NPR logo The Grocery List Psychic-Detective

Culture

The Grocery List Psychic-Detective

Left: Courtesy Byron Locke, Right: Photographed by Barbara Green, Make-up by Dominie Till

You can glean a lot about a person from their grocery list. Artist Hillary Carlip constructed the character above at right, in the blue shirt, based on a grocery list created by the man on the left, in the green jacket. While interpreting the list, she did not know whether the author was a man or a woman, old or young, white or Chinese-American — only that he was shopping for a better 35mm camera bag, the movie The Jerk and a portable urinal.

And yet, she managed to deduce from the clues in his ultra-organized, typed list that he was in his 40s, with gray hair and a beard. Not too shabby, eh?

A little back story: In July, we interviewed Carlip about her book, A La Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers. She told us that since she was a child she's been collecting lists and pondering who they belong to. More recently, she started dressing up as these imagined authors, going shopping and taking photos of her as them. Sometimes she's a hotty named Pammy, and sometimes she's an old man in a wheelchair. (You can see a gallery of some of her characters here.) At the end of the interview, we asked our listeners to send their grocery lists.

Article continues after sponsorship

We sort of assumed people were over sending things by snail mail — but send they did. Lists came in all shapes and sizes, on stationary from the show The Office and on the backs of grease-stained envelopes. (You can see a gallery of the lists here.) From the stack of dozens, Carlip picked one that was typed and meticulously organized into the categories food, clothing, high-tech and booze.

And then it was time for her grocery list analysis. Part detective, part psychic, she read the "clues" — blue blazer, khaki slacks, large alligator clip — like they were Rorschach ink blots. (Hear her talk about her process with host Alex Cohen on Day to Day this morning).

The end result of her investigation was "Jeff." She imagined that he was 42 with gray hair and a beard. He had a family dental practice and was married with kids and a dog.

Though she was off on a lot of the personal history, Jeff does have a dentist in the family and she got the look almost right.

His only comment, when we sent him her creation based off his list: "Interesting, interesting, a little sinister."

About