Friday, August 7, 2009

In terms of entertainment value in Israel, a visit to a grocery store on Friday morning is about as good as you get.

Normally I do my best to stay away on Friday mornings, but this week had been relatively calm and I needed a little excitement. Even so, I wasn’t quite prepared for the utter chaos.

This particular grocery store – one of a large chain – is pretty good on prices, is in a good location, and generally popular. Today it was offering several dozen items at a reduced price of only NIS 14 – about $3.50 – which was partly responsible for the influx. In fact, one of the reason I wanted to go was that they were selling two containers of “economica” – the universal Israeli cleaning substance, somewhat akin to bleach – for NIS 14, whereas the original price is about NIS 12 each. So half the crowd was there for the bargains, and the other half was just doing their normal Friday shopping for Shabbat. Everything will be closed tomorrow, and hence everything you need for family and guests must be purchased today.

You know you’re in trouble when you get to the store and there are no grocery carts. That means they’re all inside being loaded up. Bad omen, because in any rational world, the store would only accommodating half that many carts, anyway. Uh-oh.

Even if there had been carts, here in Israel you can’t just take a grocery cart as you do in the US. Here, each cart has to be unlocked from the cart ahead by inserting a five-shekel coin, or if you’re lucky, a little key thingamabob whose head approximates a five-shekel coin. That works in place of a coin.

At one time, I actually had several of those little key things -- a local pet food store gave them away as gifts. But one by one, I lost them all to fledging Oliver Twists, all of them Beduin. (In Israel, Fagin recruits Arabs.) The grocery store I favor has a lot of Beduin customers, too, and for a time, wrenching those key-things out of the carts and running away with them -- they have no monetary value – was a favorite shopping-time activity for Beduin 10 year olds. They probably collected them like Pokemon.

I caught one of them red handed once, ran after him – the store was packed, he couldn’t get very far -- and retrieved it, with the help of his mother. But eventually I lost that one, too. Those little kids have mastered an impressive slight-of-hand technique, and they’re off and away by the time you wonder what they’re doing.

The “key or coin” issue figures in today’s narrative, because today in fact there WERE shopping carts there, probably about seven or eight of them, standing all hooked together off to one side. The problem was, no one could get the wretched things unhooked from each other.

I’ve often wondered why someone doesn’t try an Alan Funt trick with those carts – permanently hook them all together, and then watch the frustration as shopper after shopper arrives on the scene and tries to isolate just one cart.

I tried myself, today. I inserted my coin into the cart on the end, pulled on the darn thing, only to find that it was frozen to the cart ahead of it. I jiggled, pulled, slammed and otherwise tried to shake it loose, to no avail. Finally a distinguished gentleman came over – he was looking for a cart, too, but he couldn’t get his until I got mine, so he started to help. He slammed harder, scratched his head, poked and pried, but he too failed.

If he couldn’t do it, I gave up. Now all I wanted was to get my coin back. I’d wait for some other cart.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my coin back from the cart, either. No matter what I did, it simply wouldn’t push it far out enough so I could grab it. I could have left it, I suppose – but I was raised by a Depression-era mother and a father who was firm about not rewarding anyone for bad service. So giving them my coin – which is worth about $1.35 – wasn’t something I was prepared to do.

I asked the security guy for help. He couldn’t leave his post, but he did say he’d call someone. Several minutes later, a guy with lots of keys came along, worked on the carts for several minutes, but gave up, stymied. He went inside, came back and handed me a different five-shekel coin.

By now, there were a few other carts available, so I was ready to shop. I put my new coin into another cart – it worked! -- and headed for the door, only to get stopped before I even reached the air conditioning.

The store was so packed it was impossible to get in. For security reasons, not only are the doors to public buildings very narrow, but people enter and exit through the same door. There were simply too many people trying to squeeze in and out at the same time.

That’s the theory. The truth is, it quickly became obvious that the Idiots of the World were having their annual convention inside. As I looked, I saw that it wasn’t just too many people. There was a blockage.

A woman had decided to transfer all her groceries from her grocery-store shopping cart to her personal ‘ogala’, the little wheeled cart we all use to carry stuff home. She decided to accomplish that task by standing directly in the “exit” line. No one could get past her.

Every time I see something like this, it just blows my mind. She was carrying on as though she was the only person in the universe. One by one she picked something up and moved it from one cart to the other.

Were people objecting? Of course – people on both sides shouting, “GEVERET!! Ma cara??” (“Lady, what’s going on?”) Others appeared to be less polite, but it made no difference at all. She was concerned about making sure her tomatoes were packed so they wouldn’t squash on the way home, and she ignored them 100%. She didn’t look up, she didn’t hurry, she kept on packing.

By this time, there were at least a dozen carts lined up behind me. These people were too far back to see what was going on, and simply assumed that it was the person in front of them who was causing the blockage. They began pushing – ever so slightly, they’d push their cart into the person ahead, one after the other, all the way up the line. Finally another security guy wandered over, and if I hadn’t already known I was in Israel, this would have confirmed it.

The security guy didn’t tell the woman to stop or to move. Instead, he started to help her.

You see why I love this crazy country?

Okay, so between the two of them, they finally got her ogala packed and she marched off, still oblivious to the chaos she left in her wake. The rest of us finally made it into the store. That’s when the real fun began.

The aisles in Israeli grocery stores are about a third as wide as aisles in US stores. The carts, on the other hand, are about the same size. To add to the chaos, all restocking of shelves is carried on during the store’s open hours, including on insanely busy days like this.

Occasionally an aisle is half blocked by an employee stocking a shelf – she has her own cart full of supplies, plus an accumulation of empty cardboard boxes which – for reasons known only to her – she will put ACROSS from her, not ahead or behind. That way the whole aisle is blocked. Heaven help us if just one other customer pauses to linger, and there’s a total impasse. The employee will never move, so everyone else is forced to wait until the customer has made her selection.

Then too, fresh fruit and vegetable restocking supplies are ferried around in the store on huge pallets filled head-high with boxes of produce. Many times, when it’s very busy, the employees won’t bother to unload the pallets – they just leave the big ferry things there and customers help themselves out of the boxes. The problem is, there’s very little room for movement around the pallets at all, because they run on massive wheeled platforms. Once you get behind one of those things, your best maneuver is simply to turn around. Or try to.

The other totally unbelievably Israeli habit is for regular floor-maintenance activity to continue through this utter chaos. So there’ll you’ll be, trying to maneuver your cart through an aisle that’s partly blocked with a restocking cart, with 30 other customers who are trying to get through the aisle – and what happens next? The automated floor washing machine – as big as a Zamboni – is also trying to get through, washing the floor as it goes.

Need I tell you it has a BEEPER? So in addition to the insanity of the entire situation, you’ve got that maniacal “BEEP”… “BEEP”… “BEEP” going on, with the guy yelling at you to get out of the way – carrying on as though there’s anywhere at all for you to move.

Floor washing at that time is utterly pointless. It’s insane. It keeps anyone from moving anywhere. But that’s what they do. It's probably written into a union contract somewhere. Union members will only wash floors during business hours.

Today, every checkout lane was open, which is a little unusual. But the lines to check out were 10 – 15 customers deep, which meant that the people waiting to check out and pay were lined up in the regular grocery aisles half way through the store. That’s bad enough. But not all customers are willing to stand in line and wait.

One trick – I’d never seen this before I came to Israel – is to get a cart, and as soon as you get into the store, put the cart into the checkout line. So you park your cart -- and then run around the store picking up what you need. When your arms are full, you go back to the cart and make a dump.

That might make some sense, except that it creates a very obvious problem. In the checkout line are all these unattended carts. That’s a bother to most of us new immigrants. As my British friend says, “We who queue up” will dutifully remain with our carts in line. But others – native Israelis --will simply move an ownerless cart out of the way. That makes for some interesting debates when the errant shopper returns.

Having a child helps. If you have one of those, you simply park said child with the cart in line. That means there’s someone there to defend your rights against line-jumpers.

I have to admit I’ve done something similar. When it is totally impossible to maneuver your cart through the aisles, another coping mechanism is to park your cart somewhere else in the store, and then run around and get what you need. At least you’re not blocking the checkout line.

That’s what I did today, as a matter of fact. I didn’t need all that many things, so I parked in the ‘house wares’ aisle – towels, candles, sheets and blankets. It was the least busy aisle, so I used that as my base and then made about four trips around the store, one in each direction.

The meat counter is in the back of the store, and now a “take a number” system is in place. That’s new – and probably better than having 50 people standing in front of the counter, all of them insisting to the six or seven meat clerks that they should be helped next.

It’s a long way from foolproof, however, thanks to that Israeli system of “protexia”. “Protexia” means clout in Israel. It means you know someone who can give you an edge. In this case, if you know one of the clerks, it’s possible to have them take your order first, without a number, so you don’t have to wait your turn.

I saw it in action today at the cheese counter, which also has a number system. My number was 174. The number they were serving was 206 – it was gonna be a long wait, I could see that. There were only three clerks at the cheese counter.

So what happened? Someone with ‘protexia’ -- someone who didn’t want to wait -- simply caught the employee’s eye, and shouted his order over the rest of us good little boys and girls who were standing nicely in line, waiting our turn. The employee shouldn’t have done that. I’m sure they’re instructed not to. But they do it anyway. They finish whatever customer they’re on, then they go about collecting whatever it is their friend (or whoever it is) wanted. No number required.

Do people object? Sometimes. I did, once. I’d been standing waiting for over a half hour at the meat counter (since then, I buy meat elsewhere – it’s just too frustrating). Some guy walked up behind me, shouted his order to the butcher. It was totally obvious he’d just walked up and didn’t have a number. Just to be polite, I turned around and asked him what number he had, showing him my number – which was bound to be way ahead of anything he could have had. He looked totally astonished that anyone had asked, but then he came up with a really good one: “If you stand at this end of the counter you don’t need a number,” he said. “You only need a number if you stand at the other end of the counter.”

Actually, that was so good I had to laugh – very funny. Obviously it wasn’t true – but he was awfully quick on the draw. Maybe he felt a little guilty because he rewarded me with a little trickle-down protexia of my own. When the clerk handed him his meat over the counter, the man pointed to me and said, “Take her next. She’s been waiting a long time.”

In a just world, I should have refused the privilege, and waited for my number to come up. I didn’t. I gave the guy my order and was grateful to get out of there.

So this morning I had my Friday morning fun. I wanted to see Israel in action, and nothing is better for that than a trip to the grocery store.

Shabbat shalom, everyone – for you in the US, have a nice weekend!

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