I had a nervous breakdown tonight – one of many, recently – driving home from work. I told myself I should go to the grocery store near my apartment, buy some ground beef and some flour shells, make tacos. Instead I drove past the grocery store to a Mexican restaurant and paid them to make me enchiladas.
Every chapter of my adult life has been punctuated by food. The first time I tried living away from home, after high school, I was so worried about getting low blood sugar at my first job that I would make myself enormous breakfasts in my “kitchen,” a card table in a friend’s basement that was equipped with toaster and microwave. I would spread toast with peanut butter and accompany it with a boiled egg, an apple and sliced cheddar cheese. Maybe some cereal with soy milk. I was like a binging vegetarian. Resplendent in my ability to avoid glycemic crashes, I put on two clothing sizes that fall.
Living in Brooklyn many years later, in a Hasidic neighborhood an hour’s subway ride from the city, I would buy challah and keugel from the grocery store outside the subway stop. Naturally it closed on Fridays. Sometimes, when disorientation overcame me, I would climb back up to that elevated track and ride to Atlantic Ave, where there was a Target.
Buying frozen, deep-fried, cheesy, boxed food at Target, then, was exactly as wonderful as it would feel awful now. I know this because, like Joni Mitchell, I have seen Target from both sides now. Three years after living in that neighborhood in Brooklyn, I crash-landed back in the suburbs north of Seattle and staggered into a Target with the same rapturous gratitude of Scarlett O’Hara discovering a patch of radishes on the charred grounds of her family estate.
Comfort is so wonderful when it’s rare.
A few years later, things were feeling too comfortable, and I started inching toward the city. Now I live in a neighborhood in South Seattle that is “urban,” aka “super black,” and poor. Like any other poor neighborhood I’ve lived in, and like any poor person I’ve known, including myself, it is as defiant as it is uncertain.
If political incorrectness bothers you, please stop reading now. If it doesn’t, let’s tour my nearest marketing experience.
There is a liquor store near me where various members of the Ethopian family who owns it, often poking heads through doors and over cash registers like characters in a macabre musical, will holler at you if you leave without buying anything: The price includes tax!
Empty handed and alarmed, you step onto the sidewalk outside the liquor store. There are two cop cars parked on the horizon, in a position of conference. Young men hitch their dragging jeans up over their pert butts as they walk toward the gas station. You encounter a friendly but shambling panhandler, and then, a pair of old friends engaged in deep debate.
This is one thing that I still don’t understand: Why people of color seem so comfortable hanging around outside at public places. You would think after centuries of persecution, you would feel a little paranoid about engaging in spirited conversation in public.
How is it that a privileged white girl feels more watched and more judged than people who probably actually are?
Should we stop to examine the question of whether I’m a neurotic narcissist? Nah, let’s just move on.
You walk into the grocery store. There is always a harried mother who looks much too young to have three adolescent children, leading them with her shopping cart: Pick out cereal, stop hitting your brother, why are you doing that?!
If this sounds exactly like any conversation any mother has ever been seen having in any grocery store, it is. That is the beauty of it.
Groceries are a universal requirement, but the obtaining of them can vary as much as Kraft American slices varies from local, organic goat cheese. You can drive up the street about four miles and encounter a hippie natural foods store that offers cute little notes about its cheeses that resemble the conversation in Portlandia when they ask the waitress if the chicken was happy. This is happy cheese… Give us your money.
At my grocery store only ten minutes drive south, my fellow shoppers bring in their club cards when they buy vodka. And I don’t mean the grocery store’s club card, I mean a club card produced by that brand of vodka. It had never occurred to me to question the morality of loyalty programs until I saw a man get a discount on a jug of cleaning-fluid-vodka due to his buyer’s card.
At my grocery store, the bagged salads may be wilty, and the meat department rank, but the chicken wing bar is always fully stocked.
At my grocery store, I am the bitch who gets tired of the long lines and abandons a full basket of groceries down by the Starbucks stand.
At my grocery store, the clerks are white or black or Asian or maybe they don’t even know because why should they have to. They’re tired, and they have love lives, and they are grateful if you give them an opening, even if for only as long as it takes to bag your celery, to chat like a human being.
At my grocery store, kids want the microwavable greasy crunchy yummy things, and moms want to be able to afford healthy food for them but give in and get Pizza Bites, and young men are trying to find a bottle of something fun their friends will come over for again even when their dad says all the dumb jokes.
At my grocery store I am reminded that I’m a lonely bitch more grateful for the conversation with the clerk than she is.
I was eleven or twelve when a discount grocery store opened in our town. We’ve always called it “Canned Foods” but really that was never in the name. That was just what we enjoyed buying most: cans of peaches, tin of sardines, three, four, five for a dollar. Our mom was always delighted. We always felt a sense of adventure: Try it, why not? It’s fucking free.
The idea was that grocery stores got rid of old product, trucks couldn’t deliver product, items got mislabeled, a big brand changed everything and wanted to dump its old “look.” So they sold it all, all the stuff you wouldn’t see at your grocery store, super cheap.
Sort of like a rewards program for vodka.
Over the years we have shopped in Grocery Outlets and their ilk in states all over the country. When the recession hit, the unknown chain suddenly became relevant. It’s never really been the same, they get enough traffic that they don’t have to lower prices that much. But I still go now and then, to either of the two that are here in South Seattle.
That is the thing: It is much easier in this neighborhood to find a discounted packet of frozen meat than it is to find an organic cut of local meat.
Why should you care? Well, the same reason we all wind up caring at some point: You get bored, or the economy crashes, or your son marries a starving artist. Life is why you care. At some point you find yourself standing in a sea of Pizza Bites, all your Simple Living assumptions about healthy organic eating out the window, feeling grateful for the wilting bundle of chard and the triangle of Swiss you found while dodging the guys debating over the chicken wings.
You clutch your semi-healthy finds to you, smile at the clerk, and think to yourself: When did food become racist?
Or maybe that’s just me.