Frenzy in the Aisles--or, When Squeezing a Juicy Tomato Is OK

It's just one of those evenings. Picture this in your local supermarket: A shriek rings out at the fruit department. Two lines of young men and women grab at oranges, bananas and melons and pass them down the chain, from one to the other between their legs, under their chins, between their elbows. A roaring crowd is cheering the race on.

Two aisles over, between the freezer chests, another group has set up paper towels like ninepins and is bowling toilet paper rolls at them.

Up near the deli a woman is racing around waving a card and shouting, "Romeo! Romeo! Wherefore art thou?" Or words to that effect.

Sound unfamiliar? Well, it could be coming to your supermarket soon, if last Friday's experiment catches on.

A supermarket singles night.

It is largely the creation of Mindy Goss, a North County public relations consultant. Or rather, it is her clients' adoption of a concept already well-tried back East. For once, a crazy idea is coming to California, not from it. Supermarket singles nights have become regular monthly events, especially in the Midwest, where 2,000 to 3,000 singles turn the grocery aisles into social avenues that replace liquor, low lights and loud music with boisterous teen-type evenings of flirtation through parlor games.

It's almost Victorian in concept. Yet, right now, east of the Rockies, it is very in, very cool. The idea is to stage familiar events in unfamiliar surroundings; to provide snacks and soft drinks with plenty of games and prizes, and to do everybody, including the supermarket, a bit of good.

With Goss, the idea was one step wider. She had two clients, a North County food store, Casady's, and a dating service, Successful Singles. About a month ago, talk among the three suddenly coalesced into the idea. Why not combine singles service and the supermarket and emulate those success stories Back East?

Friday evening begins quietly enough. Sponsor K-Lite radio sets up its giant "Lite" bulb outside Casady's, a haven for unwaxed apples, unsprayed veggies, wild honey and cashew-nut butters. By 7 p.m., Rick Rockwell, "Skippy" of TV's "San Diego At Large" fame, and Pam Finn of K-Lite were ready to roll.

The age range is surprising. Real young people aren't here. It's 25 to, well, 65 and beyond. The social spectrum encompasses advertising execs, realtors, some of North County's followers of the Bhagwan Rajneesh.

"OK, everybody," booms the mike. "It's party time! Look at the name on your card you got when you came in. I want the first Fawn Hall and Ollie North who can find each other to come to me here and collect two sa-weat shirts!"

And suddenly, the evening takes off. For sure, the non-threatening atmosphere of the supermarket helps. This is no deep-breathing partner-search. People are learning to be kids again. To play. The aisles are scurrying with people calling a dozen names.

"Any Ollies?"

"I gotta find a Tammy!"

"My name's Chuck. Who am I supposed to be looking for?" Up comes this 65-ish woman. Her intro tag says "Blanche/Juliet/Hot/ No. 9" (which are: real name/match name/opposite quality/number).

"You Romeo by any chance?"

Juliet turns out to be a merry widow who lives in the neighborhood.

"Don't worry about me," she says. "I'm just cruisin'. Always cruising. I'm here for nothing but fun. Cruising. That's what I do! Been on four (cruises) since my husband died. Next I'm going to Panama. But this is great, isn't it? Just what North County needs. My husband and I moved up here after 42 years in San Diego. Soon as we got here, he died. I didn't know a soul. This is the kind of thing they need. Uh, excuse me, I've got to find my Romeo."

The mikes announce a game of "opposites."

"Hey, anybody," calls a younger woman. "I'm Oil. What's the opposite of oil? Water? Vinegar? Lava soap?"

Eight Marriages

"This is fabulous," says Terry-Sue Berg, the president of Successful Singles. "Who knows what tonight will produce? Since we've been operating we've already had eight marriages."

A 6-foot fake-feathered robin waltzes by just as the "Friendly Fun with the Fruit Line" is getting under way. Rick Rockwell, who's starring in the soon-to-be-released film "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" as a black-market tomato racketeer (specialty: "Acapulco Red"), has them lined up on each side of the fresh fruit tables. At the top end, two baskets of assorted fruits. At the other, two empty buckets.

"Now remember," he says, "no hands."

Team 2 wins. Lisa/Lucy/Hot/ No.2 was on the other team. She's not worried. She's a single mother in her late 20s who's only just come out of the isolation of bearing and rearing a first child alone. For coming out of the cold, she credits Berg.

"She's great. She has a child suffering from a brain tumor, so she knows what it's about. She says you've got to force yourself to get out and meet people. She doesn't like the video approach. Too separating, cold. She makes you get out there, one on one, like here.

"They need something like this in North County. This is not like the bars, where everybody is playing roles. Here you're not threatened. You can be more natural. They should have had this supermarket idea before."

Limbo Contest

Down in the paper section where the toilet paper bowling alley was, they're holding a limbo contest.

"My gosh!" says a diminutive 29-year-old dynamo called Connie, watching horrified as a bookish-looking guy struggles under the bar. "If my mom saw this, she'd never let us back in a supermarket. She'd say, 'Singles bars--they're bad enough. And now in a grocery store. It's not safe!' She's a Mormon. Salt Lake City. That's the way we are."

Even now, though she's not active in the church any more, Connie had her brother bring her here this evening. Connie runs a "Wellness Clinic" at one of the Scripps Memorial hospitals--good nutrition, stress reduction. Tonight she's been running round so much she has to open the freezer foods door to cool off.

It's almost 10. They've finally decided who's won the "What's My Line" contest. Rockwell and Finn call everyone up front for the grand prize-giving.

The prize goes to one of those guys whose quick line of patter blinds you to the fact that he isn't broad of shoulder, lantern-jawed, blue-eyed and blond.

His entry: "You look like a girl who's heard all the opening lines, so one more isn't going to hurt you."

"I want," he says in his acceptance speech of a $50 restaurant voucher, "to thank all the girls who've rejected me throughout my life and made this night possible."

Regular Feature?

The party's breaking up. There have been about 300 come to play, well down on the 3,000 you hear about packing the aisles back East. What's more, most seem to be going as they came, groups of men and clusters of women.

But people are crowding around Mindy Goss wanting to know if this is going to be regular.

That's still to be decided here at Casady's. The owners have enjoyed it--though one has slightly gritted teeth--and the fun. But it cost a lot, maybe $5,000, for snacks, security and radio advertising. Still, part-owner Jane Twining thinks it's a great idea. She's got faith in it.

One thing's sure: Most of the participants want more.

"This was the first time I could actually enjoy myself with men without feeling I had to play the game," said one female guest. "The first time I could actually hear myself speak, and see the guy. There's something great about just playing innocent games, in a non-threatening environment. And see--everybody looks happy and nobody got drunk."

"Hey, if this is for yuppies," says the "What's My Line?" prize winner as he walks out into the warm night, "I think the next one should be held in a bank. They'd give you a label that says, 'Hi, my account number is . . . and my balance is . . . .' Then you'd know from the start if you're right for each other . . . ."

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