when my eighth grade history project led me to an autobiography about Jackie Kennedy Onassis, I fell headfirst into a world of pillbox hats and oversized sunglasses. This was one of my longer phases and was eventually marked by a bright green, vintage 1960s shift dress with giant black buttons that I wore to my freshman luncheon. What was I thinking? Didn’t I know how ridiculous I looked? All of my classmates wore the floral print babydoll dresses that were on trend at the time and then there was me -- loud, green Annie, like an awkward houseplant in the center of it all. Good God, did my mother even love me, letting me leave the house so....bold? But at the time, such thinking wouldn’t have occurred to me. Just like when I didn’t get picked for softball, I was just having fun, invested in my latest interest. I don’t even think I knew I was being bold. I was enjoying...me.
I guess it was in the years after I was a houseplant that my interests became more subtle. At least to my peers.
Being an awkward houseplant is eventually social suicide. Sooner or later, the one thing we can all agree on is that drawing attention to ourselves is embarrassing. Wearing the wrong clothes gives the impression that we are not, in fact, part of the group. Such individualism is just plain weird. If we’re not on trend, then we are definitely too unique for consideration. Carrying on with something, even if we’re bad at it, is pathetic. It doesn’t matter if you like something. If you don’t look good doing it, you should really save yourself the pity and stop trying. Only success stories are worth exploiting. These are the lies I told myself as I slowly moved toward more uniform choices. These are the lies that still creep into my thoughts almost every time I feel too obvious.
Without fail, I cringe before I share any of my work on social media. What if I sound stupid? What if no one responds and I look like a loser? It’s been about seven hundred years since I’ve been to a social event (seriously, 2020 is longer than the worst dance recital...and not nearly as interesting) but back when we didn’t socially distance, I regularly attended parties, galas, and fundraisers -- in most cases playing it safe. My goal was to look nice with “please don’t linger on me too long” on the side. And while I do have bold accessories that I throw into the mix on occasion (a gold lamė jacket I love, a fuzzy, black Cossack hat I wore on a whim one cold Manhattan weekend) it’s easier to not be the random houseplant in a room of flower-printed babydoll dresses. The alternative requires living up to all the houseplant demands -- confidence, character, and self-appreciation. Who has time for that?
And so this is why I muddle through the grocery store with the banged up buggy, apologizing to (or hiding from) everyone who looks at me struggling. Crappy carts don’t always reveal themselves right away. Sometimes we’re a quarter of the way in before the reversed wheel backfires. I hear my humiliation saying this to critics as I thump along. Should I go back to the front and transfer to a better functioning cart? That would be laborious and also embarrassing. People would know I picked a loser to start with. It’s better to look down, deal with it, and just get the hell out of there as fast as possible.
This is the exact inner monologue I chewed on as I maneuvered that rogue shopping cart in the Winn Dixie yesterday morning. I could start fresh and peacefully fill my cart, or I could struggle and curse faulty wheels and casters until the end of time: “Dear God, why must I be a spectacle every time I run out of toilet paper and Toaster Strudels?”
“Because you think you're a spectacle,” I said as I plopped Gushers into the basket.
The funny thing is, that grubby but happy, terrible softball playing kid and Annie O in the bright green dress would neither return the cart, nor would they hang their head in shame. They’d have thumped and rattled aisle to aisle, undisturbed by glares or the nonsense of a grocery cart. There was a ballgame to get to and a new Jackie book to read. Back then, life was less about what mattered to others and more about what mattered to me. It wasn’t selfish. It was self-care.
I know enough to know that sticking to trends may not be cheap, but it sure is easy. Should we follow the norm, there is a clear path to as little scrutiny as possible. But most trends have a lifespan barely longer than a goldfish. What’s the point of a closet of floral printed babydoll dresses without a story to go with them? Trends are also safe. What’s an adventure without a couple of scraped knees? And what’s the point in loving something so much that you hide it? I’ve written before about private passions -- the idea that some secrets can be fun and that there is an advantage to understanding yourself in ways no one else can. But why must we pretend we’re the only ones with wild shopping carts? Why must we hide our wildness from others? Who decided what was tame and at what point did we agree to those terms? Sometimes I’m a spectacle on purpose, but sometimes my lack of self-care makes me a spectacle, when I’m too insecure to be myself and too damn afraid of your opinion to be authentic. That’s when I look most foolish of all. To avoid that, I can either start fresh or rattle on.
So the next time I make a clatter as I pass you at the Winn Dixie, don’t be surprised if I meet your eyes and laugh. I’ll be the one in the bright green Jackie dress.