Ray Scanlon


Shopping for Grace

I scored a moment of grace at Costco, an unexpected temporary unraveling of the ligatures that bind us to place and time, all the sweeter for the incongruity of its venue. Having no expectations is a necessary but not sufficient condition for such a moment’s appearance. If it were sufficient I’d spend more time at big-box stores.

Cheryl is responsible for provisioning her office’s open house, so here we are, on a Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks before Christmas, not, one would expect, an ideal time for relaxed shopping. But the store’s dense though orderly crowd exhibits none of the aggressive frenzy so typical on our roads. Even without having to deal with a crazed mob, I don’t much care for shopping; taking any pleasure in it seems too much like being complicit in a consumerist race to the bottom. If I have to shop, I try, cheapskate that I am, to minimize time and money spent, though I’ll bend my rules in wine shops, booksellers, and hardware stores. Cheryl optimizes for quality: she is careful and painstaking. If one doesn’t really know a person until one has traveled with her, then I maintain the same is true about shopping with her, only more so.

We decide our best strategy is for me to park the Buick-sized carriage. I pull over to the aisle’s edge and guard Cheryl’s purse while she forages on foot for the sundry items she’ll need for the open house. She comes back empty-handed from one sortie, on which she fastidiously inspected every individual grape in several bunches, having snagged me a sample of mashed avocado from the hawker who’s stationed at the aisle corner just a few feet in front of me. By this time I’d retreated into a semi-catatonic state, but her return with the unctuous green sample jogs me into renewed awareness of my surroundings, and I begin to observe.

My familiarity with avocados dates to even before they became objects of scorn due to the eponymous 1970s kitchen appliance color. I’m fond of encountering them in the intimate embrace of a salad doused with a decadent chipotle dressing, but the dollop Cheryl brought me stands unadorned, without benefit even of garlic, lime, or cilantro. The simple, naked avocado, of pleasant and subtle taste and mouth-feel, delivers an eye-opening goodness. Some trick of my brain lets this register as extraordinary and galvanizing, and without it I’m sure I would have paid no more than cursory attention to the sample-serving man.

He’s the closest thing to a bazaar vendor I’m likely to see in a Boston suburb. I do not envy him his job. It’s a shy person’s nightmare, constantly interacting with people, and the task itself is daunting. It seems to me that fresh avocados are a hard, hard sell. If you came here looking for avocados, you’ll buy one. Who buys an avocado on impulse—is even a free sample going to help? Does anyone ever change his mind about whether he’s going to buy an avocado?

But sample-man is into it. He’s tireless, chopping and mashing avocado, doling it into baby-size pleated paper cups. He sprays and wipes the stainless counter-top, keeping it pristine: every molecule of avocado in its place. He sings little ditties extolling the fruit’s freshness and warning of its limited supply. He engages every customer whose eye contact acknowledges that he’s not a serving droid, and does not force the attention of those who dart in, low and furtive, to grab a sample and run. He talks but does not push.

It’s his work that matters, not the daily avocado sales figures. His heart is right there, present, in the zone. I see a manifestation of love and work not bound to space and time. The location is of no relevance, nor is the year. This moment is worth noting.


Ray Scanlon. Massachusetts boy. Lucky to be above ground, lucky to have grandchildren. No MFA. No novel. No extrovert. Not averse to litotes. Twitter: @oldmanscanlon. On the web: read.oldmanscanlon.com.