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  • Writer's pictureE. Sclafani Bayless

Ralph's Grocery: The Eyes to My World

I’m not someone who has an obsession with grocery stores, so I never dreamed I would be relying on one to gauge the status of the world, as well as my survival (more about that in a bit.)

When I was a little girl, my Mom would go food shopping every Saturday afternoon to buy for the entire week. I think that was what every mom did back in the day, right? Anyway, being the youngest of three children and also "tied to my mother’s apron strings," naturally I would tag along. There was also an underlying reason why I would accompany her: We had struck up a deal that she would buy me a fashion or movie magazine (as I mentioned in my previous blog) along with my favorite Hostess snack … ready for this, Suzy Q’s!  Now to understand the excitement of being able to buy a Hostess cake came from the fact that my family, especially my Dad, was a bit of a health nut before it was cool to be one.  In our house chewing gum was a no-no, eating candy and desserts like cakes and ice cream were also forbidden. We could have them once in a while but not on a regular basis like all my friends at school did.  They and their families practically lived on Twinkies, Devil Dogs, Ho Ho’s, Ding Dongs and all those other terrible, processed junk food goodies with no nutritional value that could last in your cupboard for six months without going bad. My mom made everything from “scratch” at our house since she was an incredible chef and baker. You would NEVER find a frozen dinner or boxed cake in our fridge or cupboard.  My dad being Italian and mom Jewish, I had the best of both food worlds. Those two backgrounds are so similar, both eat tons of great food, especially on Sundays, the biggest meal day of the week (both backgrounds also provide a great guilt gene, but that’s a story for another time)  Quick note, I did not inherit my mom’s talents. I can boil water for pasta, whip up a great tuna sandwich and when push comes to shove I use my George Forman to grill chicken, but other than that forget it. When I met Skip and told him I did not cook, he said that’s great neither do I, even though his parents owned a rib joint while he was growing up and his brother is a celebrity chef. So we were a match made in take-out heaven. The stores I grew up with on Long Island were Pathmark, King Kullen, ShopRite and Stop & Shop. Huge stores with a million aisles. When I moved to NYC to live on my own, my grocery shopping pattern drastically changed, I also gave up Suzi Q’s and to no surprise lost a few pounds!

I would leave my house at 7:30 a.m. to arrive in my office by 8, and didn’t leave there until 7:30 p.m.  Living in the Big Apple, most people stop off at a restaurant and bring something home for dinner, or they'll order in as soon as you step foot inside your apartment so that by the time you undress and come out of the shower, the delivery person is ringing your doorbell.  When you live in the biggest city in the world, you will find at least seven different types of cuisine within a stone’s throw from your apartment in any direction you walk. That’s just ONE of the reasons I love NYC. Occasionally if I had nothing to do on a Sunday I would venture over to 2nd Avenue and pop in one of the smaller groceries like Gristedes or Dagastinos, and if I felt nostalgic, I would wander over to 3rd Avenue and get lost for a while in The Food Emporium.

Living in LA When Skip and I moved to LA three years ago (Century City to be exact) we moved into a condo. It has tons of windows, lots of natural light and when I look out my office window there are pine trees galore. On a clear day I can see for miles, including the glistening Pacific Ocean beyond Santa Monica. I can also see Ralph’s. Ralph’s is a grocery store that's a block away. We can see Ralph’s from our living room window as well since we are on a high floor, but my office has the best bird’s eye view! Again, not being a grocery store person, the thought did occur to me once we settled in, “Oh, that’s pretty good, we have a store nearby for all our needs, and score, I can even walk to it if I want.” No way could I have ever predicted just how important Ralph’s would become in my life. Sad but true.

It’s now been about 5 weeks since the pandemic hit. The first few days, every grocery store was overrun with folks stocking up, hoarding, grabbing anything and everything they could get their hands on... and it hit me pretty quickly I was going to have to be one of them.  As much as I am not a grocery person, I realized Ralph’s was destined to become my best friend. Life changes were fastly and furiously taking place before our very eyes, including the fact that restaurants were closing down and curbside take out was going to be as bad as the lines in the grocery store. If Skip and I were going to have food and essentials to make it last for two weeks at a time as the authorities were recommending, I would need to bite the bullet and give in to the grocery store world. This new way of life called for me to drive instead of my usual walking. This wouldn’t be the standard two-bag run. This would end up being at least five or six bags, especially when you add a case or two of bottled water.

The Guiding Light: I remember the exact moment Ralph’s became my guiding light.  I was in my office just about to venture out of the house the first time after the pandemic hit. I casually glanced out my window as I was putting on my jacket and I saw Ralph’s parking lot. There was not a single parking space to be had. I took a double-take, as the cars were actually circling with about 10 cars waiting to get into the lot. This can not be!

As I looked closer, I saw a line down the side of the parking lot with people waiting to get in. This was insane... no place to park, a long line to get inside, only to find nothing left on the shelves! I decided to wait a few minutes and thought for sure the line and lot would lighten up. Wrong! It remained like this for the rest of the day and into the evening. I finally undressed and thought it would be best to make my trek in the morning. The next day I peeked out my office window at about 7 a.m. I spotted a parking space. It was about 98% full, but at least it was better than the day before. I threw on sweats and Uggs, jumped in my car and gunned it, hoping the space I eyed from my window would still be open. No luck. Within the 5 minutes it took me to get to the Ralph’s lot, someone had already nabbed it. I spent the next 20 minutes circling and waiting for a car to pull out. I finally gave up and drove underneath to their parking lot below the store. Surely there had to be a spot here, but it was packed! Just when I was about to leave a car was backing out of a space and I nabbed it.

Next hurdle: Not a shopping cart insight. The store was chaotic, shelves bare, 30 people to a checkout line. I ended up buying whatever I could find, some crackers, matzohs, and a few apples. I actually could have walked back home since I hardly filled up one shopping bag. When I got home, a lightbulb went on in my head. Ralph’s is my new world barometer! Forget CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News, I have Ralph’s. All I needed to do when I woke up is take one quick look at Ralph’s parking lot and I immediately would know the climate of California as well as the rest of the world.

If the parking lot is full, the pandemic is going strong or worsening.

Half-empty: folks are beginning to get into a rhythm, the rules are working and there’s some positivity and dare I say hope. At this point, I became totally obsessed with checking Ralph’s parking lot. Whether I was in my office or the living room, I found myself checking Ralph’s parking lot every five minutes.

Cars circling? - COVID-19 cases rising

Long line of shoppers to get into the store? - The world could be ending, but if there's three or four parking spaces, it's a. ray of hope.

If the lot is half-empty: cause for celebration. The insanity and panic at Ralph's lasted for several weeks. From the minute the store opened at 6 a.m. until closing at 10 p.m. Even though the media was reporting that there was no food shortage, people were still hoarding and little was left on the shelves. All my friends in LA (and even NYC) began to check in with me on my Ralph’s barometer. Lot full? Cars circling? Two spaces? Three? They also wanted me to call them back when I saw the lot lightening up. Even if I don’t need groceries, the second I see a few spots available I think maybe I should run over. The addiction has gotten so bad that when Skip and I are watching a movie or show in the living room, I will get up in the middle of it just to glance down at Ralph’s parking lot. Skip acts like he gets my obsession — sometimes he looks down at Ralph’s with me and gets excited over two empty spaces — but I’m pretty sure he thinks I have lost it.  OK, I will give you this: I am starting to lose it. Who isn’t?

I am now a hardened Ralph’s regular. I know and observe all the rules and I am quick to point out if someone dares not follow them. Only seniors are allowed to shop from 7-8 a.m. Anyone entering the store must wear a mask and gloves — employees, too, at all times. We must stand 6 feet apart in checkout lines, behind the taped lines. Traffic is one-way down aisles. Those not following the rules will be removed. Day after day I soldier on, compulsively checking for open parking spaces, searching for hope. As I finish this, I can’t help but get up from my computer and look down at Ralph’s. Five spaces! I do my Happy Dance, like David V. on QVC. Maybe things are starting to turn around and come back! Thank you, God! For me, it has come to this. If only my Mom could see me now... :) - E

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