The baby had fat cheek and fat legs and fat fingers. He smiled through his chubby face with pure baby joy. His crocheted giraffe hat smashed down on his fat baby head and his blue eyes peeked out from under the giraffe’s, um, snout I guess you’d call it. His mama unpacked jar after jar of baby food from the grocery cart onto the black conveyor belt. I was content to stand behind her and smile at the baby, who smiled at me.
If you can’t smile at a baby in the grocery store, it’s time to do some soul searching. There is no easier audience than a happy baby.
The checking out of the many jars of baby food was taking forever. One woman who had been smiling at the baby already ditched the cherub for a shorter, faster line. I sniffed, once, about how long this was taking and then I realized two things. 1.) I was not in demand. Anywhere. I had time to stand and wait patiently, despite my diva-like imaginings of being swooped in my importance to the front of the line. 2.) This mama had a bigger job than I.
The baby’s mama had organized her food into neat bundles. Produce in one, with a check laid carefully on top. Meat in another bundle, check laid on top. It was like this for a whole cart full of food. The mother was organized, polite and on task. She dangled a toy in front of her baby when she got a minute, and then she was back to ordering her groceries. The checks were computer printed, official-looking documents. They were government assistance. I don’t know exactly what that’s called, because I’ve never used that particular form of government assistance.
In my mind, I carved her story. Was she single? No, she wore a wedding band. She was healthy, and so was her family, as I noted a paucity of processed foods in her basket. Her baby was happy and cared for. Perhaps she’s a graduate student. Or her husband is. Perhaps they were both laid off from well paying jobs. Perhaps one of them fell ill with something not covered by insurance. Perhaps perhaps perhaps. Who knows? Who knows why she needed those checks.
The harsh harmony sung by my mind crashed against the story I tried to tell about her, this woman. I heard the words of judgement, the raucous chorus of people who’ve never had to shove their pride in their back pocket in order to buy food for a baby. I wondered what I’d have felt if I had been the one without enough money for the very basics of human existence. I wondered how I would have managed to hide my hot shame until I reached my car.
(This presupposes, of course, that it would bother me to accept assistance. And I don’t know. Maybe she was not bothered at all. But this is America, ya’ll, where we take independent boot-strapping to new heights, ignoring all the while what assistance we got from who knows where.
But I digress.)
I watched the mama and baby. I watched the cashier who knew how to handle each form. For them, with practice and efficiency it was probably akin to my experience buying tampons. So long as you have a way to pay, cashiers don’t care what you buy.
Mama and baby finally finished and I had started loading up the belt with my own weekly groceries. Mounds of food. Mounds of non-essentials, like extra snacks for that one thing at school, and ice cream for a party, and three different kinds of cereal—in boxes, no less—for three different kids.
I was shamed by my own complicated thoughts. And I was charmed by the baby with the fat cheeks and toothless smile. I don’t know his story. I only know one thing about them, that family with the food stamps.