The Produce Prophet
**I wrote this a couple years ago as part of a writing group. The prompt was to write about change and what produces it. It's neither a bash on hipsters (I love you, hipsters) nor a rant against environmentalism (I love you, environment) but a true tale of an event that happened one day while I was Krogering.**
It happened in the produce section.
Our little family of four had just returned from two weeks in Indiana for the holidays, and since my younger brother had come back to Nashville for a weeklong visit, I’d taken the rare chance to slip out of the house for a kid-free Monday afternoon Kroger run.
I wasn’t alone in my quest for post-holiday sustenance, of course. After talking to my next-door neighbor and meeting another lady who lives down the street, I rolled my cart over to the cucumbers. As I began dropping them into a bag from the roll, another cart eased up to mine. Looking up, I encountered the kind eyes of a girl probably three or four years older than me. I’d noticed her earlier, her eccentric attire paying homage to this corner of town and making me feel immediately at home.
Her plaid wool skirt hugged a hybrid of long underwear and leggings and her strategically unkempt hair was tucked partially into a loose stocking cap. A stud hit the middle of her lower lip, but she was of the softer, gentler ilk of hipsters – granola but not gothic. I liked her instantly. Our eyes met and I flashed the standard neighborly smile, which she politely returned while I went back to the business of cucumbers.
A few seconds later, I realized she was lingering the way people do when they want to ask you a question but haven’t yet worked up the nerve. This experience is a familiar one for me, as I am one of those people who, as they say, just has "one of those faces." I’m forever being stopped with a curious, “Have we met?” followed by, “You just look so familiar …” It happened the last time I was in this Kroger. I had never met the guy.
Thinking I’d help buoy this lady’s courage anyway, I was just about to look up again when she broke the silence with an entirely different query.
“I was just wondering … why you use all those bags,” she cut in.
Surprised, I let my eyes fall on the incriminating evidence in my cart: a slew of veggies in a mess of green plastic. In her cart, the vegetables sat unencumbered – free range – like she had just rolled the thing right through a local farm and picked everything by hand.
“Oh, I don’t know …” I began, scrambling for a good reason. “I guess that’s just the way I’ve always done it.” Her concern deepened obviously, her face taking the pained look of a family member who finds a loved one eating a pound of bacon alone in a closet.
“It’s just a lot of plastic …” she continued, shame spread thick like (organic, non-GMO) almond butter.
Here I must pause for an entirely self-indulgent aside: Any mother of a two-year-old and a newborn will tell you that awards should be issued for getting dressed in the morning. Here I was fully dressed – I even had my hair down – buying fresh vegetables for my family. If motherhood were a video game, I felt like I was busting through new levels, discovering new worlds even.
But somehow, in all my valiant efforts to care for two small humans and one other adult human, I had fallen short in one area that this woman simply couldn’t overlook. The notorious lingering mommy guilt had taken the shape of a walking, breathing human being and was standing before me with a look of genuine concern, awaiting my response.
“Yeah,” I managed, motioning to her cart. “You just put them in there. Nice … Good idea … thanks.” But she wasn’t finished with this conversation yet.
“I just wondered if you had a method to your …” here, she paused emphatically, looked sadly at my cart once more, peered back at my eyes and let her voice dip into the last word, “madness.”
I would like to say that it was easy for me to dismiss this interaction, that I took her words with a grain of salt and shrugged off the awkwardness. But, no. Her tone stuck with me as I sped my cart away – somewhere, anywhere – from her.
Once I got over my initial anger, the comebacks that begin with junior high retorts like “Oh yeah?” and “Who are you to tell me …" and some sassy spiel about hair washing, I got to thinking about what actually motivates change.
This girl was right about what she had said – it was a lot of plastic – but her delivery seemed, to me anyway, flawed if not entirely inappropriate. I understand what it’s like to believe in something so desperately that you want everyone to join your side. I honestly get where this lady was coming from. The Earth is being polluted. Consumers are being wasteful. Plastic bags are harmful and arguably useless, and here I was rolling them out like my daughter unrolls toilet paper when I’m not looking. She saw her opportunity to enact change and she took it.
This leaves me with the question of whether her method was a good one, a successful one. Making someone feel publicly shamed may heighten their level of paranoia or even produce immediate results, but it’s complicated by the fact that it’s offensive, especially when zero prior relationship is involved.
Having chewed on this for a while now, I don’t have a perfect answer. I tend to like when people graciously live out their beliefs without clobbering everyone around them. But at the same time, I am pretty confident that I will use fewer bags at the grocery store in the future.
Of one thing I am absolutely certain: The next time I’m in Kroger, I will be frequently peering over my shoulder to see if the Produce Prophet is looking to make her next convert. And I am not sticking around for the altar call. ;)