The Grocery Store Is White Noise
Went to the grocery store yesterday.
Last week was the final of the farmer’s markets for the year, and so to buy the things I must buy (let’s just call it, ohhh, “food so I don’t perish”), I headed on down to the local supermarket.
I was instantly reminded of Don DeLillo’s White Noise:
“Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.” (p. 36).
That book — so much a post-modern novel about the fears of, well, being post-modern — nails the alienation, the isolation, the overall sterile weirdness of shopping in this modern age. (Incidentally, my favorite thing about the book is that the protagonist is a prominent teacher in the field of “Hitler Studies.”)
The blasts of color, the endless parade of vivid consumerism — it’s pleasing, though, in its own weird way:
“That’s what I think of whenever I come in here. This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It’s full of psychic data…. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases.”
He studied her profile. She put some yogurt in her cart….
“Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.” (p.37-38)
And that’s what happened to me yesterday.
I didn’t go for much. Some Greek yogurt. Some flour for pancakes. A few other things. I still had fruit and veggies from last week’s final farmer’s market, and the meat store is still going to be open. This trip was like an advance scouting mission. I figured it a good time to recall the lay of the land.
It didn’t take me long. I did more than recall the lay of the land; I found my feet on too-familiar paths. It was like I had one robot wheel instead of feet, and that wheel was locked into a pre-programmed track. Before I knew it, I was ambling down the middle aisles, jaw slackened, eyes wide. All that color, all those products. It clubs you in the head. It’s dizzying. I found myself wanting things that I knew I’d never use. “Yak hair tea? Purple ketchup? Nuclear Winter Crunch cereal? Yes, yes, and yes!”
No, no, and no. About five minutes in, I realized I’d been seduced by the eerie consumer numbness, that my brain had gone native and mutinied against my better instincts. Realizing it, I took the 27 cans of tomato soup and the industrial jug of grape juice out of my cart and swiftly hurried toward the outskirts of the store, looking for only those things I actually needed. And, I managed. I came out with a small cart — three small bags — of goods, and outside, the cold air jarred me loose of the pulsing, throbbing comfort of the grocery store.
It is sad, though. The farmer’s market had a communal experience. Sure, you had your moneybag Yuppies with their Mercedes and their designer dogs, but you also had regular people. Talking to vendors, talking to each other, walking their dogs. Vendors would share recipes. Vendors would recommend other vendors. People knew one another’s names. The grocery store has a little of that — I’ve seen people chatting, I’ve seen the meat counter ladies knowing people’s names. But by and large, it’s alienating. Nobody talks. Everybody’s on their preprogrammed robot track, a serpentine slalom down endless shelves.
Not far from here is an indoor farmer’s market. I think I’ll go — but let’s be clear, this place is occasionally fucking creepy. It’s more than a farmer’s market, despite it’s name. It’s 50+ vendor stalls, and maybe less than half are related to food. One guy sells comics, which is cool, but for the most part, it’s people selling like, Gypsy talismans and boombox radios from the mid-80s and jewelry that won’t just turn your skin green, it’ll actually blister the flesh. Hell, half-a-dozen should just go for the honest sell and name their vendor stall, “Shit I Found Under My Couch Cushions, Inc.,” because that’s their ‘goods’ look like.
Oh, the place has a parrot, too. One of the back stores (far more than just a stall) sells questionable pet foods.
And they have a parrot.
I wish to fuck I could get you a picture of the parrot. They used to advertise on TV and the web using images of this parrot, which isn’t strange until you realize that the parrot has some kind of monster-sized goiter on the front of its colorful neck. This massive hump is growing featherless, and is about as big as a baseball.
[EDIT: No, scratch that. It's about the size of a softball -- because holy shit, I found a picture! Yay Internet! You answer all my wishes!]
Now, I’m not knocking the parrot. He’s probably great. And I feel bad for the big guy, as that lump looks burdensome.
I’m just saying, if you’re advertising food, maybe a diseased tropical bird is not your finest mascot.
Whenever the farmer’s market commercial comes on, we sing along with new lyrics: “Quakertown Farmer’s Market — we got goiter bird!”
But it doesn’t make me hungry for produce.
Still, I’ll try it. They have guys that make unholygood sticky buns. And sure, the produce vendors have produce from California and China, but it’s at least local people selling it. (Plus, they have some more exotic fare from time to time: odd Asian fruits and the like.)
But I will lament the loss of the outdoors farmer’s market, and just chalk up one more reason why I am not at all thankful for Old Man Winter’s annual rise to prominence, sitting on his throne of ice and sadness. Attended to by his bloated, mutant parrot.
I’m sure tonight I’ll have a nightmare where that parrot’s swollen tumor explodes, and a bunch of half-parrot half-spider creatures come tumbling out. Just you wait.