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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Going to the grocery store is a pretty mundane activity. But the lists that we take with us can be fascinating pieces of anthropology. At least they are to a Los Angeles-based performance artist named Hillary Carlip. Day to Day's Alex Cohen has more.

ALEX COHEN host:

Hillary Carlip found her first discarded grocery list when she was 15 years old.

Ms. HILLARY CARLIP (Performance Artist): I was in New York and it was in front of the Red Apple Market. And it was so fascinating to me, because amongst other items, there were a lot of items, but there were Twizzlers, peanut brittle and gum. And it was on the back of a dental appointment reminder card. And I just thought, OK, there's really something to this.

COHEN: Since then Carlip has collected thousands of these lists. She's found them all over the US, even in Europe.

Ms. CARLIP: Well, usually they're in a market, either in the little trash can behind the register, or on the counter, or just randomly in the market. I've found them on the streets, I've found them, you know I've been known to do, in back of the market, a little dumpster diving, if they're on top and they're clean and I have protective gloves.

COHEN: Carlip goes to such great lengths because she believes you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their shopping lists.

Ms. CARLIP: It's not only the items that are being bought. But it's also the handwriting, the kind of paper it's written on, the misspellings - I love the misspellings. One of my favorites is aunt spray, A-U-N-T. Of course for those pesky relatives.

COHEN: These lists, Hillary Carlip says, are like little memoirs. And so she thought why not bring them to life?

Ms. CARLIP: I at first did them on stage, in performance pieces where I would literally get a shopping cart and just go across the stage as these different characters and recite what was on the list. And then it transformed over the years, until finally, you know it seemed like the right time for a book now because we're such a voyeuristic society right now. And every one's like, the whole YouTube phenomena is people are watching these glimpses into these strangers' lives. And to me, I thought people were really ready to get a glimpse into these people through their shopping lists.

COHEN: For her book "A La Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers," Carla picked out 26 of her favorite shopping lists and created characters for them. She'd decide if the lists belonged to a man or a woman, how old they were, what race they were, if they were gay or straight. And then she'd carefully scour the list, looking for any clue into these people's lives.

Ms. CARLIP: You have to be a sleuth, you do. I found one recently that had tortillas 1 p-T. And I was like, what's that about? Like a pack, is that maybe a K not a T, or - can't be a pint. And so I kept looking at the list, and then I saw a W-W-yogurt. And I was like, OK, what is that? So the more I looked into it, I went OK, it's got to be Weight Watchers yogurt, and in Weight Watchers they count points. So it was one point tortillas.

COHEN: That kind of item could belong to an overweight person desperately trying to become thin, or a skinny person who had once been heavier, and now eats very particularly to stay trim. Hillary made these kinds of choices for her characters and she gave them names. She also went shopping to find just the right clothes for these characters to wear. She went to thrift stores, to make sure the outfits have been worn by real people many times before. And then she enlisted the help of a makeup artist friend.

Ms. CARLIP: It was really interesting that my makeup artist, Dominie(ph) Till, had a lot to contribute. Because here I thought I had come up with these characters and Maggie, for instance, I found her outfit, and the wig. And she took a look at the list, and what I was doing, and she went you know what? I think she's totally freckled! And I was like, yeah, I could see that! And suddenly my entire body was covered with freckles, and it added so much.

COHEN: Carlip, in full makeup and costume, went to various supermarkets that reflected each character, from local liquor stores to upscale groceries. And then she had her picture taken for each of these personalities. There's Bernadette, her cart full of hot dogs and ketchup standing in front of the racks of jumbo-size mustard bottles. Orlando clutching his list scrawled on Court TV stationery in front of the cookie aisle. In addition to the photographs, Carlip also wrote short essays that give a glimpse into each of these characters' lives. For example, there's Graciela, whose list is scrawled in Spanish on plain pieces of paper and includes basic items like milk, sugar, ham and potatoes.

Ms. CARLIP: Graciela never dreamed that La Casa Verdei Pikenyei(ph), the restaurant her parents left to her and her two brothers, would go from barely getting by in a run-down neighborhood, to becoming one of the trendiest restaurants in San Antonio, booked weeks in advance. Viva la gentrification and the gays!

COHEN: The essay goes on to describe Graciela's success as an immigrant from Guadalajara. The items in her list make it into the essay too.

Ms. CARLIP: Lately, Graciela has been exhausted. Between managing the restaurant, taking care of her home-bound husband who has a chronic kidney condition, shopping for her granddaughter's Kingsanara(ph), and cooking her famous ham and cheese vegetable casserole for the event. It's surprising Graciela has any energy left to plan La Casa Verdei Pikenyei's float for the upcoming gay pride parade.

COHEN: There's also Derek, the Goth boy, whose list simply includes mousetraps, cheese - mouse. Dr. Bloom, whose list, written on Prozac stationery, leads to a story about a therapist inviting Gloria Steinem over for dinner. And the shortest and smallest list in the book, just Coors and Oreos, written on a matchbook that inspires the story of Woody. For Woody's pages, Carlip composed an online dating profile.

Ms. CARLIP: Physical info. I am 5.7. I weigh 170 pounds. My hair is brown, long. Facial hair - got a Fu Manchu. My eyes are brown, almost black - and sexy. My body style is closest to the guy who sings lead in Aerosmith - but his lips are bigger.

COHEN: Hillary actually posted Woody's profile on the site eHarmony. He still gets email queries to this day. Woody and the other characters in her book "A La Cart" have been such a success, Hillary Carlip is now in talks to turn her shopping list shtick into a series for television. Alex Cohen, NPR News.

CHADWICK: You can see some of the shopping lists and the characters that Hillary Carlip has turned them into at our blog that's npr.org/daydream. While you're there, why don't you submit a shopping list of your own, because Hillary has agreed to turn a character from one of your shopping lists and we'll feature that later on the blog. Again, npr.org/daydream.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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