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Bring the Trader Joe’s bags, we’re going to Albertson’s!

Thursdays with Morro Bay

My well-organized wife is the Keeper Of The Grocery Lists – actually, a half-folded sheet of paper filled on one side with previous writings or misprinted sheet music. The clean side keeps track of wants and needs. There are three headings – Costco, Albertson’s, and TJ’s. Sometimes an item will migrate from one column to another, or get crossed out and replaced with something else.

Non-grocery tasks are tracked on index cards. It’s a process.

Basics

The weekly trip to Albertson’s is never dull. For a guy with a minimal range of lunch likeables, this has not been a good couple of weeks. I’m a three-item menu man. A simple tuna sandwich on a whole wheat pita will appear twice a week. On Albertson’s day, a basic American cheese on a plain bagel will land on the fiestaware. A beautiful bowl of hot chicken noodle soup, courtesy of Lipton, will round out the lunch week. Of course, no soup is complete without a short sleeve of Premium Saltines, half in the bowl, 45% as stand-alone crackers, and the rest, crumbs that bounce off the table and land under the chairs. It’s a process.

Groans Ahead

Just a simple man with a simple soup and sandwich lifestyle, living the dream until an item in one of the inescapable news feeds caught my eye. An iconic brand was ensnared in a scandal that cut to the core — actually, the albacore. Bumble Bee, busted. This one stung.

It turns out my long-held wariness of that Charlie Tuna character was well-founded. According to the news report, Mr. Tuna and his henchmen conspired with that little mermaid from Chicken of The Sea and the Bumbling Bee to market canned tuna with all the price fixin’s.

“The troubled brand was embroiled in a price-fixing scheme that drained its resources. Major grocery chains, including Walmart, Kroger, and Albertsons, sued Bumble Bee, Starkist, and the maker of Chicken-of-the-Sea in 2016 for fixing prices. In 2017, Bumble Bee agreed to plead guilty for its role in the conspiracy and to pay a $25 million criminal fine.” 

$25 million – that’s a lot of clams! The weight of the penalty has proven to be too much, causing the bumble to tumble into bankruptcy. Thankfully, there were still plenty of cans on the shelves, flashy gold-colored tins promising a premium experience. “Hah!” I thought, “More marketing gimmickry designed to entice the unwary.”

I picked up three cans.

Moving On

A few yards down the aisle, an open space appeared where my preferred brand of soup mix usually stood. I wasn’t too worried since the popular classic often stood stacked in rows that extended several boxes deep. Worst case, I’d have to grab a few of the “with real chicken” varieties and wait for a restock. However, that was not going to be an option. Hanging off the lip of the shelf was a printed piece of HELL NO!!!! I silently screamed as the words “recall” and “listeria” leaped off the page. “This simply can’t bee,” I thought, mixing my metaphors as I struggled for some sense of normalcy. All manner of craziness ran through my mind. “These are not my reading glasses,” I thought. “I must be misreading the words.”

I whipped my head around, looking for my wife. She wears progressive lenses; she will know what this all means. Unfortunately, she was still two aisles over, weighing the differences between generic and name – brand crushed tomatoes. I frantically spun around, looking for Angela, or Kyle, or Brenda. But no, Angela had moved over to produce, Kyle was ringing away on register 4, and Brenda was now working for the bank – so close yet so far!!!

Keep Moving

Panic was setting in, or maybe it was hunger. It was time to move on. I closed my eyes and silently recited my go-to mantra; “what would Shirley do?” The answer came to me in a flash. I wheeled my cart around and headed to where I knew I would be safe. The frozen food aisle. Thanks, Shirley!

Wait – what the frosted hell is this??? Another sign, blurry through the refrigerator glass. I slowed my roll – actually, a misbehaving front wheel had already done that for me – and wobbled up to familiar section only to find yet another nightmare. It seems listeria was not satisfied with just taking out the soup. No, those mischievous microbes set out to take down the king. Yes, that little bio-bastard went straight to the top, laying siege to the freezer aisle. White Castle has fallen.

Oh, those many Bronx nights, weaving down Fordham Road in Pete’s Firebird or Tommy’s father’s station wagon, towards the bright beacon of regrettable choices and reckless consumption. No matter how many quarts of beer sloshed around in our bellies, no matter how many Sambuca shots left lips licorice-y, there was always room for one or twelve murder burgers. There was no listeria hysteria then, no microbe that could stop us. Germs were expelled in a stream of “all the above.” It was a process.

Nothing Stays The Same

Those days are long past. I’ve come to an uneasy truce with alcohol and all that followed. Pete has gone on to whatever existence comes next. Tommy, too, along with a few others that took that late-night slalom down the broad street that both connected and divided neighborhoods, cultures, and realities. But many of us are still here, carrying the scars and badges of the histories we have written for ourselves.

It is nearly impossible to find a real live White Castle anymore. Pretty much all that is left are the frozen replicas that take well to the microwave, but fail to recreate the full foolish experience of over-consuming things that are bad and potentially fatal. I guess it’s good that they are not as great as I remember — less chance for reigniting old bad habits.

Receipts

I walk past the wine, beer and whiskey with no hesitation, thanks to thirty years of practice. The thousands of cigarettes I smoked could likely stack as high as a detached garage, but that number was frozen a quarter-century ago.  But White Castle, Bumble Bee, dehydrated pre-packaged soup? Yellow American – the lowliest and most misunderstood of all cheeses? They still find a place in the shopping cart, surrounded by yogurt, fruit, and (I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly) vegetables. The beer is alcohol-free, the wine is not mine. But these things that have shaped me, both literally and metaphorically, hang on for dear life.

I’m okay with that.

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