“Paper or plastic”? I was terrified to answer this question. This new found fear was surprising because I had asked this question a million times during my first high school job. The question was endless. “Paper or Plastic, Paper or Plastic, Paper or Plastic”? Customers always answered the question with quick ease. I never really thought about what motivated their decision beyond a preference based on the simplicity of convenience. I was too busy thinking about the daily dramas of high school to ponder about the premise behind paper or plastic. Today was different. I was no longer the gangly girl at the end of the checkout line. I was now an adult with a college degree and a ‘real’ job who felt inept at answering the simple question, “Paper or Plastic”?
My ‘real’ job had taken me from the country to the city. The city had many new and exciting experiences to offer a young girl, but who knew urban grocery shopping during my lunch break could become so terrifying? The natives did not even refer to the place where one gathers and pays for (with plastic of course) their food as a grocery store. They referred to it as a complete foods market. As opposed to partial foods? Are there stores somewhere that sell half eaten tubs of ice cream? Does the last guy on the assembly line at the plant stand there with a giant spoon gobbling up half of the superman ice cream?
Although this was an interesting cuisine concept, the complete foods market turned out to be scarier than half eaten food for sale. This groovy grocery store would actually scoff at the concept of superman ice cream. The horror of neon artificially colored foods would send their customers screaming into the streets. Complete food market customers flocked for fresh greens, natural ingredients and organic anythings. I found the shelf selections fascinating. What a wonderment it was to realize the abundance of options beyond the freezer and preservatives. These smart shoppers were so in tune to mother earth! Yes, my hometown consisted of corn fields and cows but the city took ‘natural’ cooking on with a bold and confident attitude.
After perusing the pineapple tofu, peanut oil and pear juice I could feel the self- doubt settling in. I was positive that I would never be able to choose something as perfectly trendy as it was tasty. How could anything on these shelves satisfy my never ending sweet tooth!? Not to mention my ineptness for spotting the next best thing in the world of tofu!? Just as my stomach was preparing for its first big somersault I spotted the salad bar. I could handle a salad bar.
I was pleased with myself as I took my plastic (recycled of course) container of greens to the checkout. I was ready to casually fly under the radar of the checkout scanner with my salad bar lunch. No one in this store would suspect that I was clueless about almost everything the four walls had to offer. The girl with the radar gun and the girl bagging groceries were a few years younger than me. I imagined that they were environmental science college students. My environmental science professor in college was great, so I hoped they too. The tension in my neck started to ease away until environmental science girl number one asked that all too familiar and usually mundane question, “Paper or Plastic”? Panic shot through me like heat lightning.
What was the correct answer? As far as I knew, the debate among scientists as to whether paper or plastic was better for the environment was still raging. However, there must be a position that hard core environmentalists/complete food market shoppers were taking!? I immediately looked to the chic shopper in front of me as she was leaving the line. My despair heightened as I saw her carrying cloth bags. Of course she had cloth bags. All good environmentalists used cloth bags. Why did I fail to grab a cloth bag off of the rack at the beginning of the checkout line? The sudden line of customers behind me must have parachuted in because there was now a small crowd blocking my view of a fabric rescue. I imagined myself hurdling over the small crowd to claim a bland cotton bag and then victoriously presenting it to environmental science girl number one. Except in reality, I would clumsily attempt to push through the crowd. My only accomplishment would be a huge delay in line because I would not be able to decide between the taupe or beige bag.
The situation was impossible. Environmental science girl number two was peering at me through her glasses….waiting…waiting…..waiting for my response. I felt as if the entire population within the store had fixed their gazes upon the back of my head. I finally just looked down at my salad container and mumbled “plastic” and then held my breath. There were no explosions of fire, floods of tears or large cracks in the floor. There were no non-verbal indicators from the science girls that I had made the incorrect choice. They simply finished their jobs and handed me my change and plastic bag.
Holding my breath again, I tried to walk and look casual (while actually bolting) for the door. I had never been a big believer in the phrase ‘never look back’, but today I was planning just that. Escape. Escape. Escape. But as the glass door started to swing out, I quickly swung my glance back into the urban food jungle. I wanted to see. I wanted to see what happened as the next person in line was jolted with “Paper or Plastic”? Nothing happened. The scene at the checkout was caught on re-play. But I had to wonder as my heels clicked onto the sidewalk, was that flicker I saw in his eyes panic, or was it just the reflection of the red scanner laser?