The free samples are fine for kids, but adults blocking the lanes and camping out for 5 cents worth of chips need to move along

At the risk of being unpopular, I'm going to use the soap box allotted to me by the Woodburn Independent this week to attack an American institution that I feel has long overstayed its welcome. That's right, I'm talking about the free samples at Costco.

In my youth, a trip to the Kirkland, Washington-based bulk food depository was a suitable stand-in for any weekend recreational activity. I used to love roaming the aisles of the Costco, darting in between throngs of shoppers to snag thimble-sized morsels of snacks while my mom stocked up on groceries for the month.

But as I have grown into a wizened man of 34 years, the delight I once felt at eating a meal's worth of free food in bite-size portions has turned into the type of contempt and loathing I reserve only for hangnails, door-to-door canvassers and NPR donor drives.

The transition happened somewhere during the 10-year period in my late teens and early 20s when I no longer needed enough bulk food to choke a donkey. As I began to release myself from the financial tether of my parents, three-figure trips to Costco were no longer necessary or affordable.

But once I found stable employment and began raising a family, the siren song of Costco began reaching out to me once again. When I returned, everything was pretty much the same, but it wasn't.

The joy I once felt on a weekend bulk grocery trip was replaced with confusion and chaos as I bumped elbows with the crowded flock of humans all jockeying for position to get that last 128-ounce jug of maple syrup.

Costco had become a place of stygian madness. The congestion and cacophony of SUV-sized shopping carts crashing against each other was like a parallel universe where "Supermarket Sweep" had been fused together with a demolition derby.

And in the middle of this pandemonium sat the free sample displays.

Carefully placed at the end of each aisle, these monstrous spectacles of gluttony attract shoppers like insects to a bug zapper. It doesn't matter if there is actually free food available at the sample displays, people are perfectly content to form a nebulous mob around the table and wait for the toaster oven to spew forth 5 cents worth of strudel or whatever is being peddled.

Shopping is already an exercise in stress management, but this adds a perverse layer that boggles my mind. The sample displays are always placed at the end of aisles so they can attract the most customers, but that's also the problem.

Picture a grocery store as a series of roads, and at the end of every aisle is an intersection. Now, what happens when you place a huge magnet for people in the middle of that intersection? It creates a giant traffic jam.

With Costco's gigantic shopping carts, all it takes is two or three people to clog up the end of the aisle, oblivious to the dozens of shoppers around them as they patiently wait for that tiny paper cup of food.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the impulse — the immediate reward of free calories triggers this animal-like instinct in our brain to ignore the trappings of society and give in to this sweet little dopamine rush. It's exactly what I loved about it as a child, and I have no problem seeing kids get to experience that same feeling when I'm at Costco.

And some people simply use the free samples as an actual test to see if they want to commit themselves to actually buying the product.

But it's the adults who raise my ire. The ones who don't realize or don't care that they're inconveniencing those around them, blissfully ignorant to the dozens of people behind them who are rerouted or forced to wait for them to finish their forkful of fettuccini Alfredo. The ones who go back for that second and third portion, treating it as their own private buffet.

And again, I realize this is an unpopular opinion; that I'm going down with the Titanic on this one. But I don't care. I hate the Costco free samples, and if they disappeared tomorrow, I'd be the first pumping my fist like Tiger Woods sinking a 24-foot putt.

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