Do you really need diapers? Essay: Grocery store crowd provokes an unexpected attack of the much despised panic-buyer syndrome.

January 12, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

In the end, I became one of Them. It took 2 feet of snow on the ground and a weather forecast that called for everything but locusts to drop out of the sky. And that's when I became that most despised of all creatures: the panic buyer.

God, even I hate me now.

This is how it happened: I walked into the Mars at York and Padonia roads the other night at 6. The place was like Woodstock. The lines stretched from the cash registers to Pennsylvania.

Everywhere, people shuffled about in bulky overcoats and ski caps, their noses running, their eyes rheumy under the harsh track lighting. Fathers barked orders like Prussian generals, mothers shouted at whimpering children, babies wailed.

You could smell the fear in the air.

And I caught that fear.

Originally, I was there just for a loaf of bread. But all of a sudden I wasn't there just for bread, if you catch my drift.

Now I was elbowing 85-year-old grandmothers out of the way to get at the cling peaches.

I was cutting off guys in wheelchairs to get to the Cheerios. I was tapping people on the shoulder in the beverage aisle and then, when they whirled around to see who it was, taking the last 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke.

If some toddler with a gallon of Sealtest milk had wandered down the aisle, God help me, I would have mugged him for it. Hey, I'm bigger than he is. And with any luck, I can outrun his old man.

But there was no milk. I'd been to two other stores looking for the stuff. There was no milk anywhere. Maybe on the West Coast. Maybe in Panama. But not here.

The thing is, it wasn't just me scrambling around the store like some out-of-control loon. It was everybody. There's a term for this: mass psychosis, an episode of psychogenic illness affecting a large group of individuals at the same time.

It happened during the Salem witchcraft trials. It happened back in 1938 when people poured into the street, convinced the Martians had landed, after the radio show based on the H. G. Wells' novel "War of the Worlds."

And it happened in the Mars dairy section when I went cruising past there. One package of Kraft cheese singles remained. I made my move for it, a strong move. So did an attractive woman in her late 30s.

We both arrived at the same time, me with a bad attitude, her with her teen-age daughter.

"Sweetie," I told the kid, "tell your mom to back off or you'll be an orphan."

Slowly, the woman withdrew her hand, giving me a look of pure menace. I scooped up the cheese like it was a $5,000 Rolex and sprinted down the aisle.

No, it's nothing I'm proud of. It's sick. Suddenly, I felt bad, cheap and tawdry. So I walked back to the woman.

"Write down your address," I told her. "If there's any cheese left over, I'll send it to you."

"I hate you and everything you stand for," she said, hurrying away.

"Fine, be that way!" I shouted after her. "It just means more cheese for me!"

The thing about panic buying is, you end up buying stuff you don't need, stuff you don't even like.

Take black olives. I hate black olives. I bought a huge jar of them anyway. There've gotta be, I don't know, 400 black olives in this jar.

I don't know why I bought it. Some old guy was reaching for it, so I decided to grab it. I think he was a priest.

What else? I bought veal scaloppine, vacuum cleaner bags, Lestoil, shoe polish. How much shoe polish do you need in a snowstorm? I bought Pampers diapers. We don't even have a baby in the house.

But it didn't matter. I was in a frenzy. At one point, I almost got into it with a nun over some chicken breasts. Sorry, Sister, but God helps those who help themselves.

Finally, there wasn't any more room in the shopping cart, so I hit the checkout line, where I spent close to an hour.

When I finally got out of there, I was sick and tired and nauseous.

But it was a good kind of nauseous.

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