*At the supermarket the other day, I noticed a woman, probably in her early thirties, pensively perusing an aisle of baked goods.
I noticed her because of him. He was her boyfriend, or maybe her husband, also thirtyish, bringing up her rear. He got my attention because he was pushing a shopping cart.
The man knew what he was doing. He wasn’t so close that if she suddenly paused while examining her grocery list that he’d collide with her backside, yet not so far away that she couldn’t load the cart with ease. A skilled, sensitive operator, he gave his woman plenty space, but was never far away when she needed to empty her arms.
They seemed to enjoy themselves shopping. Giggling among the dried pasta, unobtrusively, they stole kisses in the spice section. Respectfully and lovingly, they asked one another if they already had this or that at home.
I found the couple striking in the way you find interesting the things you don’t see much anymore. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t come upon many couples in the supermarket. When was the last time you pushed a cart for someone, or–and I hate to bring it up–had one pushed for you? More often than not, there can be more than detergent, eggs and produce riding on that cart.
In my life, I’ve learned things about women. One of them is that in a relationship, many want a man who will push their shopping cart. Sounds insignificant, but it is not.
The politics of pushing that cart are no different from what is vital in a healthy relationship. Communication as to what you’ll buy is required before you even step inside the store. And it takes patience to stand there while your partner meticulously ponders Top Shelf or brand X. There must be compromise over what the two of you want, and respect for your differences.
In this sense, the shopping cart can truly be where the rubber meets the store linoleum. He may profess her to be the apple of his eye, but which apple—Delicious, Gala, Granny or the zillion in between (by the way—where did all these different kinds of apples come from?)?
Some lousy relationships could have been averted long before they happened if, in the heat of a dizzying moment of passion, someone bothered to ask, “Yeah, but…will you push my shopping cart?”
I ascertained the gravity of pushing a shopping cart for a woman when I was just a kid, by pushing one for my mother. I don’t remember when I went from monkeying around on the front of the cart to chauffeuring it, but the transition happened early.
Verbally, she didn’t explain much. It was mostly by her doting implication that I learned to navigate a cart despite uncooperative wheels and to resist a boy’s inquisitive urge to stray with the cart. And, I learned—at all costs—to stay off Mama’s heels.
Except for the cereal and candy sections, rolling down aisle after aisle seemed a waste of a Saturday morning–until we’d get to the check out stand and Mama, with the good-natured gratitude of a young girl who’d just been walked from the homecoming dance to her door, would thank me for pushing the cart. She appreciated one of her kids helping her, since Daddy sure as hell didn’t.
Indeed, on the Saturday mornings of my youth, the parking lots of Oklahoma City supermarkets and shopping centers were routinely dotted by Fords, Chevys, Buicks, Plymouths, Pontiacs and pick up trucks and Cadillacs occupied by men sitting idly, reading the paper or nodding off, in fedora hats and overcoats in the winter, or with the windows down and a baseball radio broadcast turned up in the summer, waiting, sometimes with kids and/or a dog in the back seat, for their wives as they shopped, all of these men abiding by the manly notion that yes, they’d drive her to the store and pay for the goods, but under no circumstances were they going inside. My parents loved one another, for sure. But some of what it takes to peacefully push the cart, Mama and Daddy lacked.
Apparently, so did the Worthys, just up the block from us. I used to hear Mama and Miss Davis gossip about the sweet and ever friendly Mrs. Worthy’s indiscretions. Despite the talk, for years the Worthy marriage seemed solid as a rock—until someone informed Mr. Worthy that his wife had been spotted in the neighborhood Safeway early one weekday morning, with another man.
Forget all the pop songs about men who sleep with married women; lots of guys are willing to do that. The deeper query: who is willing to push your woman’s shopping cart? Who’s meeting your woman across town at a Kroger she doesn’t normally patronize, and is willing to push the cart of groceries she’s paying for with your hard-earned dough, just to spend time with her? Sir, who pushed the cart that carried the coffee you drank this morning? Since Mr. Worthy wouldn’t do it, Mrs. Worthy found somebody else to push hers. That and their subsequent divorce was the blather of Oklahoma City’s East Side.
There is shopping cart culture. You know what people have going on at home by what goes on over that cart: not speaking to one another as they shop. His disdainful objection to everything she puts the cart. That is, if they shop together at all. As I said, today, I don’t see many couples doing that.
But then, I don’t see men waiting in cars in the lot, either. Mostly I see men and women, whether they have someone at home or not, risking a hernia by overloading those little hand baskets, or pushing carts, roaming the food aisles much in the same way they do out in the world, all by themselves.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]