Noe Valley Voice October 1997

Odyssey at the Rainbow Grocery

By Cynthia Schrager

It's mid-morning on a Monday, and the cramped parking lot at the new South-of-Market Rainbow Grocery is packed. I pull up behind a line of five or so cars, spilling out onto Duboce Avenue underneath the iron girders in the shadow of the Central Freeway.

We sit. A pickup truck is parked just inside the entrance, waiting for someone to vacate a spot. Doesn't he see the empty stall in the next aisle of the U-shaped lot, right next to the exit driveway? Or maybe it's one of the spaces reserved for compact cars, like mine. Either way, none of the rest of us can squeeze around him in this narrow lane.

I take my foot off the brake and put the car in park. We wait. I look at the empty parking space with its two neatly painted white lines, like an equal sign. The line of cars grows.

Someone could simply drive in the exit and, in a moment, find herself striding purposefully toward the produce aisle, checking items efficiently off her shopping list. The nose of my car is just a few yards from the unused stall. I hesitate, checking my side-view mirror.

Suddenly, I am making a break for the spot. My car swings easily around the rear bumper of the car ahead of me. I sail in the exit and come to a stop between the two white lines. Just as quickly, another car pulls up alongside me -- on the sidewalk. We are both outlaw individualists, living the code of the Wild West in the gold rush town of San Francisco.

Above me, the words RAINBOW GROCERY AND GENERAL STORE are painted like a giant banner headline across the side of the brick building. Underneath, in slightly smaller letters, it reads: A Worker-Owned Cooperative.

I get out of my car guiltily. Between me and the store entrance, the other drivers are still sitting behind their steering wheels staring at the back of the pickup truck. I hang back, longing suddenly for the anonymity of the Safeway parking lot, where, I have the fleeting thought, it's every man for himself -- the good old American way.

Two elderly ladies, speaking in thickly accented English, are suddenly asking me for directions. Do I know where they can get the No. 49 bus? I don't. But I linger helpfully, happy to find myself in my more accustomed role of good citizen, good neighbor, good girl. See? I am saying to the other drivers. This is the real me. I don't know who careened into that parking space. Not me!

Slinking past the line of cars, I duck into the glass doors, which open automatically, no questions asked. I walk up and down the aisles, furtively heaping my cart with bulk grains, organic vegetables, and recycled paper products. I pull the zipper of my REI anorak jacket as high as it will go, burying my chin under the collar. I consider putting on my sunglasses.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the woman hefting cabbages, the tall man handing down a product from the top shelf, the couple arguing over which brand of salsa they prefer. I am waiting to be confronted.

In the checkout line, I keep my eyes lowered, avoiding the usual friendly greeting from the cashier. I'm sure the security guards have already issued my description.

Back outside, as I push the cart toward my car, I spot the piece of white paper -- the one I knew would be there even before I saw it -- fluttering in the breeze, secured under my windshield wiper.

The handwriting is round and bold. The note, indignant: I can't believe how rude some people can be cutting in line in front of patiently waiting people. Live with your own selfishness.

I scan the parking lot, as if the note-writer might still be on hand, waiting for me. I want to defend myself. But I'm not selfish, I would say. You've got me all wrong. I'm a patient waiter, too. Really, I am.

No one nearby seems remotely interested in me. I stuff the note in my pocket.

Opening the hatchback of my Toyota, I swing the bags of groceries into the trunk. I slide into the driver's seat and guide the car -- out the exit this time -- onto Duboce Avenue. There are no cars waiting for my spot. The mysterious Monday midmorning rush has vanished.

Driving home, my thoughts drift to Penelope, patiently waiting for her husband Odysseus to return from the Trojan War -- an ancient Greek heroine who surfaces suddenly from some recess of my mind, demanding to be remembered.

Inside my front door, I leave the groceries in their brown paper bags and rummage on my bookshelves for Edith Hamilton's Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes, the copy I've had since my freshman year in college. I read about the patiently waiting Penelope, who weaves and unweaves her work to forestall the suitors who throng about her court while Odysseus journeys for 10 years from one perilous adventure to another trying to get home.

I imagine the author of that note is a woman too, a latter-day Penelope, someone much like me schooled in the virtues of waiting, someone I have betrayed by living completely selfishly for one brief moment.

I had thrilled to the feel of reckless abandon.

I resolved then and there it wouldn't happen again.

Cynthia Schrager is a freelance writer who lives on 23rd Street. She says she's open to carpooling to Rainbow Grocery.