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An accidental regular at the commissary

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By LISA SMITH MOLINARI, themeatandpotatoesoflife.com

The day after my honeymoon 25 years ago, I moved into my Navy husband’s apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. He carted me around to get a military ID, submit Tricare forms, and obtain base pass stickers for my car, so I’d be an official, card-carrying military spouse.

Then he went to work, leaving me home ... alone.

I checked the kitchen for something to eat. The cupboards contained a plastic barrel of pretzels, a half loaf of white bread and an expired box of Shake ’N Bake left there by his old girlfriend. In the fridge, I found baloney, a gallon of milk, a bag of onions and a bottle of ketchup.

“I’d better go shopping,” I thought. Rather than pay seven bucks a pound for ground beef at a DC store, I hopped in the car and braved the tangle of highways to get our rightful discounts at the base commissary.

The commissary didn’t look like a normal supermarket. It was a drab warehouse with austere interior — no soothing background music or eye-catching displays. The shoppers were all business, and seemed to know exactly what they were doing.

I, on the other hand, wandered aimlessly, despite the directional arrows painted on the floor. Although my new military ID card got me into this bastion of military support services, I didn’t seem to belong there. I felt like a teenager who just got into a nightclub with a fake driver’s license.

I completely forgot what I came to buy. Into my cart I nervously threw grapefruits, oyster crackers, a pound of ground beef, a gallon of cooking oil and a box of raisins. I despised raisins and had never purchased oyster crackers in my life. Overwhelmed and unable to focus, I headed for the check out.

My paltry purchases were placed into three plastic bags by a tall, thin bagger with a graying beard. “Ma’am, I’ll carry these to your car.”

“Oh no!” I said, trying to be polite, “I’ll just carry them myself.”

As I started toward the door, the smile drained from the bagger’s face. He crossed his arms, looked away, and muttered, “That’s your prerogative.” Not sure what I’d done to irritate him, I scurried to my car like a cockroach running under a pantry door.

Francis returned from work, eager to experience his first home-cooked meal as a married man. Puzzled by the dinner of meatloaf with a side of grapefruit, he asked, “So how was your day, Honey?” I related my commissary fiasco, and Francis immediately realized my mistake. Over dinner, he explained that in the military, one must always tip the baggers.

Humiliated, I thought I’d never show my face in a commissary again, but as the years passed, it soon became a comfort zone. A place where things made sense no matter whether we were stationed in the remote English countryside or near the sprawling bases in Norfolk, Virginia. A place where the food was cheap. A place without distracting colorful signs or tempting free samples. A place where I didn’t have to worry about discount cards or environmentally-friendly plastic bag bans.

A place that came to feel like home.

Nowadays, my minivan shows up at the Naval Station Newport commissary at least once a week. No matter how long my shopping list, I grab one of the small carts that is easier to maneuver. I head for the produce section, pausing briefly at the sushi counter to check for my favorite crunch rolls.

Some days, the commissary is well-stocked. Other days? Not so much. But I’m accustomed to making due. No bok hoy? I’ll just use cabbage. No vodka sauce? Marinara’ll do.

By the time I reach the deli, my cart is overflowing. I order smoked turkey, making sure to get the coupon. I chat with a friend before heading to the check out. The cashier makes me laugh, something about his dog, and the bagger makes the obligatory comments about the weather. I tip her generously.

On the way home, I relish the familiar routine that has kept me grounded as a Navy wife for 25 years, and I wolf down a hunk of crunch roll. My favorite.