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Is the “Social Safeway” Another Washington Myth, or Is the Author Just Socially Inept?

The three bubbly women are terribly excited about something they’ve found in the tropical-fruit section. “What is it?” one of them squeals.

“It’s a mango!” her friend says, cradling it like a three-pound emerald. The third reaches over to stroke the green fruit, which is quite obviously a papaya.

“I’ve never eaten a mango!” the third says. Two of the three are wearing blue Georgetown sweatpants; the third carries a GU knapsack.

That’s not a mango, I’m thinking, over by the raspberries. It’s a papaya.

“Eric will love this mango!” says the discoverer of the papaya.

“So will Mark,” coos the third.

I’ve been watching this trio for some time, as they navigated the aisles of the Wisconsin Avenue Safeway on this Friday night. This is, of course, the “Social Safeway” of Washington apocrypha. You know, the place where D.C.’s attractive, successful, and unattached exchange meaningful looks and voice-mail numbers over, well, things like mangoes.

And to be perfectly frank, meaningful looks, not groceries, are why I’m here. Ditto for the Georgetown trio, I’d say, based on the amount of flouncing and giggling and gossiping they have invested on their trip around the store, not to mention the inordinately long time they’ve taken to accumulate barely a dozen items in their wobble-wheeled grocery cart.

Plus, their loud references to nonexistent boyfriends are a clear sign that it’s time to move. “Excuse me, mademoiselle,” I’ll say to the papaya-discoverer, the most attractive of the three, “but I believe your mango is a papaya.” Suavely bringing forth the real McCoy, upon which I’ve surreptitiously scribbled my name and number, I’ll say: “Wanna trade?”

But as I’m rehearsing this scenario, a produce manager appears from nowhere and says, firmly but diplomatically, “I think that might be a papaya.” He leads them back to tropical fruit, where a proper mango is procured and the papaya discarded.

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Damn.

Or so I would have lamented, back in my single days, when a trip to the grocery store—or anywhere else—doubled as a reproductive reconnaissance mission. And of course it never got me anywhere.

But that’s the way it works. Every man with half a brain ought to know that attempting to “meet women”—as in going out, like some sort of sexual trawler, with the specific intention of meeting a woman—is a futile exercise. Women can’t be met; in the first place, any woman worth meeting has probably heard all the lines a million times and developed a hit-on-proof armadillo skin. In this age, it’s the women who do the meeting, when and where they choose, and not vice versa.

A friend of mine recently spent more than a year searching for Ms. Right, or even Ms. Halfway Decent. All in vain, until the forces of chance (or so he thought) conspired to bring romance into his life and he found himself shacked up with a Very Nice Girl. Within a month, he said, women were coming up to him on the street, in bars, at the grocery store, and introducing themselves.

There’s no spectacle more appalling than the sight of some would-be Casanova pelting banalities at some poor woman who only wants to check out Monet’s waterlilies, buy the latest Anne Rice, or get the Lean Cuisine back home and into the microwave as fast as possible. She might chirp sweetly and laugh politely at his jokes, but deep down she’s thinking, “I pity you, pathetic loser.”

Which is exactly what I decided to become last weekend: a rubbernecking, butt-ogling, come-on-spouting, shameless supermarket scammer. My purpose was strictly scientific. I meant to test one of Washington’s most hoary legends—the myth of the Social Safeway.

I pull into the parking lot at about 7 p.m. on a Friday night—an hour when anybody with anything better to do is probably doing it. No better time, then, to test the meet market’s rep.

I begin by surveying the terrain. Social or not, this Safeway is certainly conducive to encounters. For one thing, it is huge—among the city’s biggest—and its extremely long aisles are perfect for stop-and-go grocery-cart cruising. That’s not what its designers had in mind, though; the grocery industry learned long ago that shoppers spend money in direct proportion to the distance they must walk. Ergo, long aisles.

This Safeway’s aisles are bisected by a narrow cross-aisle, perfect for darting across the store to intercept one’s quarry.

Then there’s the produce section, a sort of modern-day version of those labyrinths of hedges that 18th-century noblemen found so conducive to rational contemplation, not to mention screwing their housemaids. At Safeway, the avocados and tangerines and plump pink grapefruits are attractively displayed on wooden islands, all connected by a maze of narrow passages. Cart-bumping, excuse-mes, and meaningful glances over walnuts and pears are all but inevitable.

Last but not least, there’s demographics. Just north of Georgetown, this Safeway draws a promising mix of students, entry-level yuppies, condo-dwelling singles, and the young, the beautiful, and the career-minded. And lo, at nearly 8, the automatic doors are admitting a steady stream of young women wearing makeup and jewelry.

We cruise the aisles, we of the brother- and sisterhood of Friday-night grocery shoppers, we who have nothing better to do. We who hunger for companionship along with our high-protein pasta. We troll the aisles, scan the meat case, sniff the cantaloupes and examine the arugula for the umpteenth time. My memory banks are loaded with icebreakers (“How long do you boil lettuce?”). I load my basket with suggestive combinations of items: a bottle of Evian and box of granola bars, betokening a wondrous physique; a quart of olive oil and box of DoveBars, an invitation to hedonism. Laundry detergent and TV dinners, implying loneliness and need. Nothing takes.

Despairing, I head for the magazine rack where—yesss!—a perky blond thing is reading something called Holiday Entertaining. I sidle over and flip through Smart Money. She is unimpressed.

Back to produce. The papaya girls have left by now, and the section is practically empty. I’ve been here at least four times, plastic bags accumulating suspiciously in my basket. I stash a few behind some cereal boxes to make it look like my first pass-through. But I needn’t have bothered—the only produce-prowlers are an older couple dressed as if for a night at the Kennedy Center, circa 1977: he in brown corduroy pants, camel’s-hair blazer and beige driving cap; she swathed in a ratty stole that could be made of poodle fur.

In the next aisle over, next to the coffee grinder, I spot a likely redhead. Makeup—check. Nylons—check. Pearls—check. A while ago, as she and I circled a frozen-food bin, I thought I detected a certain tension. I approach the coffee display and pretend to scrutinize the beans in their Plexiglas prison cells. She half-turns to me, as though inviting conversation. Shall I say something like, “Viennese decaf is so…Wittgensteinian, don’t you think?”

Nah.

Instead, in a voice that could pass for Marge Simpson’s, I croak, “This coffee any good?”

“I don’t know,” she snaps. “Why don’t you try some?” And with that, she heads for the checkout stand.