Monday, April 12, 2010

Lost in the Supermarket

I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I’m intimidated by the prospect of going to a grocery store. A grocery store is a terrifying place. It is a staple of a civilized society. It is a shining monument to consumerism and personal choice, and yet there is something inherently primal about it. Grocery stores bring out a selfish, animalistic nature in old women and housewives and reduce dudes like myself to nerve-wracked messes, clinging to the handles of our shopping carts like passengers of the Titanic must have clung to shards of debris bobbing in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.
No matter where you are in the store and no matter how empty the place may have seemed when you first arrived, there is always someone right behind you impatiently trying to get by. You’re always in someone’s way. Everyone is roaming the store, dutifully self-absorbed, ignorant to the plights of their fellow shoppers. This is compounded by the fact that everyone is pushing a shopping cart.
If man were meant to command four-ton hunks of metal and flammable materials at excessive speed, he would have been born with keys in his hand. It is my firm belief that everyone, no matter what he or she says, is a bad driver. Similarly, if we were meant to push around unwieldy steel cages on rickety little wheels, we would have been born with shopping lists in our hands. The shopping cart has all the grace and maneuverability of a Panzer tank. When the cart is being steered by a rheumatic septuagenarian who can barely see over the handle, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Even for those of sound mind and body, navigating the cramped confines of a supermarket aisle where a beleaguered mother is arguing with her toddler over what type of cereal to get and a stock boy has parked his palette presents no shortage of challenges. I can think of no gauntlet more harrowing to run.
I wasn’t meant for the grocery store. I am deliberate. I am a browser. And I never make a grocery list. My laid-back nature is incompatible with the frenetic pace at which my fellow shoppers go about their weekly excursion to the local Giant. They know what they want and they know where to find it. I do not. I am as the country bumpkin plunged into the dazzling insanity of the great metropolis. I have no ready guide and no map to the stars.
How many brands of breakfast cereal does a society really need? To what conclusion would Aristotle reach were he faced with the choice between a dozen different varieties of Special K? Would our founders see a rainbow of Pop-Tarts boxes as the American dream made manifest? Is there such a thing as too many options? Have American shoppers been desensitized to the notion of want or scarcity? Perhaps if I weren’t devoting so much of my conscious thought to questions like these I wouldn’t be such an infuriatingly slow shopper.
I glance around at the other shoppers, practically shoving each other aside in order to peruse different flavors of yogurt, and wonder if the hunter-gatherer instinct has become as vestigial as wisdom teeth or the appendix. Lord knows I’d be screwed if grocery stores were to suddenly vanish overnight. Food is an industry, tied just as much to profits as it is to providing a basic necessity of human survival. Our ancestors were not concerned with bio-degradable packaging, organic ingredients, or low-carb alternatives. They killed what they were fast or smart enough to catch, and they picked up plants off the ground and hoped they weren’t poisonous. Nature doesn’t offer two-for-one specials or coupons. It is not a basic assumption that we should have supermarkets. We create new necessities for ourselves as we invent ways to satisfy the old ones. We didn’t have supermarkets 100 years ago, but we panic if we didn’t have them tomorrow. Can that really be good for us as a society?
On the other hand, my local Giant has portable hand-held scanners now, and those are pretty cool.