The police cruiser was nestled in foliage on the central reservation at the north end of Lake Shore Drive. It was 9am on Saturday morning and we had just driven through the slalom at the junction of Sheridan and Hollywood. All four of the south bound lanes were bathed in sunshine and almost devoid of traffic. The speed limit was 40 mph, but everyone seemed to be driving at 60 mph. “The cops only get excited when you exceed 60,” said J, the driver. I looked behind us and sure enough, the cruiser remained stationary. “Perhaps he’s eating breakfast,” I said.
We were headed for Costco, a subscription-only discount warehouse. “It gets crowded on weekends, so we want to be there for opening at 9.30, ” said my card-carrying chauffeur. We turned west to pick up Ashland Avenue.
“I need some coffee,” said J. He pulled over to the right-side lane and cut into a vast supermarket car park. “Jewel Osco has a Starbucks.” We stopped by the entrance and J entered Jewel. He came out a minute later without a coffee. “The Starbucks concession is a block away from the entrance, and there’s already eight people waiting in line. Fuggedaboutit.”
Ten minutes later and lacking in caffeine, we parked in Costco’s massive lot. There was already a mob of people milling around outside the main door. We collected a huge supermarket trolley and lined up. Some customers had chosen a larger, flat-bed trolley for bulk purchases. For some reason, an elderly man in front of us had a carton of panty liners. With wings. J and I speculated on the circumstances of his purchase, which he was presumably returning for a refund.
A Vietnamese couple collected a loose unclaimed trolley, but no sneaking into the queue was allowed. A man behind us growled, “Get in line!” and they complied.
The entrance to Costco was a giant roller door, already half open. At 9.29am the crowd was getting restive, people not in line were jockeying for position. It reminded me of the start to a Formula One race.
The door rattled up and we were in. Ten metres from the entrance there was a display of huge televisions, known as “megatellys” by my children. I was distracted and stopped for a split second to marvel at the crisp colours on a 75 inch screen. There was a howl of disapproval from behind me. It was as though I had stopped a car in the middle lane of the freeway. Shoppers flowed either side of me until I moved off.
The store was vast. It reminded me of the ground floor of an IKEA, with rows of tall shelving around the periphery. As I was a Costco virgin, I gawped at the array of products – food, clothing, electronics, Apple computers, pet food, sweets, toilet paper and fancy dress outfits.
We had a shopping list for a family barbecue, Ricky’s Ribfest. First on the list was alcohol. Prominently displayed at the end of one row there was a red wine on sale, “Portuguese blended red”. J said that one of his family had recommended this and loaded three bottles into our cart. A shopper behind us seemed impressed, too, adding a couple of the same vintage to his cart.
Next stop was the food preparation area for turkey wraps. Sadly, these were so popular that they had to be ordered 24 hours in advance. I suggested a rotisserie chicken instead, but all twenty on the rack had been purchased. It was just 9.35am but behind the counter I could see two ovens packed with rotating chickens which looked perfectly roasted. Within five minutes, they had been stacked on the rack and claimed by shoppers. But I grabbed a beauty for $5.99.
The next item on the shopping list was cat litter. J asked a shop assistant who pointed to shelving on the back wall of the warehouse. We couldn’t find it. “He said it was over here,” I said to J. “No, they wouldn’t put cat litter next to food items.” “Why not? The cat hasn’t pooped in it yet.”
We bought a block of 500ml San Pellegrino carbonated water, which was J’s guilty pleasure. I am not sure I could tell the difference in a blind tasting.
Potato chips – crisps, in English parlance – had a whole aisle to themselves. There were no 25g packets, just large sacks. We grabbed three different varieties. “What about other snack foods?” asked J. The next aisle had pretzels covered with chocolate, filled with peanut butter, sprinkled with rock salt – wrong on so many levels. No wonder there is a serious obesity problem in the USA.
Having said this, dried mangoes dipped in chocolate were delicious. I was sorely tempted. A 62 ounce pack of M&Ms caught my eye, but it wouldn’t fit into my carry-on luggage to take back to the UK.
I steered the cart to the check out. J wasn’t familiar with self scanning machines, but the line here was shortest. After scanning each item, the machine told you what you had scanned and the price. When it came to wine, we needed assistance. I took off the wine and scanned our precious rotisserie chicken. A red light came on, but there were no spotlights or sirens. The shop assistant was puzzled. “Yes, J really does look under 25, doesn’t he?” I joked. She glanced at me and proceeded to override the computer system. She had to key in the date of birth of the purchaser, but gave up and keyed in her own date of birth. She got it wrong the first time, but eventually the wine went through. But there was still a problem – my scanning the rotisserie chicken. “My fault,” I said. She looked at me without understanding. After a week in the USA, I am learning a new language. “My bad,” I said in a thick midwest accent. I pointed out the chicken, but she still had to check through the entire list of shopping.
J started to move products prematurely from the weighing scale to our shopping trolley. This caused the computer more consternation, but we finally made it and paid.
“Wanna hot dog?” asked J. “The Vienna Sausage factory is right next door so they just ship them over. They are famous. And good.” Of course I said yes. The Costco hotdog is a loss-leader. The price has not changed since 1985.
The spartan dining area after the checkouts had a limited menu, limited to fast food. Beside the price of each item there was an estimate of its calories. The quarter pounder hot dog sausage with bun and relish was $1.50 and 552 calories with 46g of carbohydrate, 11g of sugar and 32g of fat. If you added a free 20 fluid ounces of soda (Pepsi, Morning Dew, etc) this would bump up the calories to 990. Costco displayed the recommended daily calorie intake at 2,000 calories. So much for breakfast.
The hotdog came in a foil packet to keep it warm. The sausage poked out an inch either end of the bun. To add onion I had to turn a handle on a tin hopper to shred it over the bun. There was deli relish, two kinds of mustard (President Obama likes Dijon mustard on his) and ketchup.
It was absolutely delicious. While we ate the hotdog, we watched the customers wheeling their purchases towards the exit. One man had a flat bed trolley filled with small bottles of water (perhaps he was going to sell them to tourists downtown for a dollar a bottle), another had a mountain of adult nappies and toilet paper (best not to speculate).
We wiped our sticky fingers and pushed the trolley to the exit. Barbara, the shop security officer, was checking all the till receipts. I smiled at her and wished her good morning. “Never be nice to a checker, because she will take it as a sign you are trying to steal something,” said J. Barbara didn’t even blink. She poked through our plastic bags and looked at the list of purchases, then waved us through. “Have a good day, y’all.”
We loaded the car and drove north on Ashland Avenue, with Radio Rock FM playing blasts from the past. J guessed 1972, but he was a year out. 1973 classics don’t lose their appeal. A Bob Dylan number came on the radio and J cranked the volume to 11. What was the song? “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” of course, the inspiration for this post.