About four years ago, an ex and I were perusing the bread aisle of a new grocery store. It also happened to be a former job, where I stocked shelves in the middle of the night. She wanted to check out the store. Despite the popularity of the place, working there had spoiled my intrigue faster than a yogurt’s shelf life. Grudgingly, I took her there, and we meandered the aisles, ooh-ing and awe-ing at all of the exotic and international offerings that we’ll never buy, but appreciated the accessibility nonetheless. At least we knew where we could buy whole-grain soba noodles.
It wasn’t the unnecessarily large selection of ramen noodles that peaked my interest, nor was it the yogurt wall, which spanned thirty-two feet and featured yogurts of Greek, Icelandic, Australian, German, and Danimals persuasions, plus wherever Yoplait comes from. It was the discovery of the half-loaf, sold by Butternut. Plain white bread, pre-sliced, bleached, and only half the quantity. What especially intrigued me was the price of this miniature loaf, which retailed for fifty cents more than the traditional whole loaf.
“Who in the hell would pay more for half the bread?” I asked.
The ex thought the little loaf was cute. A lady who happened to be in the bread aisle piped up, and offered me her opinion on the matter.
“It’s for lonely sonsa-bitches who ain’t got nobody to go home to. When you a loser, you gotta pay mo for yo bread. But you two ain’t got dat problem, so ya’ll save money buying bread for each otha.” She chuckled, and walked away.
I peered into the lady’s shopping cart and, interestingly, she had left the aisle without picking up any bread.
Why an insignificant occurrence lives on in the recesses of my mind is a question for the Universe, because I can’t answer it. I could go for days, weeks, posting detailed accounts of odd interactions I’ve had with strangers. I certainly don’t dwell on these encounters ceaselessly, nor do I rehearse what I should have said, reliving the situation in perpetuity. In this case, I don’t even remember what I said to the lady. Her words, however, had settled somewhere in my brain, a place where nonsense that bears the slightest hint of a truth I may have never considered, crystallizes in the depths of my psyche. It goes dormant, forgotten, until it suddenly awakes one evening, triggered by the most peculiar thing.
Late last night, I walked around a mostly empty grocery store, one hour prior to closing. I had hot dogs in the fridge, at home. I wanted tomatoes. Also, I wanted Milano hot dog buns.
To my chagrin, the grocery store didn’t sell Milano buns, but I happened upon this brand that sold specialty breads, in half-loaves. I picked out a squishy loaf of potato bread, and proceeded to the register. In front of me was a man, still in his work uniform, buying two microwaveable individual servings of fettuccine alfredo and a single slice of French silk pie, packaged from the store bakery. For some absurd reason that I am not psychoanalytically fluent enough to explain, I thought of what that lady said four years ago. Who is this lonely man sustaining himself on Michelina’s ninety-nine cent frozen dinners, and a five dollar slice of pie? But alas, who am I to judge? I am the sordid soul who is buying the dreaded half-loaf of bread. I only chose it because it’s been so long since I’ve had potato bread — I think it was my grandmother who turned me onto the stuff. Why is that woman’s disdain ingrained in my head? Perhaps I am suffering some sort of subconscious shame. Perhaps this woman reaffirmed my self-worth, telling me and an ex-girlfriend that we would never suffer having to pay more for less, and buy only for ourselves. And here I am, tossing a half-loaf on the register’s conveyor belt, reminded of a stranger who reentered my mind like a prophet, and a girl who broke up with me. A cobweb in the barn of my mind of interconnected people, their significance, their words, and tonight I walked right into it.
Admittedly, I considered stuffing the half-loaf behind the gum display, or squeezing it between the placeholders for the weekly gossip columns and National Enquirers. I even thought of offering it to the seemingly lonesome gentleman in front of me. According to my subconscious prejudice, and the conclusion of his lifestyle reached solely from the few items he bought, he needed this half-loaf more than I did.
My existential crisis diffused as soon as my items were ringing up. Diffused not because this is the stupidest thing to enter my mind in at least a week, but due to the cashier asking me if I had an ax. Seriously, he asked me if I had an ax. I told him no, and thought it wise not to follow with a “why do you ask?” He went on talking about wearing camouflage and hiding in a local park. I smiled, nodded, and made a mental note to not visit that park anytime in the near future, or ever.
A google search of “the psychology of purchasing half-loaves” bore no relevant results. I take it the bitter lady was no academic. However, it led me to a food forum in which a person complained, back in 2008, that half-loaves weren’t available in the U.S., which forced him to buy a full loaf, and throw out a portion of it. Many users in the comments thread suggested that the self-described “singleton” freeze the uneaten half of a full loaf before it spoils, or to use the less fresh slices for French toast, or make bread crumbs from them. The user who posted the question lamented that frozen bread, once thawed, doesn’t taste the same, so he resorts to disposing of it. Until now, I thought such conversations happened only among mothers gathered in bleachers during their kids’ soccer games. I exited the forum, disgusted that the “singleton” carelessly wastes food because freezing it affects the softness, and made no apology for it. Maybe that lady in the bread aisle was right about some of us who buy half-loaves after all.