I had begun to scrape the bottom of my meal plan, my apartment shelves no longer held an array of Campbell’s canned products and the low growling in my stomach had, without warning, transformed into an uneasy bellowing, I knew the time had come to suck it up and buy some groceries. The empty fridge staring back at me argued that there was no point in delaying it any longer. And thus, I bit my lip resolutely and made my way up Wisconsin Avenue. Destination: Safeway. Objective: food.

Though grocery shopping seems to be one of the least talked-about sports in today’s culture, it is a competition in which nearly everyone engages, willingly or reluctantly. Many partake, some, even multiple times per week, but few truly win. Contenders must exhibit speed and agility while maintaining superior upper-body strength and, at times, a degree of cold-blooded brutality.

Adrenaline flooded my veins as I approached Safeway, equipped with a large backpack and tote bag, and joined a throng of customers marching into the building. Disturbing the tight arrangement of carts aligned in the entranceway, the women to my left and right wrenched steel carriages from the neat assembly. Foolishly, I made eye contact with one – a woman with pink sandals. Novice. She wouldn’t last long. Not with the flip-flops. Her eyes narrowed but she pinched her lips to form a smile for the sake of social courtesy. I forced myself to nod hello. Another woman pulled long brown hair into a ponytail, readying herself for the match. I caught a quick glimpse of a typed grocery list. She had even brought her own cloth bags to pack her items in. This one was not about to mess around – a returning champion, no doubt. I selected a cart and the wheels of my chosen carriage squeaked as we made our way to the automatic doors. We had assumed the position.

Many competitors often approach the grocery store with no concrete plan of attack. But be warned. This nonchalance will backfire. One mistake and you could find yourself wandering the aisles, watch ticking, as you hunt for relish or pita bread. There are no time-outs in this game. The clock stops for no customer. Typically, the building is designed to lead shoppers around the store. One begins with the produce. Don’t try to be fancy or innovative. There is a reason the bakery is located at the opposite end of the store. The bread is always to be placed atop the other groceries to avoid any chance of being flattened. And there’s no point in cutting corners. Skipping an aisle may seem like a good idea, an ingenious method to shave a few minutes off your time; but odds are you will simply forget the one item you purposely came to buy.

It wasn’t easy trying to maneuver my way up and down the aisles. But I maintained focus as well as a steady pace, keeping one hand on the cart at all times, while the other was free to make quick grabs at the desired products. When done properly, the movement is fluid; cart and customer become one. I breezed by a woman juggling twins. Children are an automatic handicap – best to leave them at home, or (as I’ve seen practiced) distract them with the live lobsters. They will remain with hands and nose pressed against the glass tank for hours if necessary.

I had neared the end of the aisles, cart brimming, when I spotted an old man bent nervously over his carriage. He made his way slowly down aisle 12, eyes scrutinizing the racks of toilet paper and tissue boxes, searching his brain to remember for what exactly he was searching the shelves. I watched as the man edged his cart closer to the side of the aisle, in a futile attempt to avoid the more harried customers, the bumper to bumper traffic building as shopping carts clipped heels and tempers rose: every patron for himself.

Although I didn’t have much time to spare, I offered to help him, and spotted the sole remaining box of moisturized Kleenex he wanted. As I reached toward the shelf, another arm shot out from nowhere. Before I had a chance to complain, the culprit was halfway down the aisle, brown ponytail bobbing behind an overflowing carriage.

Angry, I figured I could head her off at the Frozen Foods section. Or, even better, the Deli. People tend to be overly sensitive about their sliced meats. Perhaps if I cut down the International Foods aisle, I could sneak by and pull a number from the dispenser before she had her chance. Don’t be rash, I calmed myself. Hit her where it really hurts – the checkout lines.

I finished my shopping with a loaf of whole wheat bread and a package of bagels and then headed towards the Service Department. I spotted the enemy heading for lane six, but just as I was about to roll my cart in ahead of her, a Safeway employee towing boxes of damaged merchandise obstructed the cashiers from my view. By the time I was able to push my carriage to the checkout lines, the woman was already piling her belongings onto the belt for purchase. y plan foiled, I disappointedly pulled into lane seven behind an elderly woman who seemed to be paying for her week’s worth of groceries with nickels and pennies. I had lost. It was over.

But suddenly, what was this? I overheard the cashier in lane six arguing with his customer. It seemed lane six was cash only. The woman with the brown ponytail could only pay with credit, and did not understand why the cashier would not swipe her card. She was yelling now and a manager was called over. I can’t be sure of the final result of the disagreement because my groceries were bought, bagged and wheeled out the door before any resolution was made. I left Safeway smiling. Loaded down with paper and plastic, I headed back to Georgetown – victorious.

Polly Burokas is a junior in the College and can be reached at burokasthehoya.com. FOCUS WITH BUROKAS appears every other Tuesday.

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