For the past few years J and I have lived next to a grocery store. It glows at night. If you listen you can hear the hum. Sometimes I smoke on our patio and watch people walk past with their arms full of grocery bags. When you live this close to a grocery store you don't buy a lot of groceries at a time. You buy what you can carry. We shop almost every day to get what we need. We don't have a lot of food in the apartment but we’re OK. If you get hungry in the middle of the night, I think there are saltines in the pantry.
Food always looks better in the grocery store anyway. I fight the urge to lick things. Look up. The lettuce is lit by LED show-lights, a blinding ring of tiny white bulbs. A halo for every potato. This produce is transcendent. Art-like: the grocery store is aisle after aisle of Warholian image repetition. Thirty-two Campbell’s soup cans. Twelve dozen packages of Grillr Dog Bacon Wrapped Smoked Sausages. One hundred squeeze bottles of Silverback Gorill'n Sauce (these copywriters are performing high wire backflips before our very eyes!). The Trix rabbit copied and pasted to a vanishing point. This place not only satiates our hunger, it destroys the idea of hunger itself. Eat, drink, repeat, repeat, repeat.
The day before Thanksgiving I am in the grocery store shopping for corn. I am doing some last minute corn-shopping. But I'm too late. There has been a corn rush. Now the corn is all gone. There are kernels on the ground. They've thawed and gone slippery. The corn section of the freezer is empty. I am repulsed by this emptiness, by the space on the shelf, by the lack. I expect my grocery store to be bursting. I expect my produce to be piled into high, Jenga-like towers. And I expect there to be corn. When the Israelite scouts came back from Canaan they described grape clusters so large they were carried by two men. We got kicked out of The Garden and we've been looking for it ever since. This corn-less shelf briefly breaks the illusion (delusion) of the grocery store. There is an end to things. It is possible to run out. I settle for Green Giant vegetable medley and a bag of crinkle cut carrots and try to forget what I have seen.
In the grocery store I suspend disbelief. I pretend I haven't seen behind the milk, an area that feels distinctly off stage. I once reached for a carton of 2% and met eyes with a man on the other side.
When we go grocery shopping we buy things that will keep us alive. This is where we get our medicine and meat. A modern act of survival. We might be tapping into something primal here. Shoppers roam the aisles. The whole place buzzes with a slight sense of panic. Recently they started offering shoppers wine.
Shopping is philosophically primal but aesthetically clinical. The lights are clean white LEDs. Unbearably bright. There is not a shadow in the place. The cart wheels squeak and wobble like a gurney. The sushi staff wear white lab coats and blue latex gloves. After awhile you can go catatonic. I've seen it happen. Shoppers walk around in a Halcion daze. There is a reason I get out as fast as I can.
Confession: I like—have always liked—the smell inside a grocery store freezer. I stick my head in and take a few deep breaths. What am I smelling in here? Some cold-making compound? Freezer exhaust? Or the deep-inside odor of the grocery store itself? I've heard they pump chemicals into the air that make shoppers hungry. When I re-emerge my glasses burst into two white circles. The look of a man who has received some revelation in the form of an ultra-bright flashbulb. I take a few steps back.
If we are what we eat, are we made by those who feed us? Are we our grocery store's product? A product of produce? An accumulation of Stouffer's Family-Size Lasagnas? A walking, talking pile of groceries? I have more than once walked to the grocery store, done a lap, and then walked home again, having bought nothing, and having no idea why I came here the first place. It's just a place that I go. The sign out front buzzes like a million-watt bug zapper.
I'm not in love with the grocery store, if that's what you're thinking! I'm not even particularly fond of it to be honest with you. But I would be lying if I said it wasn't important to me. When I talk about this grocery store, I talk about it in the first person possessive. Mine. "My grocery store this," "My grocery store that." I brag about the sushi bar.
The grocery store is seasonal. You can't always get good pears. In the summer, an employee stands out front grilling hot dogs. It's not the same guy who hands out coupons. That's a different guy. (I don’t know people’s names.) The hotdog guy pushes the hotdogs around and holds one up when you walk past. He says, "Hotdog?" You take the hotdog.
In the winter, the entrance is surrounded by Christmas trees. Every time you come back to the store, the trees are a little bit deader. Now the hot dog employee is a Christmas tree employee. He wears a Santa hat and helps you wrap your tree with twine. This is not his normal job. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. The tree stays the same size it was before but now it has some twine on it.
On Super Bowl Weekend somebody constructs a giant Super Bowl display in the entrance using nothing but cases of Coke and Sunkist. The structure almost reaches the ceiling. It's over my head. A small spectacle to get you in the mood to SHOP SHOP SHOP!
Often I will walk into the grocery store and be surprised to learn what time of year it is.
Oh, I think. Fall. It's Fall again.
Recently the grocery store put up an electric fence to keep shoppers from stealing their carts. The fence lines the perimeter of the parking lot. If you walk past, the wheels lock. By the end of the day, the electric fence is visible in the form of abandoned grocery carts. (When you walk into the grocery store parking lot you are entering some sort of field.)
Other than electric fences and self-check out lanes, though, Grocery stores are more or less exactly the same as when I was a kid. A rare consistency in our topsy-turvy world. I used to marvel at the automatic doors. Not even the internet has changed the way we shop for groceries. Have we finally found something tech-proof? Humans still run this show.
My grocery store correspondent tells me that most people buy the same things on the same days. One day everyone is buying rotisserie chickens and Febreze. The next day it's all fruit and cabbage. "Most days I know what people want before they do," she tells me. We are at a wedding but that's not information you need. Excess, repetition, superfluity: the virtues of the grocery store do not translate to the essay. This document will not be an object lesson.
In the grocery store everyone walks around at the same pace, a rhythm set subconsciously by forgettably pleasant music. 103 beats per minute. The same tempo as the human heart (and, not coincidentally, the Bee Gee's song Staying Alive). When the two-for-one shrimp sale announcement comes on people look up at the ceiling. Every good and perfect gift is from above. A collective reverence for significant savings. A pod of shoppers change course.
We buy and buy and buy and buy and still the shelves are full. Still the freezers are stocked. The illusion heals over. Is there a bottom to these apple baskets? Is there an end to the Hungry Man Meat Loaf and Potato Dinners? I like to imagine the shelves filling from behind like spring-loaded napkin dispensers.
I like to imagine that, but I know better. I know, for example, about the night crew. A group of nocturnal teenagers who reset the place while we sleep. They enter through the side doors. "Back to one, people!" The leader claps his hands twice.
Take a step back and see yourself as part of the grocery store industrial complex. The Kirkland ecosystem. If you don't eat this food, it's going to rot on the shelf. The bananas are already turning brown (make muffins!). They have the supply, now make your demands. This waterwheel is turned by your hunger. This economy is built on the rumblies in your tumblies. Follow your gut to the restaurant style chips and salsa on aisle five. This store is designed to lead you from one thing to the next, from left to right, from the bakery to the pharmacy (bread of life, industry of death) where you can get your pills and sprays and store-brand cherry-flavored cough drops. In sickness and in health. The floating banner above the check out lanes reminds me that it's flu season. There are shots available if you want one.
I should tell you that I have some insider's knowledge on the subject. I worked in a grocery store my junior year of high school. I sold the shrimp. At lunch they took me through the double doors, to the back. They said, "Here it is, the back." A giant empty space where customers were not allowed to go. Someone had built a half pipe out of fruit boxes and plywood. A man was juggling old oranges with circus-level dexterity. Along the back wall there were years-worth of promotional displays, their cardboard celebrity faces wrinkling from moisture and age. I said, "All of this is wonderful but it's not for me." I walked to the manager's office and handed her my nametag, having already seen too much.
Of course we are not interested in the inner workings of our local Albertsons, Kroger, Tom Thumb or whatever name means "grocery store" to you. We do not want to hear about the perilous journey of a Chiquita banana. We cannot empathize with a peach. We are not curious where sugar snap snow peas were hiding ten years ago or why they have suddenly found their way into the spotlight. We're just hungry is all. Remember what happened to Adam and Eve when they started asking too many questions? The less we know the better.
On Monday morning our street is littered with last week's SuperSaver coupon sheets. The cheap color ink is already fading. Red Delicious apples turning grey in the sunlight. Soon the pages will go blank. "Think of the missed savings!" I tell J. The sheets tumble down Mockingbird toward US75.
I have more than once shopped inside a dying grocery store. They bleed the place dry, you know. I bought bottles of wine for a dollar each. Filled a cart with them. The shelves were emptying and they would not be restocked. Shoppers scurried through the aisles, eyes peeled for a bargain. A feeding frenzy. Ants inside the carcass of a whale. In the usual space illusion, the emptier the store got the smaller it seemed. The place shrank around us. I was stocking up on Cups O Noodles when J touched my arm. "We should go," she said. All the white light in the store was turning yellow.
I once watched a mid-aisle display of Prego spaghetti sauce come crashing down as if it were held up by my beliefs alone.
Let’s get religious for a second. (As if everything I’ve said so far hasn’t passed over the rotten mishmash of Sunday school platitudes I carry around inside my bowels.) God's instructions on grocery shopping are, at best, little mixed-message. Are we supposed to store up food for the winter like the wise and noble ant (Proverbs 30:25)? Or are we supposed to live kernel-to-kernel like the hey-let's-all-just-have-a-good-time-out-here birds of the air (Matthew 6:26)? Per usual, we have to decide for ourselves. Most of the food in our apartment is going bad. We do not understand the functionality of the crisper drawer. Lately I've been eating inside the grocery store. There is a small dining area. I buy a salad and some juice. Steal a few almonds. I'm cutting out the middle man and shoving groceries directly into my mouth.
A quick peak behind writer's curtain: At this point I have repeated the word "grocery" so many times it has stopped sounding like a word that means something. Excess leads to meaninglessness. (I was wrong: this is an object lesson.) "Grocery" is a piece of gum I keep chewing on that has lost its flavor. I'm looking for a trashcan like a responsible shopper. Soon I might have to settle for the bottom of someone's shoe. When I say "grocery" in my head, all I hear is gross.
But how about just a little more for the sake of excessiveness? For the sake of more-than-necessary? We will never get to the bottom of this anyway. Underneath the bananas there are more bananas. And if we run out of those bananas, there are bananas in the back. On aisle nine there are five dozen Marie Calendar Chicken Pot Pies about to go on manager's SuperSale. In the sea food department there is a pile of jumbo shrimp that’s bigger than your body. Behind the fish oil supplements there are more fish oil supplements. You take a bottle and another bottle appears. They fill in from the back. Spring-loaded. Life is sad and empty but you don't need to worry about your fish oil supplements. And you don't need to worry about your shrimp. Listen. There are plenty of bananas to go around. Have a banana. They’re not infinite but we can pretend. (Also, have you seen the size of these grapes?!) This might not be the paradise we wanted, but it’s the one next door. We have everything we need here to be OK. The brand of milk J and I buy is called “Promised Land.”