Or: I'm Sorry This Ends on a Downbeat But It's about Why Supermarkets Depress Me, So It Sort of Has To.
When I was a kid, my mom would load up the cart with frozen vegetables, boxes of cereal, cartons of milk, a couple of TV dinners, meat in styrofoam packages, instant coffee, Tang, jars of peaches, a few pale tomatoes and heads of iceberg lettuce. We would leave with four or five bags full and pack it in the Ford Country Squire station wagon. Then we would come back a week later to get the same stuff. This ritual trip played a central part in our family's food life because the supermarket, whether A & P, Acme, Penn Fruit, Piggly Wiggly, or the Army post's Commissary, was where the food was. A big well lit, chilly room that played Muzak and sold Soap Opera Digest and The National Enquirer.
Now it's the CSA, Swarthmore Co-op, Philly Cowshare, and Trader Joe's. The supermarket's role has shrunk, shrunk, shrunk over the years to the point where I only go there after the Swarthmore Co-op closes and I really need something before 8 AM the next day. Sometimes it's milk. Or it could be ice cream because we want to celebrate a baseball or Pinewood Derby success. After 9:00 PM you have to go in a secondary entrance, and it's all weird because I inevitably end up walking the wrong way through a checkout line. My supermarket happens to be a Genuardi's, which was a family-run store that expanded and was then sold to Safeway, who worked hard to make it as mediocre as possible. Now it has been bought by Giant. Yawn.
Every time I go to Genuardi's, the wind is howling and snow is blowing, or frogs are raining down from the sky, or death-eaters are swooping through the parking lot looking for the few carts that don't squeak. I enter and the usual tinny music is playing. The music remainds me of some random part of my adolescence and dictates my thoughts for the evening. "Benny and the Jets"--10th grade gym class and those navy blue jumpsuits we had to wear. "Both Sides Now"--love wasn't all it was cracked up to be, 9th grade. "The Long and Winding Road"--eating lunch at the Benjamin Franklin Village Officers' Club every day of 7th grade. I will be glad to explain that to you some time. Wait, I'm here to get milk. It's always about a kilometer away from the door. Hike over to get it, pass the baked goods that look tasty but aren't, and get in the line.
The line is short because everyone else is at the apocolypse, but it's long enough for me to read some tabloid headlines about Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie. It's long enough for me to remember my single years of supermarket shopping, which coincided with the rise and fall of Princess Diana. Every time I went to the supermarket, whether it was in Center City, Philadelphia (Acme, Super Fresh) or Harrisonburg, Virginia (Kroger, Food Lion) I would read the latest about "Di" waiting in line. The almost-plump virginal phase, big-hat phase, baby phase, anorexic moping phase, thirty and separated and wearing a kickass black turtleneck phase, the extra blond extra divorced phase, and then the end.
The supermarket at night connects me to all the other supermarkets I've ever been to, the trips to get diapers (no longer needed) and Tampax (no longer needed) and milk and Benadryl blending into one long string of banal experiences that never quite disappear from memory. The rise and fall of princesses and movie stars continues. My mother's supermarkets are never coming back, any more than my mother is coming back, any more than Princess Di or Whitney Houston or my youth are coming back.
"Will that be all, ma'am?" It sure will. And when did I become "ma'am"? A long time ago.