"You going to compete in the bagging contest this weekend?" I asked a clerk at a grocery store. He looked confused. "It's the regionals," I added.
He said, Uh, no. There's a contest?
Yes, indeed -- a test of the bagger's craft, a high-speed challenge to pack the best bag in the shortest time. It will be held in front of an awestruck public Saturday at the Mall of America, noon to 1:30, in the court by Macy's.
"I don't think any of us would win that," said the clerk, looking around the store. The idea that there was a world of competitive bagging unmanned him, somehow. It's like learning that some clerks can key in the code for apples with their left hand while picking up the can of Pam with their right. Whoa: ninjas.
Now that you know such a thing exists, you ask:
Is betting allowed? Not since the controversial match of 1957, when Red Owl threw the contest by intentionally putting the conspicuous bunch of celery upside down, an instant disqualification.
Have they ever stopped a match? Once, in 1999, when a down-on-his-luck Mike Tyson bit off an ear (of corn).
Is there a plastic event? Sure, just like there's a beer frame in pro bowling, or a whiffle-ball inning in Major League Baseball. No, there's no plastic. There's no art in plastic.
Art? you scoff. Bagging is not an art, you say. It does not require 15 years of apprenticeship at the feet of a master. But it should. Teach me to bag, sir! I have come from the provinces to learn in your studio. Very well, grasshopper. Take this small bottle of olives. Put it in this bag, then take it out. Repeat until I tell you to stop.
A year later: "Master, I have put the olives in. I have taken the olives out. Please let me learn how to judge whether the meat shall be wrapped in plastic, even though it is wrapped in plastic already. Mysteries such as these consume me."
Olives in, my impatient friend. Olives out.
And then one day a decade later, the acolyte is bagging a huge order, the items tumbling down the belt in confusing profusion. Kleenex, strawberries, a discus of cold, solid pizza. There's no rhyme or reason, no order -- and suddenly he has to rebalance the bag. He deftly plucks the olives from one bag and moves them to another, by instinct. Without a second thought.
He hears the master's voice: You have learned well, my son.
I asked Justin, who bags at Kowalski's on Lyndale Avenue S., to explain the discipline.
"Time, structure and weight," he said. "And attitude -- a smile for the customer." Ah, the intangibles. But the rest are simple.
Time is obvious: Not saying the bagger should move so fast that his arms are like hummingbird wings, but when you see the mold actually start to form on the cheese, let's step it up, OK?
Structure is key: A good bagger frames the paper sack, gives it walls and a foundation, arranges by density; a bad bagger puts the potato chips at the bottom and drops a can of pasta sauce on top. Then bananas. Then maybe a Duraflame log. Oh, and let me space out all the frozens so they're in four bags, instead of putting them together where they can consolidate their coldness and work together.
And weight: Obviously, you don't want the bag handles coming apart because it's overstuffed and they used cat spit to glue the handles on. But this leads to the great Milk Controversy, which could split the bagging world right down the middle.
Yes, I want my milk in a bag.
I know it has a handle. But I want to get everything inside the house in one trip: two bags per forearm, one 12-pack of soda per hand, grunting up the stairs like Rocky on some absurd old-school training exercise. Put the milk bladders in plastic bags, and I can thread my arms through the handles and use my back to carry them. If I have to, I'll put the sacks of potatoes on the sled in the garage and run the tow rope around my waist, and kick the big bottle of dishwashing detergent up the steps. Two trips is a sign of failure.
Not saying there should be competitive bag-carrying, but if there is, I'm game.
Good luck to everyone at the contest, and remember: Tempting as it is to spike the ball if you win, remember -- that's a cantaloupe.