Suburbanista: Food Fight in the Wegmans Parking Lot

There are battlefields in Afghanistan. In Iraq. In Ukraine. And then there is the parking lot of Wegmans.

Photograph by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

At 3 p.m, on Saturday, the day before Winter Storm Titan was due to bury the entire Delaware Valley in a foot of snow, my friend Mandy did the stupidest thing any human being could ever do, ever.

She went to the Cherry Hill Wegmans.

I have long held the belief that the Cherry Hill Wegmans is the meanest place on earth. It’s not the people who work there. They’re quite lovely. Not only do they give you samples of brie with fig preserves on a freshly toasted baguette; they smile while doing it. No matter how many times management forces them to reorganize the store, they always, always know where to find canned whole clams. And if they make the error of doing their own shopping while still wearing their Wegmans employee golf shirts and you mistakenly ask them for help, they won’t hesitate to abandon their carts to go to the storeroom and find tahini for you. They are saints. And they have to be. Because the people who shop at Wegmans are evil.

Case in point: At 3:22 p.m. on said Saturday afternoon, I received this text from Mandy:

I am in Wegmans and a woman is SCREAMING at a man in the cheese section!

Mandy and I often share stories about the wickedness we witness at Wegmans. It started one Sunday a few years ago when we randomly bumped into each other there, near diapers and wipes, both unshowered and proud of it, moments before my wallet was stolen out of my purse in bulk food. (My own Wegmania may have been partly to blame for that. I’m not exactly myself there. Just a few weeks ago, Mandy happened upon me in the Asian food section, dazed and confused, mumbling to myself about low-sodium soy.)

And then there was that time during a school holiday when our friend Kris had no choice but to bring her four kids to the store. Her middle son accidentally nudged a woman’s cart into the kale, and the lady whipped her head around and shouted, “Those children do not belong here!” (Calmly, Kris replied, “Well, how about this: Next time I need to go food shopping, I’ll just drop them all at your house, ’kay?”)

And then there was that other time when my friend Maya bent down to snag some instant oatmeal off the bottom shelf in the gluten-free wing and was run over by another cart, then left there on the floor, prone and flailing, while the driver sprinted around a corner, executing a textbook Wegmans hit-and-run. And, of course, the time a woman F-bombed a man waiting at the prepared-foods counter because she thought he’d cut her in line and the man’s wife practically had to cover his mouth to prevent him from F-bombing the lady right back, all of this going down on Christmas Eve, the time of year when all our troubles are supposed to be miles away.

Apparently, those troubles reside permanently at the intersection of Route 70 and Haddonfield Road. At first I assumed that people who live in Cherry Hill and its environs were especially vile humans. But I run into the same clientele at other stores in the Wegmans shopping plaza, and I’ve never heard anyone in, say, Home Depot, shout, “Get the fuck out of my way, bitch!”

I’m pretty sure this new villainy comes hand-in-hand with the recent dawning of the Age of the Fancy Market. People who shop at Acme? Civil. People at ShopRite? Giddy. But go to Whole Foods, and someone wearing a NAMASTE t-shirt will smash her cart into your heels until they bleed to beat you to that extra-firm tofu on sale for $16.99 an ounce.

Still, Wegmans is worse. It’s where the twain meet — where you can buy the cheapest milk in town and organic medjool dates. Like the Shore, everyone is here, except they’re hungry. And they use their carts as weapons.

On a day like pre-Titan Saturday at Wegmans, the threat level for severe attacks escalates to red by 8 a.m. The explosion in the cheese section was inevitable. Mandy, eavesdropping on Cheesegate while pretending to read labels on the 54 different types of imported gouda, zipped me a second text:

She hunted him down in store because he did not stop for her in crosswalk. ‘I GOT THE COPS WAITING FOR YOU OUTSIDE. I GOT YOUR LICENSE AND I HAVE SEEN YOUR FACE!’

Like black ops, Wegmans employees in their Wegmans shirts appeared out of nowhere — Mandy and I think there’s a secret door under the Mediterranean olive bar — and surrounded the 60-something accuser in her blue Chanel. They led her away to, maybe, a panic room behind the freezer cases, while the 50-year-old alleged Crosswalk Ignorer, his wife and their two teenage kids stood there, the man’s hands still gripping the handle on their cart, all four of them making “Can we go now?” faces to the employees still huddled around, as if nothing about what just happened was out of the ordinary. As if they accepted the universal truth I’ve come to accept, that we’ve all come to accept — the people who shop at Wegmans suck.

I texted Mandy back: “Get out while you can!!!”

Of course, that would mean Mandy would have to go out into the parking lot. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I’ve almost died three times in the Cherry Hill Wegmans parking lot — once after I hit the automatic button to open the back hatch on my minivan, which apparently frightened a woman walking by who retaliated by plowing her cart into me really hard; once when I was walking by a car waiting to turn into a parking space while the lady in the car behind it honked, nonstop, which inspired me to knock on her window and yell, “Stop it,” after which she turned to reach for something on the passenger seat and I ran away, figuring she was loading a crossbow; and once when I was standing in a crosswalk and a giant black Suburban decided the two of us should play a game of Frogger.

“Inside Wegmans is all sunshine and happiness and Disney when you compare it with the parking lot,” says my friend Brian, father of two, who shops there at least once a week because, as it does me, that place has him “by the balls,” what with the cheap organic ground beef, the tubs of hummus, the Wegmans brand dill pickles that are just so good. “Out there in the lot, man?” he whispers. “It’s like Lord of the Flies.”

BRIAN ISN’T EXACTLY a conscientious objector in the Wegmans parking lot. In fact, he’s more like Robin Hood. Except, well, meaner. Once he was walking to his car and saw an SUV filled with 20-somethings park in a “Parents with Children” spot. He stopped them as they stepped out of the SUV.

“Hey guys,” he shouted, really loudly, because he’s a man who believes in the great motivating power of public shaming. “It looks like you accidentally parked in the spot reserved for parents.”

“We did?”

“Yeah … see the sign? You should move.” The guys, to their credit, got back in the SUV and pulled out. But Brian wasn’t convinced. After he got in his car, he drove back around to check, and wouldn’t you know? Those guys had circled the lot like vultures and parked in the exact same spot.

Now, a normal person — one who fears the dark and inexplicable forces in humanity, like Wegmans and the people who shop at Wegmans — would have rolled his eyes and driven away. Not Brian.

“Hey guys,” he said, rolling down his window. “It looks like you accidentally parked in the spot for parents again! What are the odds?”

Another time, when the person he confronted ignored him, Brian yelled for all to hear, “You! In the red truck! Don’t worry. I’ll move your car for you. I’ll call and have it towed.” (He didn’t.) Another time, when the offender flipped him off, Brian bellowed, “So you’re just a dick?”

“Nothing drives me more insane than people being inconsiderate,” Brian explains. Because, you know, that makes sense.

Another friend, Tim, also a father of two, is even harder-core. He once accosted a solo guy who’d parked in a parents-with-kids spot. The guy, continuing to walk into the store, defended himself with this logic: “I’m fucking handicapped! That trumps people with kids.”

“Well, you can keep going,” Tim barked back. “But I can’t promise your car’s going to look like this when you come out.” The guy stopped, looked at Tim, looked at his car, then walked back to move it.

“I would have totally keyed his car,” Tim explained later. “I might even have stabbed his tires.” He wasn’t kidding. The weird thing is, everywhere else on Earth, Tim is a nice guy. He’s funny. He once randomly purchased ice-cream cones for the entire girls’ softball team and their parents. Wegmans changes people. It not only makes people mean; it makes people mean when they’re calling out other people at Wegmans for being mean. It’s, like, meta. The mean starts in the parking lot, seeps in through the doors and past the car-carts, then oozes around produce, spreading like some airborne pathogen, multiplying and mutating as it comes in contact with various foodstuffs.

“This kind of behavior is what’s wrong with the world,” says … well … just about everyone I talk to about Wegmans.

“Ridiculous!” exclaims one friend.

“Americans have become inconsiderate assholes!” condemns another.

“Oy! They need yoga and mindfulness!” advises one more.

Right.

Cherry Hill Wegmans would be a nicer place if people did more yoga.

Probably.

But I already work pretty hard on being a kinder, nicer, gentler soul. I yoga on Wednesdays. I’ve read The Happiness Project — and even signed up for the blog. I’ve nodded knowingly each time I’ve read that proverb that always shows up on Facebook feeds: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I strive every single minute of every single day to not shoot up my middle finger when a driver pulls out in front of me without using a turn signal, to not roll my eyes when my husband comes home late from work again, to not yell at my kids for yelling at each other.

The truth is, randomly acting kind is a shit-ton of work. There’s so much social pressure to be nice all the time, to teach your kids to be nice all the time, to smile and say “Have a nice day!” all the time, even to the crossing guard at 8:17 a.m.

Suddenly, it occurs to me: Maybe I’m all wrong about the Cherry Hill Wegmans.

Maybe being the meanest place on Earth is actually a great service to society at large. Only there, in that three-acre abyss, does the general public expect the rest of the general public to not be nice. We can get our anger out there. We can get pissed off and get the best store-made guacamole ever. And here I’ve been struggling to be all civil and smiling — all kind — even in that constant traffic jam between the bagged whole wheat and the Club Packs of pork.

Not. Any. More.

THE FOLLOWING SATURDAY, after Winter Storm Titan basically passes us by (and leaves me at home with my three kids on a useless snow day), I write out a shopping list. The parking lot at the Cherry Hill Wegmans is so thronged that I’m forced to stalk people pushing their carts to their cars, inching behind them at two miles an hour. Other cars line up behind me. They honk. I want to flip them off in my rearview. But I do not.

Inside, there are so many people in the produce section, it probably would qualify in a census as a small town. I consider forsaking fresh fruits and vegetables, but my middle daughter wants a pineapple. So I forge ahead, zigzagging past a man smelling every cantaloupe in the crate, past a woman with children hanging off all four sides of her cart. Finally, I’m mere feet from the pineapples. But an obstacle is blocking my way — a woman, parked smack-dab in the middle of the thin aisle between the bags of organic Gala apples and the three-for-$3 Meyer lemons. And she’s chatting on her phone.

I try to back out, but another cart has come up behind me. And then another behind that. We’re all waiting. Eyes start rolling. I hear a “hmmph.” I know it’s my duty to fix this. I’m closest. It’s all up to me.

“Excuse me,” I say. Cell-Phone Talker ignores me. “Excuse me,” I say again, and push my cart an inch forward to bump her cart, which then lightly bumps her. She turns. Her eyes open wide, like I’ve just pulled down her pants. She mouths two words: “What the … ?”

Remember where you are, I think to myself. Remember.

“Lady,” I say, spitting out the “d” like it’s been festering there, like it’s been lying dormant in my kind-ish heart for 42 years waiting for an excuse to erupt and spew forth. Waiting … for Wegmans. “This would not be a problem,” I announce, almost shouting now, “if you just got off your GODDAMN PHONE!”

She stares into my eyes. I stare into hers. I’m pretty sure we’re about to crawl over our carts and start slapping each other. And then, just like that, her eyes soften. They soften. The corners of my mouth lift into a smile. Not an “I’m going to cut you” smile, but a genuine “We’re all in this together” smile. She gets it. She understands where we are. She’s well aware that thanks to me, in this little moment by the pineapples, she will leave this place a stronger person. So will I. She responds exactly how I expect her to: She flips me off, then moves her cart. I grab my pineapple. One of us grunts — I’m not sure who. And then we both walk away, on to the next battle.

Originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

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