July 05, 2002

A Supermarket Epiphany

James Lileks has an epiphany about modern America and its economy in the grocery store, after staring at some people with weird tattoos.


| LILEKS (James) The Bleat |

Ever seen photographs of old grocery stores? Rent "Double Indemnity" some time, and watch the scene where Fred MacMurray and Babs Stanwick meet at an A&P. Four aisles of soap flakes and lousy coffee. My neighborhood has two old grocery stores from the post-war era; one is now a small restaurant, the other a liquor store. People are surprised to learn they were once grocery stores, because they look so small.Look at grocery stores today: gigantic. And look who they're for: not the lotus-eaters, but everyday folk. They're for people who aren't doing fabulous - but they're doing all right. Money's tight, the Visa's a bitch, but they have a house - not big, not new, but it's home, and if it's in this first-ring burb they have a huge yard, tall trees over the street and a decent school around the corner.

They have a car - no Saab, but it runs great and you can fit six bags of groceries in the trunk. They have a couple of TVs, a VCR, an AC unit in the bedroom, a dishwasher that makes a lot of noise but does the job; they have a microwave and quite possibly a motor in the garage that opens the door at the touch of a button. There's not much crime in these parts. There aren't bored sullen youths hanging out on the corner, there's not trash on the streets. Middle-frickin'-America. These people have access to 79-cent fresh lemons the size of softballs in February, something kings couldn't have 226 years ago.

We're so used to the bounty of this country it's hard to step back and realize what we have. And yes, this is the Grandpa lecture, the why-in-my-day rant that makes the smart set roll their eyes. ... Americans want lawns and cheap baked beans. They want double garages and patios.... This annoys their betters. Their betters are frustrated when people refuse to act like proles and insist on thinking they're just citizens.... Deluded fools, happy to save a quarter on aged sharp cheddar cheese when WorldCom execs are making millions!

Over the years I've noticed that the people who profess to care for the lower-middle class love them as a malleable abstraction, a protein glob that can be shaped into a right-thinking army. I get this all the time in my union newsletter, which is incapable of framing the debate outside of the terms set by the mindset of the 1930s. You'd think the Pinkertons were massed outside my office, ready to shoot me for putting up a sign expressing solidarity with the Modesto branch on orders from The Boss, who is sitting in the office dressed like the Monopoly Tycoon, puffing on a cigar.... It's not that bad. It won't be that bad. So what, exactly, am I trying to say?

Only this: This is the greatest nation on earth in the history of the species.

Ever seen photographs of old grocery stores? Rent “Double Indemnity” some time, and watch the scene where Fred MacMurray and Babs Stanwick meet at an A&P. Four aisles of soap flakes and lousy coffee. My neighborhood has two old grocery stores from the post-war era; one is now a small restaurant, the other a liquor store. People are surprised to learn they were once grocery stores, because they look so small.

Look at grocery stores today: gigantic. And look who they’re for: not the lotus-eaters, but everyday folk. They’re for people who aren’t doing fabulous - but they’re doing all right. Money’s tight, the Visa’s a bitch, but they have a house - not big, not new, but it’s home, and if it’s in this first-ring burb they have a huge yard, tall trees over the street and a decent school around the corner. They have a car - no Saab, but it runs great and you can fit six bags of groceries in the trunk. They have a couple of TVs, a VCR, an AC unit in the bedroom, a dishwasher that makes a lot of noise but does the job; they have a microwave and quite possibly a motor in the garage that opens the door at the touch of a button. There’s not much crime in these parts. There aren’t bored sullen youths hanging out on the corner, there’s not trash on the streets. Middle-frickin’-America. These people have access to 79-cent fresh lemons the size of softballs in February, something kings couldn’t have 226 years ago.

We’re so used to the bounty of this country it’s hard to step back and realize what we have. And yes, this is the Grandpa lecture, the why-in-my-day rant that makes the smart set roll their eyes. It’s particularly galling to those who live in big cities, and who believe that compacted dense urban life is somehow a holier way to live than the gross big-gut Murcan whee-ha experience. Sorry. It isn’t. There are advantages to living in the city, and I prefer the city to the burbs; that’s why I live here instead of out in the distant fringe. But Americans want lawns and cheap baked beans. They want double garages and patios and black boxes with lasers that read Adam Sandler movies. This annoys their betters. Their betters are frustrated when people refuse to act like proles and insist on thinking they’re just citizens. Haven’t they read Barbara Erhenreich’s account of working at Wal-Mart? Don’t they know how unhappy they should be? Deluded fools, happy to save a quarter on aged sharp cheddar cheese when WorldCom execs are making millions!

Over the years I’ve noticed that the people who profess to care for the lower-middle class love them as a malleable abstraction, a protein glob that can be shaped into a right-thinking army. I get this all the time in my union newsletter, which is incapable of framing the debate outside of the terms set by the mindset of the 1930s. You’d think the Pinkertons were massed outside my office, ready to shoot me for putting up a sign expressing solidarity with the Modesto branch on orders from The Boss, who is sitting in the office dressed like the Monopoly Tycoon, puffing on a cigar. (Push comes to shove, I’ll side with my union, but not out of Class Consciousness - the union set the pay scale I enjoy, and while I’d prefer to paid on a meritocratic basis, I enjoy a wide variety of benefits the union fought for, and it would be the height of selfish ingratitude to decide I’d like to opt out now. Bad, bad karma.) It’s not that bad. It won’t be that bad. So what, exactly, am I trying to say?

Only this:

This is the greatest nation on earth in the history of the species.

No qualifications. You want to reaffirm what a hellish hell-like hellhole this is, go read the Guardian, or any other paper put out by pasty slubgullons who can't bring themselves to shake free of monarchy. It's the Fourth. Take it to the ICC.

Eight kinds of ketchup, grocery bags with handles. Fresh flowers cheap and soda stacked to the rafters; acres of produce, schools of sundered fish under plastic wrap, Busytown board books in the cereal aisle for your child to enjoy, dog treats of infinite variation. Ten types of cheap shampoo, all of which do the job, and some of which make your hair smell like melons. (The store also has three varieties of melons, precut, de-seeded, arranged in a circle for your convenience.) Forty flavors of orange juice, each blended with a different fruit - and if you’re the sort of person who rolls their eyes at that, and thinks that we shouldn’t be distracted by OJ permutations when we should be worrying about third-world debt, please take it outside. Life is good juice and a big lawn. If that’s what you want, you can have it. If you try. And if you think that the proliferation of American juice choice and our median lawn dimension is the reason for low Zimbabwean agricultural yields, go sit in the corner and scowl into your lager.

Those of us who love America often feel obliged to qualify the emotion, lest our interlocutors bring up American conduct in the Philippine war, or factory conditions in a Tyson chicken-decapitation plant. As if love and devotion was blind. As if faith and patriotism were incompatible with doubt, with dissent, with a desire to make this experiment even better. The Fourth isn’t a day to accommodate those fools. You want to stand in the aisle of a Rainbow with a bullhorn and tell people they’re oppressed, go ahead.

My checkout clerk was Hmong. Dazzling smile. Happy Fothajulai! she said.

Comrade? No. Fellow-member-of-ethnic-group? No. Co-religionist? Who knows.

Fellow citizen?

Of course. As are you all. Happy Independence Day. Long live the United States of America.

Posted by DeLong at July 5, 2002 09:01 AM | TrackBack

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