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I have a secret.

I guess it is more of a guilty pleasure.

Sometimes when I get to the grocery self-checkout machine, I find a neglected receipt hanging on its weak perforated edge like claws that cling for dear life. I leave it there until I am done ringing up my items and once my receipt prints, I stealthily shove both into my bag.

When my errands and chores are complete and I am finally back home, I make a snack and get comfortable on the couch. I light a candle and study the forlorn receipt of this complete stranger. I notice the time of the transaction. The amount spent. The coupons used. The number of items. The types. The brands. And I think about the person to whom it belongs. I imagine them milling around the aisles, checking items off the long list that evidences a full household. I can see the young boy and girl chewing on soggy Lucky Charms in the rushed early morning hours, while the cat slurps its Fancy Feast. Is it Dad that drinks Coke? Or does Mom let the kids have it but only on the weekends? Maybe they argue about that. Is the Ben & Jerry's Half Baked Froyo the buyer's reward for all this shopping and stress? Will the lettuce actually get eaten or is it a last-ditch attempt to balance the scales and feed a healthy family (though she knows deep down, she will never quite get around to making that salad)?

Then there are the short receipts. I find these far more fascinating. This customer lives alone. A small jar of JIF crunchy peanut butter, one Marie Callender’s frozen chicken pot pie, a bag of Utz Ripples potato chips, and two Hershey's dark chocolate bars. The images that dance in my head aren’t as straight-forward or easy to conjure as the typical nuclear family that glimmers in magazine ads and TV commercials.

No. This five-inch long thin piece of paper connotes way more mystery. Why so few items? Do they frequent the grocery store several times a week like I do, just to remind themselves they too are a member of society? Or perhaps it is the receipt of a young college student who came shopping in haste, for some quick fuel to get him through the essay he will be writing all night.

Maybe the customer is an elderly woman who is heating up her meal at this very moment, wistfully remembering the times she made her own pot pies, before she began to rely on Marie Callender. Back when she still had the required dexterity, and someone to cook for. Her dinner bell is the theme song of Jeopardy that she faithfully watches while eating off a TV table in the living room of her apartment. She keeps the portable phone nearby in case one of her kids call, but they usually don’t.

* * * * *

I can't tell you why my mind thinks this way, or why I am so intrigued by human patterns of behavior, or why I can't just go to the grocery store without making it a social experiment... but this is how I am wired and always have been. With rapt interest in the minutiae and subtleties that tell a story that no one bothers to read.

Food is one of the most intimate choices a human can make, revealing a quick snapshot of our inner workings, our state of affairs, our emotional landscape. What better way to get a subtle peek into another person's world?

Or I guess you could just wait for that weird girl to send a middle-of-the night uncensored confessionary essay describing her creepy grocery store antics. You're welcome.


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