A grocery store arose at the corner of Penn and Lowry in the middle of a federally designated food desert some years ago, but it was no mirage. With healthy foods, organic produce and household items, Aldi is my oasis. The costs stay low through small measures: no fancy displays, no free bags, no piped-in music, and grocery carts that cost a quarter — refundable when returned to their corral.
Instead of putting the carts back into their stall at the end of each visit, though, many of us shoppers hand them off to the next people coming in, accepting the quarters they proffer. Sometimes someone refuses my quarter, and I’ll get a cart for free; other times I’ll wave away the quarter offered for my cart. Every time, it makes me smile.
Aldi’s inventory has exploded and improved over time. Sometimes special items — kombucha or goat cheese — appeared on Aldi’s shelves, making me smile, too. The store always delivers interesting surprises.
And so does its parking lot.
“Got any spare change?” a man said one day, walking a little too close to me as I headed to my car.
“Just this.” I handed him the quarter I had gotten back from my cart.
He grunted. “That’s not enough.”
If you hit up enough people for their cart money, it adds up, I felt like saying. Instead, I shrugged and dropped the quarter into my coat pocket. The man shuffled away.
One day, I hopped out of the car and headed toward Aldi’s front doors. A young woman approached me.
“Can I just get a few dollars?” she said, her face contorting. “I’m so hungry.”
“I could buy you some groceries,” I said.
Her eyes lit up. “Really?” Then she turned all business. “So, what’s my budget?”
“Hmm. Six dollars.”
She nodded and followed me inside the store. First, she snapped up a package of sandwich cookies. Sweets aren’t a good choice on an empty stomach, the mom in me felt like saying, but I sealed my mouth shut.
“My girl is in private school in Edina,” she said, pulling a gallon of milk from the cooler. “It’s so expensive I can hardly make it.”
I narrowed my eyes. “I can imagine.”
She filled her arms with a box of crackers, a loaf of bread, a bag of chips. We stepped in line to pay. The young woman dropped her items onto the conveyor belt.
“Will you be OK carrying all this home?” I said as the cashier rang up her items.
She nodded. “My house is just a block away.”
An older woman behind me in line tapped my shoulder and leaned in, her voice low. “Are you buying those groceries for her?”
“She already asked me to buy these for her.” She indicated eight items on the belt behind my order. She cleared her throat and turned her eyes to slits. “Excuse me,” she said to the young woman. “You just said you live a block away, but you told me you were homeless.”
The young woman raised her shoulders and eyebrows. “By homeless I meant I don’t own the house I live at.”
The older woman let out a bitter snort. “Right.”
The cashier and I exchanged a look. And the young woman scurried away that day with a bag full of food, because no matter what, she needed it.
On another shopping trip, I strode across the parking lot to Aldi’s sliding glass doors. Icy winds sliced me. I quickened my pace.
A man’s voice coming from 30 yards behind me cut through the frozen air. Something, something, “—black backpack!”
What was he shouting?
The late-afternoon crowd zipped into the store, and I darted for the doors, too. After a long day, I would make this one fast. Ciabatta rolls, almonds, avocados, eggs. I could be in and out in 10 minutes.
Something, something “—black backpack!” the man yelled again.
Wait. I carried a black backpack purse. Was he hollering at me? I entered the store and encountered the chips section. My interest in Holler Guy’s incoherent communication style disappeared as fast as the Pringles would if I brought some home.
Something, something “—black backpack!” the man bellowed again from just outside the doors.
He entered the store and caught up with me in the trail mix area.
“That was me calling you,” Holler Guy said, his tone cheery. He tilted his head, assessing me. “From back there, you looked much younger.”
I bunched my lips to one side, harrumphed, and returned to my browsing.
Much younger? He appeared to be in his late 50s. Did he make a lot of connections shouting at much younger women in grocery store parking lots? I wrinkled my nose.
“I wanna dance with somebody,” he sang as he poked through the condiments at the end of the aisle. “I wanna feel the heat with somebody.” He plucked a bottle of ketchup from the shelf. “With somebody who loves me.”
I smiled, shaking my head. Only Whitney Houston sang the song better than Holler Guy. Maybe he’d have more success with the ladies if he stopped yelling and serenaded them instead. But I didn’t tell him that. I still had to find the ciabatta rolls.
Over the years, I’ve come to enjoy the adventure that is food shopping in our Minneapolis neighborhood. It calls for a roving gaze over the parking lot whenever I climb from my vehicle. On most trips, someone asks me for money or blurts unseemly comments for the world to hear. Different grocery stores in other neighborhoods make me yawn, however. Though pretty and predictable, they’re bland excursions with only one outcome: groceries.
But not our Aldi. With delicious eats and built-in entertainment, we come home each time with so much more than food.