Years ago, when my wife and I were courting and in college, we had a little ditty we sang from time to time, after Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. “If I were a rich man … I wouldn’t shop at Pantry Pride.”…
Pantry Pride was the supermarket in Haledon, New Jersey, my girlfriend’s hometown. It supplanted the old A & P on lower Belmont Avenue, where our mothers wheeled us up and down the aisles when we were small. Brighter and better stocked, Pantry Pride needn’t have turned up a rich man’s nose, provided it wasn’t too turned-up to begin with. Kathy had worked there as a checkout clerk during her junior year of high school… But the job was well behind her by the time she and I were dibby-dumming down the sidewalk. By then she was working summers in a laundry at the Little Sisters of the Poor and later in a plastics factory with me. I think all we meant to say was that in better circumstances we would find more exciting things to do than commuting to the state diploma factories where we took our courses, or schlepping over to the Pantry Pride for something cheap to cook on Saturday nights after our papers were written and our readings done.
Had Kathy been her mother, she might have clerked summers in her Grandpa Angelo’s grocery store down in Paterson. An Albanian immigrant, Grandpa Angelo was not a rich man, but the Great Depression found him and his small family in better straits than many of their neighbors. They had a place to live above the store; they never lacked for something to eat. Angelo was known in the neighborhood for extending credit. If you knew Angelo, you could take a loaf of bread or a box of pasta and charge it to your account….
A new supermarket put Angelo out of business. It couldn’t have been the first supermarket in Passaic County; ‘self-serve’ stores had been around since Piggly Wiggly introduced them in 1916, but it must have been the first within walking distance of Angelo’s block. As Kathy’s mother used to tell it, Angelo and her stepmother would stand outside their forsaken store as their former customers walked home from the supermarket. A barrel-shaped pair in butchers’ aprons, they watched the funeral procession that was their own. The saddest detail in their daughter’s story was the way the returning shoppers hoisted up their bags to hide their faces as they passed.
It was cheaper at the supermarket than at Angelo’s. You could buy more food for the same money, and more different kinds of food, including more items of ‘American’ food, so who could blame them? Probably Angelo himself found it hard to blame them. His first wife had abandoned him and their daughter shortly after their arrival in the US, so perhaps he’d come to think of abandonment as part of his fate. Still, it seems the neighbors blamed themselves. They hid their heads for shame.
This is the place where I want someone to tell me about ‘creative destruction’. I want to hear Joseph Schumpeter’s famous descriptor for the way capitalism works. It’s a Jim Dandy phrase, I have to admit, ‘creative destruction’, a marvel in its euphemistic grandiosity. Nothing tops it but Wal-Mart, now the nation’s largest retail food distributor, referring to its food-stamp-eligible employees as ‘associates’. Associates in creative destruction, you see. Artists on warhorses, that’s what we are – one part Leonardo da Vinci, one part Genghis Khan.
There may be a plainer way to say it. We could say, for example, that capitalism is about betrayal. It’s about the irrepressible suspicion that you can get it, whatever ‘it’ might be, sex or cereal, faster, cheaper, and in greater bulk or quantity than where you’re getting it now. Fidelity is for suckers – which may be why adultery is one of bourgeois literature’s most durable themes. Happy marriages are all alike; it’s the unhappy ones that move the novelistic units off the shelf. Even Karl Marx, happy in marriage but bourgeois to his bones, couldn’t resist shagging the housemaid….
… These days we do most of our grocery shopping at the Price Chopper in St Johnsbury, probably the biggest supermarket in the county and the only one that’s part of a national chain, a relatively small chain as it turns out, ranking a mere 45th behind such behemoths as Kroger (number two) and Costco (number three)…. I shift to low gear as soon as I step through the automatic doors. I steer my cart into the aisles with what I like to think is Oriental dignity. We’re meant to be moved when the Prodigal Son’s father runs to embrace him because patriarchs in that culture never run. Neither do I. Nor do I drive fast in and out of the parking lot, though people in my culture often do. I always return my cart to the collecting bay; I never leave it by the curb….
The allure of convenience comes in part from the illusion of competence. It’s not simply a matter of being lazy. The more our wishes feel like commands, the more we feel like capable persons…. I came to take considerable satisfaction from my grocery shopping. It was something I did well…. Whenever Kathy and I stopped at the store together, she was impressed by how efficiently I could find almost anything on our list, by what a he-man I’d become in my she-woman chore. Just hand me the mallet, baby, and I’ll ring you the bell. I knew that the mixed salad greens with the later sell-by dates were usually at the back of the store, next to the eggplant and the Green Giant carrots in the smaller bags…. The Lean Cuisine five-cheese rigatoni frozen dinners that she sometimes takes for lunch were harder to spot, for some reason, but I knew the exact coordinates for Lean Cuisine in the freezer case. Like Gatsby scanning the East Egg shore for Daisy’s green light, my eye knew right where to look for the red-and-yellow tag announcing when the Prima Barista Italian coffee, or the Da Vinci Chianti, was on sale. Zeus himself couldn’t have bent his swan neck any faster to Leda’s lovely head. I was in and out like a god.
All of this came to an abrupt end when the management at the store decided to do a major re- arrangement, the first in twenty years, or so they told me when I complained. The perimeter of the store, where I do most of my shopping, remained basically as it was, with dairy on one side and produce on the other, and meat and fish at the back, but within those departments much was altered. As for the inner aisles, they were completely reconfigured and in some instances reconfigured in a way I want to call perverse. Toilet paper and paper towels were now in different aisles. Nutrition bars and dietary supplements, once in a single location, were now in three. Wine and beer, which used to face one another across the aisle like monks in a chantry, were now in different cloisters, beer communing with the snack foods, which had a rationale at least, but still.
I was foolish not to have seen this coming. I knew that stores routinely rearrange their shelves, the theory being that a shopper is likelier to browse if he is forced to look at unfamiliar items in his search for those staples he aims to buy. I can’t speak for the whole consumer public, but this has not been the effect on me. When I knew where everything was, I could afford the luxury of letting my eyes wander. Now I’m focused on finding the things on my list with no time to explore. As often as not, I leave the store with fewer items than I would have bought, because I gave up looking for them in frustration….
I wasn’t as disturbed by the change itself as by its effect on me, which seemed all out of proportion. The change felt less a disruption than an affront. Dignity may require some inconvenience, but that doesn’t mean every inconvenience creates dignity. This one was like having a mugger take your eyeglasses or your shoes. My competence was gone. I could never be done with an aisle. I had to keep circling back. I dropped my coupons. I misplaced my list. I muttered to myself.
I behaved like a geezer, in other words, and that was a big part of the rub. I was getting an unwelcome foretaste of the disorientation that lies ahead, when deteriorating brain cells and digital hegemony make me their unwitting plaything, the world sanctimoniously paperless, nobody answering the phone because you can find the information on the website, the website inaccessible because your laptop is an unforgivable six months old and thus nearly as obsolete as you are. All those years of regular physicals and daily portions of leafy green vegetables come to this: to be lost in a supermarket, inept, unimportant, and bewildered as hell….
Anyway, I’ve considered taking my business elsewhere. Loyalty has less of a claim on me now. Maybe it’s time to rethink the farmers’ market. Maybe it’s time, too, to convert some of my petty frustrations into hope. Disorienting changes can backfire in ways that spark resistance. An economic system that teaches us to rely on nothing is also teaching us not to rely on it. If only in that sense, change is always good. At the end of the day, and according to its own merciless logic, creative destruction must self-destruct….