I’m sick of sweatpants.
There, I said it.
Back when the world was still turning, sweatpants used to be a reward at the end of the day. I called them my “comfy clothes,” and I’d celebrate a job well done by putting them on and cracking a beer and letting the stress of the day melt from between my shoulder blades.
But now that there’s no after work — or before work, or during work, for that matter — I’ve lost my bearings on when wearing sweatpants is appropriate.
Weeks went by when the only thing covering my legs was the jersey cotton of my Nike joggers. I really knew I was in trouble when I started dressing in what my friend Brandon calls a “dolphin outfit:” a gray t-shirt over gray sweatpants.
I knew I needed to take back my dignity. So recently, I’ve made a point to get dressed in real clothes when it’s time to write in my diary, which I do each day around 6 o’clock.
Some days it’s just jeans and a t-shirt, but other days I try to be more professional about it. Last night, I wore a pair of maroon slacks and a Brooks Brothers button down. I’ve come to calling it “getting ready for work,” because it makes me feel more normal.
Despite this pandemic, I’ve kept up writing in my diary, which I’ve done almost every day for the last eight years. Usually, my entries are a collage of the things that entertained me over the course of a day; an absurd email from a co-worker, a cute thing my kids said; a snippet of high school wisdom overheard from my students.
You’d think keeping a diary would be important during these unprecedented times; a chronicle of this momentous occasion, the first draft of history and all that. But honestly, it’s been tough to find things to write about.
Now, my diary reads more like a captain’s log. I woke up at this time, I had this for lunch, I mowed the lawn, I drank five IPAs and fell asleep watching Season 7 of The Office.
I’ve tried to substitute my process by recording interesting things I read on Facebook, but it’s really not the same. Turns out, people watching on Facebook is boring because everybody’s just projecting the facade of the person they want to be. There’s no stolen moments on Facebook. I need real, I need raw, I need drama.
So when I get really hard up for diary material, or I just want to hear a voice that doesn’t belong to my family or the staff of Dunder Mifflin, I don my pandemic mask and journey to the Safeway grocery store across the street for “essential supplies.”
I’ve always known the Safeway to be a haven of characters. What interests me the most are the full-time workers, the ones whom have dedicated their lives to supplying sundries to the masses.
There’s the lady who works the early shift and checks me when I stop by on my way to work. She’s in her late 50s, her hair and makeup always done just so. Her voice tone is formal but annoyed, perfected over decades of resenting her work in customer service. “Thank you for shopping with us, Mr. Murray,” she’ll say to me each time, reading the name on the value card I used to get the discount. It’d be too complicated to correct her, to explain the phone number I input each visit belongs to the girl I dated 10 years ago, because I don’t have a physical Safeway card and my wife never properly attached her phone number to our family account.
If I’m lucky I get the ex-junkie, the guy with a ponytail and tattoos who’s so cliched that he could play a bit part on a CSI: New York episode about a bad shipment of meth. “His name is Rico, man,” I can hear him saying to Gary Senise. “But that’s all I know. I swear, man.”
During one interaction this winter, I input my ex-girlfriend’s phone number and the computer deducted a couple of dollars off the total. “Congratulations,” the clerk said. “You saved four dollars and 23 cents today,” Congratulations is probably a strong word for saving money on noodles and baby carrots, but I played along.
“Well jeez,” I said. “It must be my lucky day.”
“Is it good luck or bad luck?” he countered, putting my items in a bag. “I hope it’s good luck.”
“Me too, I guess,” I said.
Then the guy started laughing. Hard. Like Joaquin-Phoenix-about-to-snap hard. “Sorry,” he said, wiping his eyes. “That just reminds me of a Seinfeld episode.
Now, I’m pretty well-versed in the Seinfeld universe. But I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Which episode?” I pressed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It just felt like something that would be on an episode of Seinfeld.
Holy shit. Was this guy on drugs right now, at 6:45 in the morning? Did he think he was living in a television show?
“You like Seinfeld?” I said.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s my favorite show.”
“What’s your favorite episode?”
He paused, concentrating so hard his eyes crossed. “I really like the one where they travel back in time.”
What fucking dimension did this guy live in? “Huh?” I said.
“You know, where everything is backwards.”
“Are you talking about the wedding episode, where they go to India?”
He laughed his Joker laugh. “Yeah, that’s the one!” he said. He pointed to his nose, indicating, I assume, Elaine’s nose ring. “I also like the one where they play Risk.”
“Right on,” I said. “Enjoy the rest of your day, brother.”
“Kramer!” he giggled. “They don’t trust each other at all!” he yelled after me as I walked out the sliding doors.
The one employee that has seemed to elude me, though, is the bagger Melinda always seems to get when she shops at the Safeway without me. She knows how fascinated I am with good characters and good stories, and after he bagged her groceries a couple of times, she told me about him.
“He asks the same questions to every customer,” she said. “First, he’ll ask you ‘have you ever tried peanut butter on an apple?’ The second is: ‘have you ever toasted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?’ and the third is ‘do you know about me?’”
Melinda answered yes to the first two because she’d had the guy before, but I guess question number three was new to the repertoire, so when the bagger asked her if she knew about him, Melinda said no.
The guy said he’d been in several head-trauma situations, including having a brain aneurysm. When the ambulance didn’t show up soon enough, he said, he drove himself to the hospital, but he didn’t make it. Instead, he crashed into a telephone pole.
“Son of a bitch!” I said. “Why do you get all the cool stories?”
After work the next day, I went to Safeway to buy beer, hoping he’d be the one to check me out. I had loads of time before Melinda and the kids got home, and I was prepared to ask this man questions until management asked me to leave.
I chose the line where the checker looked to be the most likely to have been in a car crash resulting from a brain aneurysm. Unfortunately, he never asked me a question, only put my six pack in a double bag and told me to have a good night. He was disabled, but not enough to have any good stories.
With such a rich history of capital C Characters, I knew the Safeway was the place I could go to liven up my diary a bit during lockdown.
My first trip did not disappoint.
As soon as I parked in the lot, I saw a white Jeep with a flashing yellow light pulled into the fire lane. The manager of the store was outside, trying to explain from behind her blue surgical mask to a homeless woman holding a cardboard sign she could not loiter in front of the store and ask her customers for money as they entered. Clearly, the only panhandlers who were allowed to do that are the ones wearing uniforms and selling overpriced Thin Mints.
I thought that was going to be the best part of my trip — it was enough conflict and dissent to satisfy my hunger for human drama — but I was lucky enough to see more just as I was leaving.
As I was passing the beer over the self-checkout scanner, I watched a woman go to the checker across from me, and immediately I knew the observation gods were shining upon me. She was in her late 50s or early 60s and had that I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. Duvall vibe. Bright red lipstick, sunglasses and a pork-pie hat sequined in red white and blue, a chunky gray cardigan, camouflage clam diggers. On her left foot she wore a black bedroom slipper and on the right she wore a black sock. The footwear was the most interesting choice to me, because it was raining at the time.
I followed her out the door and she immediately started yelling to a man standing in the rain talking to the security guard in the white Jeep.
The man broke his conversation with the guard when he saw her. “I heard you got locked up last night,” he said.
“It wasn’t my fault,” the lady said. “I took a Klonopin and fell asleep in front of the pet store.”
The man shook his head. “You know, I don’t like giving you money and then seeing you buying alcohol and drugs with it.”
“I’m not, ASSHOLE,” she replied. “I have a prescription.”
By the time the woman yelled the word asshole I was already at my car, and I felt too awkward about standing there eavesdropping to continue. But as I opened my door, I saw the delivery guy from the pizza place was parked next to me, and he was also standing there listening.
“Just another night, huh?” I said. He shook his head and got into his car.
The point of my diary has never been to log my complaints or my daily activities or catalog the freak shows and oddities around me. I mean, it does all those things, but it’s never in a mean-spirited way.
The main reason I collect these bits of string is to remind myself of how amazing it is to see all the things I do.
The question I ask myself each and every time I write is when did I feel most alive today? What did I experience that reminded me of how lucky I am to live in this world?
That sounds like such a precious thing to say, I know, especially for someone who’s got a Ph.D in Cynicism. But ever since I’ve started collecting my bits of string, it’s made the world a more exciting place to live in.
Maybe I’ll never get the chance to ask the checker with the head trauma about the best way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but I’m not going to stop trying. To me, especially right now, when it feels like the world is on fire, that’s an adventure worth taking my sweatpants off for.