If you’re trying to understand America in all its joy, desperation and weirdness, there’s just one book to consult: “Milk Eggs Vodka.”
It’s a book of shopping lists.
Yes, real shopping lists — a few hundred of them — reprinted in all their crumpled, stained and misspelled glory. They represent just a fraction of the thousands of lists collected over the past decade by oddball/genius Bill Keaggy, who hopes you’ll send him any lists you find, too. He just loves them.
So do I! So do untold legions! Keaggy’s grocery list website, grocerylists.org, gets a few thousand hits a day. Why?
“You really get a glimpse into people’s lives,” says Keaggy, a graphic designer when he’s not stopping to pick up the detritus of modern life. A grocery list is like a diary, he says — utterly honest and not written for public consumption. Short and mysterious, it is the haiku of everyday life:
“ Squirt gun, hot peppers, strawberrys, bee trap, pie pans.”
Read it and you can feel the sun beating down on a birthday party (and hear some kid screaming).
“Buns, vodka, wine, chips, vanilla ice cream, kitty litter.”
That one just made Keaggy laugh.
“Prozac, kid hair de-tangler, Ibuprofen, Fiber-All, Sensodyne.”
As Keaggy notes in his unfailingly wonderful marginalia, “wow. Your life sucks, my friend. Constipation, headaches, aching gums, kids with knotted hair. No wonder you’re depressed.”
Aside from the lives revealed by these lists, there are also the demographics. A yuppy shopper’s list includes, as if by law, goat cheese, shallots and pastry crust. Quiche alert! But the list written in fat, preteen letters, with smiles in all the O’s, says, “Food — Thanks Mom! Pizza Lunchable, Taco Lunchable, Gatorade Rapid Rush- Blue, Cooler Ranch Doritos.”
“I’m not so sure this list should have been labeled ‘food,’” Keaggy observes.
Maybe not. But here you have a totally candid picture of what one girl — possibly representing one entire generation — wants for lunch. A few years later, will it be buns, wine and vodka? Or Prozac and Fiberall?
Though Keaggy didn’t write this book as any kind of study, he has come to a couple of conclusions, including the fact that old people really like cookies. (He can tell an old person’s list by the shakiness of the writing.)
After collecting at least one list from every state, he also found that 41 percent included some sort of bread and that 37 percent included milk. Half had some sort of personal-care or cleaning product, and just 6 percent were looking for liquor. Adds Keaggy, “Yeah. Right.”
The most fastidious shoppers write their lists on the back of envelopes and put coupons inside (and sometimes forget they’re there). The most frazzled write lists such as: “Spaghetti. Sauce.” Or even shorter lists: “Celery!” And the most honest write things such as, “Bud Light, good beer.” That’s not commentary; those are two separate items.
And then there are the lists that can break your heart: “1 lb hamberger, cheeseburger mocornoi, bread, butter, lunch meat. If enough money — chips.”
It’s not just the spelling that hurts.
After years of loving all these lists, Keaggy gradually realized that shoppers were wasting time and possibly money by not being organized. They were returning for single items (“Celery!”) and being vague about their needs (“Get supper things”), so he created a checklist to help them. It lists just a few hundred items by department — simplicity itself. Yet it has been downloaded tens of thousands of times.
If you ever find one of these lists, kindly send it to grocerylists.org, P.O. Box 752, St. Louis, MO 63188.
In the meantime, don’t forget: BUY MILK!
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker and author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.”