A friend was outraged over the idea of ordering groceries over the Web. “Cyber groceries. Web watermelon. Internet ice cream! Good God. Can you believe that? We’re going to close ourselves off from all human contact.”

I said that, actually, I’d love to order my groceries and have them delivered. I explained that my social life consisted of more than trips to the grocery store and that having groceries delivered, in reality, is sort of old-fashioned. My grandmother probably never set foot in a grocery. She used a telephone to place her order instead of the web, but that seems a minor difference.

I went on to explain that the hour or two I spend in the grocery store battling customers who lack etiquette and standing in long lines could be better spent exploring new ideas with a friend. The Outraged One explained that for many, the weekly trip to the grocery was their main contact with others of the same species. My response: Get a life.

This conversation hung with me as my day progressed. There was the socialization thing. The grocery is one of the few places where we are immersed with folks of all sorts, shapes, styles, social classes and bath-dates. It’s a swim in the greater gene pool. I tried to connect it to the nurturing side of food. I’m a cook. I love the creative, sensuous aspects of preparing food. But it didn’t work. Shopping did not fit amid the slicing and mixing and simmering and blending and browning and arranging and baking. My oneness with vegetables, animals, and a few minerals does not include hunting and gathering in a 60,000-square-foot warehouse.

I tried to think of my grocery experiences as one might recall the great journeys of life to the mountains or the oceans. I pulled from memory the thrill of a serendipitous encounter with a kindred spirit over delicious clam chowder on a rainy night in a cafe two thousand miles from home. I recalled encountering a bear in a remote, ice-cold stream—unexpected to be sure.

Still, I have never met a kindred spirit in the grocery. Not that there aren’t any, but the opportunities to connect and explore are somewhat limited. Of course I see neighbors, but the really meaningful encounters in life occur over wine (open and poured) or chocolate cheesecake (sliced and tongue-swathing), not paper towels. Besides, any kindred spirit of mine would be racing through the aisles to epitomize the essence of a good grocery visit—expedience. If I ever have a head-on collision in Aisle Nine it will be with someone like-minded, ignoring the speed bumps.

There was one encounter though. It was late at night—about 11:30 or so. After a long day I had stared down the refrigerator, certain that if I hung on the door and concentrated hard enough, food would appear. Isn’t that how it worked when you were a teenager? Close the door, retreat to your room, and food regenerates itself in the refrigerator. But I’m older than that now and my refrigerator just cools, providing there’s something to cool.

Recognizing defeat, I snatched the list from the front of the refrigerator and stomped out to the grocery to hunt and gather. After setting a speed record (there was a light crowd at this hour) I took my place in line. I was standing in front of the cashier mumbling to myself that the males of my household had it made. They were comfortably ensconced in their dens, having jotted their every culinary desire on the list while I, the liberated woman, stood in line at the grocery.

Just then I looked up at my cashier, only to see her astonished face staring at something behind me. The registers fell silent. The customers turned and froze. I turned to witness the source of such captivation. And there, standing in the H.E.B. at close to midnight on a Tuesday, was a stunning woman, probably six feet tall and maybe 130 pounds, in a very small red bikini, a matching cape and spike heels. She held three items—well under the express lane limit—yet she yelled, “Regular. Express. Where are the super hero lanes?”

Ever customer service-oriented, five young boys opened their registers and responded, in chorus, “Pleeeeeez, I can help you.” We all waited until she exited to blink.

It was too perfect. The kind of experience that connected you to the greater gene pool. The kind of experience that made you glad you were at the grocery late at night so as not to miss the unexpected. Of course the guys at home didn’t believe me. They thought it was a ploy to get them to do the grocery shopping. But this is a true story. I wouldn’t lie to you.

More recently, while standing in line at the post office I was contemplating this unforgettable grocery experience in the context of The Outraged One, cyber-shopping and gene-pool swimming. I approached the counter to turn in my yellow slips to retrieve the things that wouldn’t fit in my post office box. Looking up I found my US Postal Service employee shaking her head and looking behind me. As I was turning she said, “No, you don’t lick those. You peel the strip off.”

Behind me stood a forty-something, really attractive, rather petite woman in a black sleeveless knit top and black skirt with sheer black stockings and shoes that your mother would approve of. And pearls, three strands of pearls. Hair swept back from a knowing face set with deep, passionate eyes. Elegant-looking. In a beautiful West Texas drawl that could only be cultivated through years of knowing the feel of boots with pointed toes, she said “Wellllll, I’m from West Texas and we lick eeeeeverything.”

Omigawd. What my ears heard and what my eyes saw couldn’t be reconciled within the confines of the post office. It was too perfect, yet another serendipitous encounter with the greater gene pool. A wonderful human experience I would have missed had I been able to collect all my mail over the Internet. The Outraged One is right. Cyberspace can’t compete with this.

The unexpected is so utterly delightful and magical. It’s all around us. Just step out into the greater gene pool and it will find you and entertain and enrich you.

Originally published in The Good Life magazine

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