VASHON ISLAND — One starts in English, and veers into Japanese. Another calls for “hand soap, toothbrushes, white wine, Frank’s Red Hot and ice.” But then, “Collander?” They’re not quite sure.
“Testosterone prescription need 2 be more specific on dosage,” one list begins, and ends with “Exema. Steroid prescription?”
You could stand at the Snapdragon Bakery & Cafe on Vashon Island for hours, reading the shopping lists that Madi Gateman has turned to art — an exhibit called “Lists & Lights” that tells the story of this community through discarded scraps of paper describing individual needs and worries and wants.
“To me, it says, ‘Hey, community: This is you. This is all of us together,’ ” said Gateman, 21. “It’s completely anonymous. It’s the shared vulnerability of people I know and people I don’t know and people who still believe that writing things down is important.”
It all started in 2015, when Gateman got a job as a courtesy clerk at the Vashon Thriftway while still in high school. She would stand at the end of the checkout and bag groceries, but also take note of what people were buying. She figured out what they were making for dinner. And if they brought their own bags, well, that told her something, too.
“It was fun to create a narrative for somebody and pretend that I knew who they were based on their core needs,” she said. “Or the things they didn’t really need. Like ice cream or beer. The things to distract them from existence. Or just something to eat in the car.”
She watched as customers handed their lists to the checker — “Can you throw this away?” — with a certain urgency.
“It seemed like they didn’t want anyone to see it, they wanted it to go to the landfill and not exist,” Gateman said. “Maybe they were afraid of vulnerability, maybe that was the manifestation of fear, of vulnerability, of their intimate parts being exposed.”
Gateman would collect the lists from the cashiers but also from shopping baskets, the counter near the bulk goods, the aisle floors that had to be swept every hour.
“I found myself crouching down, digging through the garbage,” she said. “It got kind of weird, but I didn’t care.”
She would stuff them in her apron pocket, then stick them in her locker until they started falling out. At home, she put them in a Rubbermaid bin until one day, she decided there were enough shopping lists for, well … something.
“I had no idea what I was going to do,” she said. “The lists would appear, and I knew I had to hold onto them, but I didn’t know why.”
Bea Freese, who retired from the Thriftway last month after 19 years, used to save lists for Gateman.
“The choice of paper for the lists … their child’s homework, or drawings their kids had done,” Freese said. “It was interesting to see a snippet of someone’s life. It gives you something you wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Said her husband, Bill Freese, who runs Bill’s Bread: “From my standpoint, there’s a little voyeurism in there. They’re exposing something. Things they had to do that afternoon. Crazy parts of their lives.”
Gateman quit working at the store in 2016 and started working as a dishwasher at the Snapdragon Bakery & Cafe, where co-owner Adam Cone would let her accompany him on weekly visits to the former Cash & Carry, now Smart Foodservice Warehouse, in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood.
“It was like, list heaven,” Gateman said of the store, frequented by restaurant owners. “The supreme place to find the most glorious lists ever written. Some of them in Spanish. Some written on guest checks.”
Gateman had always been an artist, doing contour drawings, watercolor and collage. But she wasn’t sure what to work on next. Then she was sorting through her collection of lists — she estimates she has 700 — and had an epiphany.
“It had been here the entire time!” she said. “It all clicked. Lists, dude! Lists!”
Last fall, she presented the idea of an exhibit to Cone’s wife and Snapdragon co-owner Megan Hastings, who has regular art shows at the cafe. She was a little skeptical, unsure how it would work.
“I could tell she was like, ‘Uh, OK, weirdo. I love you, but prove it to me,’ ” Gateman recalled.
Gateman made a few list collages on canvas, and put lists on both sides of a window frame and around a prayer candle. Then she started covering the walls of the cafe. The biggest section took four hours and made Gateman’s thumbs raw.
“I stepped back and I looked at them, and I’m pretty sure I cried,” she said.
Gateman has had a lot of time to think about what shopping lists say about us. For starters, they’re not just lists. They’re intimate in that we collect their contents in our minds, in our homes and about our needs.
“In a world of technology, grocery lists and writing letters are a lost art,” she said. “They’re like relics. They’re artifacts. I’m surprised I have so many because you walk around and people are looking at their phones.”
Shopping lists express our core needs, and therefore our vulnerabilities, she said.
“It strips you down to your most basic fragility,” she said. “It’s a reminder that you are human, of the mortal coil. You want to be self-sustaining, individual, autonomous beings, but that’s not true. We can’t be.”
Bill and Bea Freese came to the opening and were excited to be part of it.
“It was one of the most well-received shows,” Bill Freese said. “I think she knows something we don’t, that we take for granted.”
And what is that?
“God, I don’t know,” he said. “But something that has happened since seeing the show. I go shopping and I have this little list and I feel really weird about throwing it away. I don’t know what to do with it.”