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!]

We Got Goiter BirdThere you go. That’s the goiter bird. This must be an earlier snap, because the last time I saw this parrot (last year sometime), the wretched mutant hump had lost a lot more feathers than that.

Now, I’m not knocking the parrot. He’s probably great. And I feel bad for the big guy, as that lump looks burdensome.

But —

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!”

Good times.

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.


  • You know, down here the grocery store peeps really get to know you. When I was pregnant I got asked for updates every time I went in. People asked why they hadn’t seen us for awhile once I started to do strict budget shopping every 2-4 weeks.

    I went home to NJ one time and told the cashier to have a great day and he looked at me like I had 8 heads.

    And sneered.

    We use Food Lion for grocery store stuff, which is an NC company that tries to use local for as much as possible. Gone are the Food Lion days of meat scandal exposes on the evening news. They frigging rock now.

    I found the local farm stand (because the only big farmers’ markets are a huge distance away), and it was closed for the season already.

    Bummed doesn’t even cover it.

    • Down South, things are very different. I remember going into a store for the first time, and was shocked when someone asked me how I was doing right out of the gate. I wheeled on them like it was a scam. I was ready to karate chop them in the neck. (This, and my surprise at seeing booze in grocery stores. But that’s just because PA is stupid thatta way.)

      I miss that Down South attitude. Though, they can kill you with kindness, too. And you can sometimes hear contempt in the voice. Up here, everyone’s angry, though they’re honest about it.

      I think I’d rather just be lied to, though.

      — c.

      • Man, talking about The Quakertown Farmer’s Market (“Q-Mart”) makes me want to go and do a kind of “blogtrip” through the place. You can buy all sorts of crazy shit there. Cassette tapes, weird fruits, Amish stuff, samurai swords, goiter birds.

        — c.

  • Samurai swords? Count me in. Never been to Q-Mart.

    When I take a solo hike to the Acme around the corner from our apartment, I tend to take my iShuffle. I usually don’t get much since I’m on my own, meaning I can use the self-checkout lane near the exit. This means I don’t even need to interact with the cashier. In a way, the music keeps me from falling into the seductive sterility of such places. And then there’s Buy-N-Large Wal*Mart, which is another story entirely.

    Produce markets, little mom-and-pop stores, they have a very different atmosphere. They’re more organic, more dirty. They feel a bit more like places inhabited by living things.

  • There’s something similar in Berlin, NJ called The Berlin Auction or Berlin Farmer’s Market, depending on who’s doing the talking. It’s creepy and smells of old food grease and has a billion weird little stalls that sell just about everything one could possibly not want.

    Did you ever get up here to the State Farmers Market when you lived in Charlotte? My favorite herb nursery sells there.

    • Julie: Never been to either. When I was in Charlotte, I was a young punk content with Arby’s (beef n’ cheese beef n’ cheese beef and beef n’ cheese), and a farmer’s market was super way off my radar.

      Josh: Yeah, it’s weird that you no longer have to interact with anybody anymore. Even the meat counter. At our Giant, you can just ring it up electronically and you don’t even have to have someone handing you the lunchmeat — you come back in 10 minutes, and it’ll be in a little Plexiglass cubicle for your antisocial needs.

  • November 29, 2009 at 11:14 AM // Reply

    Chuck, Denise and I regularly frequent the Q-Mart. There are several stalls that we consider “must visit”, but the remainder…I huddle my children as close to my body as humanly possible so that they avoid falling victim to the zombie curse that inflicts the employees and patrons.

    Here’s a fun trick, though. If you visit the Q-Mart after 6PM on a Friday night…you actually go back IN TIME!!!! I kid you not. The date becomes August 22nd, 1991. You will notice that the local children all wear the fashions associated with it. Waterfall hair styles are prominent on the women while the men seem to be quite comfortable in their Zubaz pants. Vanilla Ice or Michael Jackson echo heavily in the very air that surrounds you…seeping into your pores and invading your bloodstream.

    The only haven from this mystical crack in the time-space continuum is the comic book store. It seems shielded against the effects that Friday nights bring.

    I strongly urge you to visit at that time. Also make sure you buy your bacon from Frederick’s Meats. It’s the best. I think drown their pigs in a vat of pure joy while wrapping them in mystical blankets created by Native American shamans who imbue them with the spirit and energy of Fozzy Bear.

    • Paul:

      That is a fantastic magic trick. It’s like Back to the Future, except with fewer Deloreans, and more Pox Parrots.

      Awesome. Maybe I’ll find myself there. Pimply, gangly. Tie-dye t-shirt. Camo pants. Hot.

      As for bacon: I am always happy with New Bacon. I do have two excellent purveyors of the Bacon Goodness (Saylor’s in Hellertown, and Blooming Glen in, well, Blooming Glen), but Good Bacon Near is happymaking.

      — c.

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