Chicago is famous for good pizza, bad baseball and worse weather. But we’ve been slacking on the latter, leaving the eastern seaboard with all the fun–until today. As I look out my apartment window, the first of our 20 inches is pouring in and I could not be more proud…or insane.
Did I forget to mention that? Natural disasters cause us to lose our minds. We panic, we fret, we despair then we shop. We become, as one Duke researcher explains, “predictably irrational.” This can be a good thing; irrational consumer behavior feeds the economy, pumping more money into the system in exchange for Ferbies and Reebok Shape-Ups. It is one of the things experts agree will help avoid another depression.
If the neighborhood supermarket on the eve of a blizzard is anything to go by, President Obama’s best bet for reelection is to speed up global warming, so people go out and buy more stuff.
The grocery store was jam-packed, albeit in a calm Midwestern manner. There were no fights at the check out line when I entered the store and customers exchanged excuse me’s with the warmth reserved only for bitter enemies back in tony Manhattan (you never smile at your friends there; it’s a sign of weakness).
I didn’t let the courtesy fool me. The dairy aisle reeked of psychosis; the produce section of delirium; the frozen dinner section of irrationality. People were not planning on surviving this blizzard. Why else would the ice pop freezer be empty?
When you’re feeling cold outside, the most rational thing you can do is make your insides warm. The best way to do this is to have taco night. Shoppers jumped at the chance, clearing out taco shells, tortilla chips and seasoning. This is well and good, but it was obvious that they were not thinking about the aftermath. Toilet paper abounded in a neighboring aisle. In fact, all cleaning materials were in full supply. Paper towels, dishwasher fluid and soap remained as untouched as a 15 year-old boy in a bad Michael Jackson joke.
Those who do plan on surviving aren’t much for math. Snow is expected to top 20 inches by Thursday, at which point sunny skies and 11 degree temperatures will melt it all into ice, thereby killing more people. The trouble will clear up by the weekend, meaning residents will be stuck inside for 1 to 2 days at most. That didn’t stop paying customers from looting the store of every unripened tomato and green banana in stock for a three week hibernation.
Produce may have been demolished, but there was one aisle, which remained untouched through the free-for-all, proving that even when faced with starvation, people will not buy organic.
The bustling crowd removed bottled water from shelves en masse, albeit in a disciplined, almost Victorian fashion, presumably for showering and bidet purposes if the tacos worked their magic and the pipes froze. Red Bull, on the other hand, was scattered about the shelves by grabby shoppers, who presumably hyped themselves up for the madness by drinking too much Red Bull.
Every man carried at least one case of beer, presumably to play Find the Disoriented Car Crash Victim. This is a popular drinking game in Chicago during the winter months. Your refrigerator and freezer will be chalk-full of useless items because you just bought enough food to feed a Tibetan village, if you weren’t such a heartless yuppie. Luckily, it’s freezing outside. So, at the start of the storm, you set your beer to chill on the patio. When you’ve returned home early from work to get loaded, you find that the case is buried beneath three feet of snow and you must go look for it. Wives encourage this game because they hope husbands will shovel, while they’re out there. They usually find themselves playing a secondary game called Find the Drunken POS Your Mother Warned You About. The Windy City loses about five residents a year to these cheery games.
It was impossible to ignore the gender divide in the store.
Females stocked up on $30 bottles of wine, because, “why not, I’m about to collect some life insurance money when he forgets to shovel the deck. I’ll treat myself.” They decided to pair their wines with nice cheeses and exotic Lu Le Petit Ecolier cookies, while men tended toward Polly-O’s and store brand Vienna Fingers.
We also saw which was the more skittish of the sexes. The Hungry Man section lacked only a row of Salisbury Steaks because the late-comers realized even the cover art on the chicken dinner had feathers in it. The same could not be said for the fairer of instant-dinners. Smart Ones and Healthy Choice were picked to the bone, presumably by a horde of Sex and the City wannabes high on Red Bull. Arms flailed in the freezers indiscriminately. Lean Cuisine’s Pasta Romano with Bacon was sold out, but so was Lean Cuisine’s Empty Box with Extra Lickable Freezer Frost.
Age demographics are also heavily skewed during a pre-blizzard shopping spree. Our parents grew up under constant threat of nuclear winter, so they know a thing or two about stockpiling, namely that it is useless. I encountered just one elderly couple during my hour-forty-five spasm through the store, and the sight made me even more nervous.
“Would you like me to go handle the veggies dear?” said the husband, a black man in his 60s.
My mind raced. A happily married couple, completely at peace with their situation? In America? This must be the apocalypse. I rammed my cart over his foot, and sure enough, he apologized. A ghost, just as I suspected.
I maneuvered the cart through the throng of tenderfoots to the back of a checkout line, which stretched through the opposite end of the cookie aisle and awaited my turn. You could try to be angry in a situation like this, but you won’t have much of an audience. The girl at the register and her traineee had been going hard since early afternoon and were being forced to stay late until the crowd simmered. The flow never stopped, so your complaints had to.
“The busiest day I’ve seen,” said Angela, the cashier with “2 years” written on her name tag service date. The trainee looked ready to quit, her fingers rubbed raw pink.
“Busier than Christmas?”
“Than the 4th?”
“Are you going to pay yet?”
The store felt like that failed reality show where star hungry parents pawned their children to television producers, who in turn forced the youths to fend for themselves in a ghost town. Except in this case, the kids were worse off with the adults out of the picture. Blizzard Grocer could make for some good television. Candid cameras capturing delayed-adolescents making terrible decisions, while Cold-War era parents laugh off camera.
I encountered two perfect candidate during my 20 minute wait at the check out counter. Their cart was loaded with a 24-pack of Eggo Waffles and seven different types of Pop Tarts skewed toward the chocolate and ice cream-inspired packets. A funny thought hit me as I looked at my own array of useless grunter-gathering. I amassed 60 pounds of preservative-enriched frozen food, an amount which would last me a full three weeks.
What would I do if the power went out?
I shuddered at the thought, deciding to pass it on to the tall, husky man-child in the DePaul sweatshirt.
“What are ya…”
He popped headphones out from beneath his beanie and perched up from the handles of his cart.
“What are you going to do if the blizzard knocks your power out?”
“Oh, we got a bunch of these grill lighters,” he said without hesitation, motioning to a medley of slender kitchen lighters tucked behind his toaster pastries.
Amidst all this craziness, a perfectly rational and forward-thinking individual. Looks could be deceiving.
“There’s a blizzard?” chimed in his buddy, as he tossed a handful of Snickers bars into the cart.
The fundamentals of our economy are strong.