The grocery order

A report from my grandchild Opal a few weeks ago, about one of their adventures as a customer service employee at a Redwood City Safeway supermarket / grocery store. In this event, they observed as another employee coped with a male customer who had come with a small but somewhat eccentric shopping list from his wife (who he had on the phone) and needed help in finding the items. (I’m telling the story from memory and no doubt have gotten some of the details wrong, and have embroidered on some of the others; an experienced story-teller always reserves the right to improve on their tales.)

First, some soap. Bar soap. Lavender bar soap. Possibly it had to be some specific brand. I’ve picked a very earnest lavender bar soap to fill this slot.

Then, Vaseline. The original petroleum jelly — once from Chesebrough, now from Unilever, still available.

Then a third item I’ll put off. It’s the clincher.

As it turned out, the store had no lavender bar soap, though stores very close to it carried some. And then, somewhat surprisingly to me, they had no Vaseline either, though neighboring drugstores did. Well, for a Safeway it’s not very big, and it’s in a shopping center with lots of well-stocked specialty shops, so it’s inclined to focus on, you know, groceries. Anyway, she wanted all three together: the order was coherent, serving a single purpose, not a random assortment of household items the woman needed (cat fd, loaf pumpernickel, tampons, grn chartreuse — that sort of thing).

Stop for a moment to reflect: what might unite the lavender bar soap and the Vaseline? (My friend and helper Kim got it right off, called it out, even before I got to item #3.)

The products. While you’re thinking about #3.

First, a candidate for the soap:

(#1) [From the company website:] Scented with pure lavender and lavandin oils to calm the mind and soothe the body! Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Pure-Castile Bar Soap is made with certified fair trade ingredients and organic U.S.-grown hemp oil for a soft, smooth lather that won’t dry your skin. Biodegradable in a 100% post-consumer recycled wrapper.

Then, for the Vaseline, the original stuff:

(#2) [From Wikipedia:] Vaseline is an American brand of petroleum jelly-based products owned by transnational company Unilever. Products include plain petroleum jelly [as a lubricant and as a skin treatment] and a selection of skin creams, soaps, lotions, cleansers, and deodorants.

A bit on Vaseline history, from the Wikipedia entry (just because I think it’s interesting, not because it’s in any way relevant to the Safeway order; not only is this my story now, this is also my blog, and I’m allowed to digress ad libitum):

In 1859, Robert Chesebrough, a chemist who formerly clarified kerosene from the oil of sperm whales, traveled to the oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania to research what new materials might be created from this new fuel. There he learned of a residue called “rod wax” that had to be periodically removed from oil rig pumps. The oil workers had been using the substance to heal cuts and burns. Chesebrough took samples of the rod wax back to Brooklyn, extracted the usable petroleum jelly, and began manufacturing a medicinal product he called Vaseline.

The first known reference to the name Vaseline was by Chesebrough in his U.S. patent … in 1872. “I, Robert Chesebrough, have invented a new and useful product from petroleum which I have named Vaseline…”

My first guess. When I was a boy, I applied Vaseline (from the family medicine cabinet) to minor burns and scrapes, but when I became a (gay) man, Vaseline meant sex lube (great lube that never dried out and was easy on tender tissues — though it was hell to get out of the sheets). See “rod wax” above. But then when we had to suit up to save our lives, Vaseline turned out to break down condoms, so we had to abandon it in a search for effective water-based lubes.

But of course lubes for gay men are also (with a bodypart shift) lubes for straight women, so maybe the Safeway wife wanted it for herself, and wanted the lavender soap for its pleasantly sexy feminine scent.

Bingo! What Kim — companion to two dogs — called out was: “She has a sick dog!”. Lavender bar soap is a traditional help for dried and cracked skin in ailing dogs, and Vaseline for similarly afflicted paws. I had no idea.

Item #3 was a particular variety of a brand of dog food. The Safeway didn’t have that either (though a pet store in the shopping center almost surely did).

On hearing that all three of her searches were fruitless at the Safeway, the wife then pleaded. The husband relayed the message: “But it’s for a DYING DOG!”

Apparently she had come to believe that the store really had all three things, but that the customer service people — because they just didn’t want to go to the trouble to go out into the aisles to assemble them? — were concealing this from her. But if they understood it was for a dying dog, that news would melt their frozen hearts.

Somehow, neither of the staff at the scene broke out in laughter. But, still, the husband had to be told that the store couldn’t provide what it didn’t have.

You will undoubtedly have detected areas of zaniness in this story that I haven’t exposed. Why did everything have to come from the same place, and why was that place this particular Safeway? (I’m guessing that the larger Safeway in nearby Menlo Park could have supplied everything.) Why didn’t the wife arm the husband with the dying dog story beforehand, so that he could have framed his request as a bid for sympathetic help? Or was the dying — rather than merely ailing — dog story just an invention of the wife’s? And so on.

Eight million stories in the naked city, only a few thousand in the Redwood City Safeway, but there’s a lot of good stuff there, and Opal is a keen and sympathetic observer.





6 Responses to “The grocery order”

  1. thnidu Says:

    Effin’ bizarre, and definitely amusing. But poor dog, wife, husband, and store staff!

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Chuk Craig on Facebook:

    Reddit has entire boards full of stories about “entitled” people (/r/EntitledPeople, /r/EntitledParents, etc), and this kind of appeal to get something you want is quite common, the usual one being “BUT IT’S FOR MY KID’S BIRTHDAY!”

  3. Jan Bobrowicz Says:

    I was working in a grocery store in central London, when a sweet young American couple asked if we sold vegetable shortening, to bake cookies with. I apologised that we only sold butter and lard. They said they’d been looking everywhere and I was the first person who understood what it was they were looking for. I directed them to a couple of large supermarkets and told them to ask for Trex or Cookeen, the two major brands. I DIDN’T tell them that they could buy the brand they were looking for, Crisco, in any of the gay sex stores in Soho, where it’s sold as a lube for fisting.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Lovely. I chose not to go from Vaseline to Vaseline Alley in my posting (enough digressing already), and also not to go from Vaseline to Crisco (much more solid than Vaseline, and therefore better for fisting, which needs a really heavy-duty lube; and even harder on sheets). Still thinking about going from Vaseline to classic Cuticura, for minor burns, cuts, and scrapes, maybe in a separate, more innocent, posting.

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