We are living in a time of great uncertainty. Tumult, even. People are upset. There’s angst. Indignation. Calls for a return to normalcy. There are some citizens of Wallowa County, to be sure, who are not bothered with the current state of affairs. They perhaps even embrace it. But most everybody I’ve talked to lately is scandalized by Safeway moving everything around in the Enterprise store.

I could see maybe moving the bread over one aisle, just for kicks, if you simply had to stir the pot to meet a corporate directive on a change of layout. Maybe shuffle the bottled water over with the sodey pop and seltzer, instead of where it used to be with the hot chickens. That never made sense. But a complete shuffling of the deck? Near as I can tell, the new organizational scheme was created by writing the names of grocery items on ping pong balls and then pulling them out of a Bingo ball machine. “OK, aisle six … let’s see … hair care products. Next item … pet food. Aaaaand … hot sauce. Great. Next up, aisle seven.”

It used to be the only discouraging word I heard about going to Safeway had nothing at all to do with Safeway. I’ve heard from numerous local folks over the years that the biggest strain of grocery shopping in Wallowa County is how time consuming it can be, since you’re likely to encounter friends and neighbors in the store and are obliged to stop and visit. This is true. We’ve all leaned against our cart in the produce section and settled in for a visit. This is also conclusive evidence that human beings have adapted to complain about everything. “You know what gets my goat? How sociable people are in this close-knit community. Just once I’d like to purchase food among strangers and not be bothered by meaningful human interaction. Oh, wouldn’t that be nice.”

Lately, though, the principle topic of discussion in Safeway is how you can’t find anything. Several times I’ve had people look up and ask, “Why?” with no preamble, but I knew exactly what they were getting at. I shrugged. Followup question: “Why would they do this?” I shook my head. Then the conspiracy theories start: “Do they think we’re going to buy more stuff by making us wander around looking for things?”

Based on the reactions I’ve been noticing, if this was in fact the intent, the Safeway-Albertsons team might as well have moved the entire store across town without notifying anyone. That type of newness would likely have met with more customer satisfaction than this current situation where buying food in what seems like familiar territory has turned into a scavenger hunt.

Look, Safeway, I’m not trying to be critical. Well, I am. I can’t find anything in your store. But you gave me my first real job, Safeway, back when I was in high school. Remember? The store in Thurston, Ore. I counted bottle returns in the back. You would not believe what people put in or leave in bags with bottles and cans to return for deposit. I once looked down at a used diaper among the fermented sticky cans inside a dripping plastic sack. Gross. Looking back, I wish they’d restructured the layout of the Thurston store to make it impossible for people to find me. On a sidenote: the invention of bottle return machines strikes me as a giant leap forward. Seems like a good case of technology taking over the job of a human.

You hear the argument that us rubes out here in eastern Oregon are set in antiquated modes and ways of thinking. We resist change. We’re not progressive. Turns out that’s all true, especially if it means we can’t find the canned peas because they’re over where the baby wipes used to be. Change is rough. But I’m sure all us grocery shoppers in the county will somehow manage. Personally, I’ve just been buying whatever is sitting in the place where the thing I want used to be. Makes for some interesting concoctions. Tonight I’m having baked pickles and magazines with a zesty shampoo sauce. Mmmm.

Jon Rombach is a local columnist for the Chieftain.

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