My shopping basket was full when I reached the check-out counter, with all the important things: flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, chocolate chips, brown sugar, vanilla extract, and cinnamon. I had just moved into a new apartment near my new university and was stocking up on the ingredients that I now needed most. Chocolate chip cookies were on the horizon, as well as a spice cake.
The cashier waiting for me up front was an older man with a beard, a beer belly, and a cheerfulness that seemed to radiate around him. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon in a small-town grocery store in rural Connecticut. That meant that one of the charming things about living in small town New England was going to happen: there was going to be some pleasant small-talk as I checked out.
“Flour, hmm,” he said, as he bagged the first ingredient.
I nodded, wondering why I felt the sudden need to affirm that I had, indeed, placed flour in my basket.
“Ah, chocolate chips,” he noted, as he came to the bright yellow bag of Nestle’s chocolates, pausing for a moment to look at them. “This is a good story.”
“Story?” I asked, half wondering if he was going to tell me some odd tale about the chocolate that would make me want to take the item back to the shelf. But he kept scanning my groceries, and I need not have worried.
“You’re baking today,” he said simply. “Every grocery order tells a story. Yours is a good one.”
“The last guy who came in here just bought a plunger,” he said. “Not such a good story.”
“I guess not,” I laughed.
His observation was simple, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since that day—which was now almost five months ago.
I’ve thought about my grocery order’s story every time since then.
A gallon of ice cream and a frozen pizza told the story of two graduate students getting together to study without time to cook a meal.
A basket full of every vegetable imaginable, chicken, rice, and balsamic vinegar told the story of a slowly-improving chef trying to impress company coming over for dinner.
A half dozen scented candles told the story of the new neighbors in the apartment complex whose odd food odors had first permeated the hallways and then slowly crept into everyone’s apartments.
Then I started to notice other people’s stories.
The two college-aged guys with as many 6-packs as they could carry told the story of the party I imagined was happening that night.
The elderly man’s purchase of a handful of lottery tickets told the story of a wish for some kind of financial miracle, if not some excitement in his life.
The woman’s cart full of infant-sized diapers and formula hinted at the story of a new life beginning.
I sometimes wonder where to find inspiration for writing, in this column and in my fiction. I’ve worked in customer service before, but I have to admit, that while I kept a smile plastered on my face the whole time, I was never as deeply observant of my customers’ stories as the cashier was. (I was, however, very deeply observant of the frustrations that threatened to turn my smile into more of a grimace.)
The stories the cashier had noticed were simple beginnings—speculations about stories, really.
But they were seeds that could suggest something else, and at the very least, his comments about them pointed me toward closer observations of the world around me. That is where, after all, stories begin; they are all around us.
Published this week by the Stonebridge Press and Villager Newspapers in Massachusetts and Connecticut.