Woody writes his grocery list on the inside of a matchbook cover: "Coors, Oreos". He is ready "to meet just one special lady with NO KIDS and NO BANKRUPTICES."
Anush, stoic in her leopard-print caftan, is at her wit's end with her mother-in-law's demanding shopping list: "A fairly good size of veal shanks IF tender (lamb shanks IF not veal). Gata IF soft not hard. Bulk bargain sour cherries IF small ripe and firm."
Vera, a Judith Krantz fan, writes her shopping list on notepaper emblazoned with "When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping." Maggie is on the lookout for "Aunt Spray", and Derrick knows he needs "Mouse traps. Cheese. Mouse." He has even drawn a diagram to show how the three connect.
All of these characters are alive and well(ish) in Hillary Carlip's new book, "A la Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers". Ever since she was a teenager, Carlip has collected the discarded grocery lists of strangers, harbouring fantasies about the lives behind them. A performance artist with experience as a self-styled detective (recounted in her funny memoir, "Queen of the Oddballs"), Carlip was primed to mine the psychic depths of these phantom shoppers.
When I call Carlip on the phone, there is a brief pause after I say my name. Then a gravelly, unbridled laugh. "Oh Deborah Stoll!", she exclaimed. "When you said Deborah, I immediately thought Deborah Gibson, and I thought, why is Deborah Gibson calling me?"
Carlip's sentences are all punctuated with exclamation marks. Her voice rises and falls like a teenager's, her words blurring with excitement. But then she'll suddenly belt out that gravelly, world-weary laugh. "I've had this book in my head for a long time, but it seemed like now was the right time for it," she explained. "All the reality shows, the voyeurism...everyone wants to know what everyone else is eating, drinking, wearing."
After selecting a few choice lists ("1 lb black forrest ham" on a Prozac notepad, for example), Carlip carefully analysed the handwriting, paper and items recorded to deduce the essence of the shopper's character. She then transformed herself into each one, dressing up as everything from an elderly widower to a bodacious ex-porn star. Dominie Till and Chris Nelson, make-up and hair artists, helped Carlip with these changes and Barbara Green photographed the dramatic results.
In these various guises, Carlip toured a range of shops, from chain stores to Jewish mahkohlets, liquor stores to farmer's markets. Wandering the aisles in costume helped her understand these people better--how others responded to them; how she felt in their clothes. (Think of a cross between Cindy Sherman and Amy Sedaris.) It was only then that Carlip felt ready to write their stories . "Once I felt I had inhabited their beings, I wrote their story and then had to decide what part I wanted to tell."
Some of the stories feel a bit too intimate, as if we are reading a page from their diaries. "Lloyd has that list with a box for staples and inside the box he writes '1 box staples'", Carlip said. "I mean, that really gets me." Her keen eye for dialogue and sympathy for the dread of the everyday make this book hilarious and painful in turns.A common misconception about short stories is that they take a lot less time to write than a novel. This is not always the case. For a short story, a writer must know everything about her characters--arguably enough to fill a full-length novel--yet must whittle down this information in a meaningful way. Carlip's characters are impressively vivid because she has taken the time to discover their inner lives.
Take Karen, who is pictured standing in front of a row of maxi pads and panty-liners, holding a box of Massengill and wearing an over-sized navy shirt covered with pictures of dogs.
1) Pick up Gean's mail and prepare bills.
2) Pick up purse
3) Pick up robe and gown
4) Take Gean flowers
5) Clean up myself and do whatever I want
The list has the minimalist beauty of a haiku. After reading Hillary Carlip's engaging new book, you will never see your grocery list in quite the same way again.