Pop Culture

The Supermarket Index

“The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom.” — Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Lately I’ve been thinking about shopping carts.

I live in a mid-size American city. Like many mid-size American cities, it has a lot of great qualities and a few big problems. And most American cities have one major problem in common—a problem that no one talks about. Baton Rouge, where I live, has that problem bad: Baton Rouge is ugly. Really, really ugly. The zoning of Baton Rouge is the worst possible outcome of a science experiment in which the rise of car culture, interstates, and malls has been mixed with primordial swampland and profound government ineptitude. And nobody talks about this! Everyone has such bristling Baton Rouge pride, which I get, because I do too. It’s a mix of LSU pride (the university and football powerhouse whose, yes, okay, gorgeous Mission-revival, live-oak campus is the town’s nexus), Louisiana pride (it is a cool state—maybe the cool state), and that born-and-raised-here pride that’s God’s gift to small cities. And, okay, yes, the people are truly great: super-friendly and, as my fiancée always notes, “very forgiving” (if a smidge gun-crazy for my taste). And I’d be remiss not to mention all the parks, gorgeous city-center lakes, jogging trails, dog runs, bike lanes, sports facilities, and incredibly plush and well-funded public library system Baton Rouge offers. And okay, yes! The city has beautiful swaths: the old neighborhoods built before air conditioning and gated communities, the Art Deco downtown with its imperialist state capital (tallest in the fifty states!), the bronze statue of Huey P. Long down front (he’s buried underneath), gazing up lovingly at the building, hands spread wide, in eternal consideration of the enormity of his own erection.

Baton Rouge is a wonderful town. I love living here. I love the friends I’ve made and the community I live in. I’m grateful to its bustling economy for providing me with a job that I also love. In fact, I love living in America. I’ve lived all over this country, and I’ve met wonderful people everywhere. I’m grateful to America for its generally bustling economy. But—I’m also suspicious of that economy. It has, after all, been the indomitable mechanism that, over the past seventy years, has built America into what it looks like today. And have we ever really stopped to think about whether we like our cityscapes and the way of life they enforce?

In Baton Rouge, almost every local business is located in a strip mall. Every strip mall backs up onto another strip mall, and if it doesn’t back up onto another strip mall, then its almost existentially awful rear side—its blank expanse of cinderblocks; its loading docks, dumpsters, unhitched trailers; its weed-studded pavement and chain link fencing—is left open to the street. The strip malls are set a half-mile of parking lot back from car-clogged, treeless roads whose only curbside denizens are hundred-foot-tall fast-food signage and gas stations, both of which are designed to invite even more traffic down into this featureless hell from the similarly clogged interstates that crisscross Baton Rouge and create an inescapable net of noise and exhaust over the whole metro area, which by now has sprawled almost to the outer suburbs of New Orleans. If you’re walking on a commercially zoned sidewalk in Baton Rouge, you’re either crippled by poverty or mentally ill.

What’s only bound to increase your ennui as you sit in your car at the stoplight under the overpass, is that nearly all the stores and restaurants in the strip malls surrounding you are instantly recognizable corporate franchises. The deep discount spectrum is replicated every few miles in Baton Rouge, so that its residents can have the comfort of knowing that at any given time they have the freedom (freedom!, that poisonous word) to purchase literally any object they could possibly need at a deep discount. There’s Walmart, Costco, Target, Dollar Tree; Lowe’s, Home Depot, Bed Bath and Beyond; Old Navy, Marshall’s, TJ Maxx; Best Buy, Verizon Wireless, Office Depot; Hobby Lobby, Michael’s, Joann Fabrics. Of course, if we get hungry during our shopping excursions—and who wouldn’t, after all the energy we’ve spent hoisting ourselves into our cars, driving the quarter-mile to the store, then driving around the parking lot looking for the absolute closest space to the door, and navigating the store layout itself, which we’re already pretty familiar with, since it’s the same store layout no matter WHERE WE ARE IN THE COUNTRY—anyway, we’ll have a plethora of “globally sourced” cuisines from which to choose. You’ve got your Outback for Australian steaks, your Panda Express or Pei Wei for Chinese (Yelp review: “It is as if P. F. Chang [sic] mated with Jason’s Deli!”), your Mr. Gatti’s or Carrabba’s for Italian, your Chipotle or Qdoba for Mexican, your Red Lobster or Bonefish Grill for seafood, and then your Arby’s, Burger King, California Pizza Kitchen, Church’s Chicken, Chic-fil-A, Cracker Barrel, Dairy Queen, Domino’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Firehouse Subs, Golden Corral, Hardee’s, Hooters (Breasts!), IHOP, Jack In The Box, Jason’s Deli, Jimmy Johns, KFC, Little Caesars (Five-dollar pizza from a drive-through!), McAlister’s Deli, McDonald’s, Panera Bread, Papa Johns, Piccadilly Cafeteria, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, Quiznos, Smoothie King, Sonic Drive-In, Starbucks, Subway (36 in Baton Rouge alone!), Taco Bell, Wendy’s and Waffle House in case you just want good old fashion American cuisine.

Because this is the America we accept. Exit after interstate exit, all the way across the country, it’s the same thing. Take away the change in elevation, and leave only those blue amenities signs, and you could conceivably disembark from I-80 at any point between San Fransisco and Teaneck, New Jersey without seeing anything new. We gripe about the one percent, the widening income gap, the death of American manufacturing, the low wages paid to employees of these very institutions—and yet we patronize them endlessly! Day in, day out, we empty our pockets into their tills, all of which funnel back into a few consolidated corporate pockets; how did you think the one percent got so rich anyway?

We fill up on junk and stuff. We stumble back to our cars, our guts bursting with manufactured, reconstituted, addictively salty, fatty, sugary foods—simulacrum foods, if you will. We heave plastic bags bulging with more plastics—bargain junk, decorative tchotchkes, bulk-packaged despair—into the trunks of our cars. Stuff that counter-intuitively costs less because it is made on the other side of the world and shipped transatlantically to where you are, stuff that seemed alluringly inexpensive in-store but becomes appalling cheap once inside our homes. Then, in a kind of parting salvo that maybe is some unconscious expression of our discontent, some reflexive reaching for rebellion, or that maybe is just the end game of our laziness, we leave our shopping carts marooned in the middle of the asphalt for someone else to come collect. The corral is only twenty feet away, but fuck that.

Now, I shop at these stores, I eat at these restaurants. Hell, I love some of these restaurants. The aforementioned addictive qualities of salty-hot fries dipped in the creamy spun-gold MSG paste that is Chic-fil-A sauce; of Outback’s gelatinous, garlicky mashed potatoes; of the astonishing syrup-absorbing powers of a thin, crisp Waffle House waffle; of the plump, cheerful pillow of an as-yet-unmolested Chipotle burrito: these things speak to me. And also, I sometimes shop at Walmart for what I think are necessities (toilet paper: yes, according to strictures of Western society; four-tube sets of Bonne Bell lip balms: okay, no, probably not). I choose to shop at Walmart because I think, as I suspect most of its customers think, I can’t afford not to. Have I ever done a full-scale price comparison between it, and the charming family owned neighborhood grocery store right around the corner from my house? No, of course I haven’t, because (to quote another popular American excuse for the mediocrity of our lives) who has time for that? Instead, I blithely accept the conventional wisdom that Walmart is always the cheapest, ergo, according to American values, the best place to buy toilet paper. I’ll save my evening walks to the charming down-the-block shop for nights when I’m feeling bougie, and want a bottle of Provencal rose, say, or more hazelnut oil to dress my frisee salad.

But what about a more holistic price comparison? Since you’re reading this on the internet and are thus presumably at your leisure, let’s take a moment to consider factors beyond the purely financial that may come into play when choosing a grocery store. What about the walk, for example? I have the good fortune to live in one of Baton Rouge’s most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. In fact, we live on its main thoroughfare, which was converted a few years ago from a two-lane, two-way road, to a one-lane, one-way road with ample bike and jogging lanes on each shoulder. People are up and down our street all day: on foot, on bike, with dog, with stroller. We’ve met more of our neighbors in one year of sitting on our side porch, then I ever remember my parents interacting with in a decade on our cul-de-sac. We also meet our neighbors on our ambles to the grocery store. We stop to admire their gardens, and they tell us what they are planting. We stop to scratch their beagle pups behind the ears, and they tell us their names. It’s just small talk, sure, but it feels profoundly good to connect in this way. Plus: the health benefits of simple movement; the invigorating pleasures of fresh air and sunshine; the birdsong, cricket chirps, crepe myrtles, spreading oaks, dappled light. This doesn’t happen on the way to Walmart, because to get to Walmart, we have to get in our cars. What percentage of Walmart customers do you think arrive there on foot? Of those that do, what percentage do you think met neighbors on their walks?

And what about the atmosphere inside the store? Our neighborhood grocery is a relatively small, easily navigable space. It doesn’t sell tricycles, or guns, or televisions, but what it does sell (charcoal, deodorant, ice cream) sure is easy to find. I can walk the perimeter of the store with cart in under three minutes flat. Mornings, the place fills with the smell of the bakery in the back. Its ceilings are low, which could feel claustrophobic or cozy, depending on your taste. At Walmart the girder and pipe ceilings look like the behind-the-moon riggings in The Truman Show. Their height gives you that exposed-prey sort of feeling, familiar to anyone who has ever been oppressed by a McMansion’s cathedral ceilings. At Walmart, there are no good smells.

And what about the people inside the store? I began to recognize each of our local grocery’s ten or fifteen employees after about a month of weekly visits. The check-out ladies in their maroon smocks, all at various stages of life and disgruntled-ness. We chat about new haircuts, weekend plans, recent business. One always wears fingerless purple mittens; another looks like Delta Burke in her jewel-toned doorknocker earrings. Many have the raspy laughs of unrepentant smokers. There’s the skinny, black-haired guy shelving wine (a font of information on varietals and pairings); the woman with the sleek ponytail and tortoiseshell spectacles whom I can only presume is the manager (due to her constant expression of preoccupation); the broad-chested, bald man who bags the groceries and never fails to ask how you’re doing in the most honeyed of Louisiana accents (“Pay-puh oaruh plastic?”). I’m not saying Walmart employees aren’t friendly and pleasant. I’m saying there are a lot of them.

And what happens after you leave the store? Did you know that I have never, not even one time, seen a shopping cart left in the middle of the our local grocery store’s parking lot, which doesn’t even have cart corrals? That is, of course, because it’s a small parking lot—the farthest spot is only four rows back from the front door. But I’m convinced that other kinds of smallness are at work. The smallness of the store, for example: all the checkout ladies can see out the front windows onto the parking lot, and would know right away if you had left your cart out there for them to come collect. Maybe it’s the nearness of the store to the rest of the neighborhood; leaving a loose cart to roll into the street is kind of an affront to the community, or at the very least, puts a ding in the neighborhood’s aesthetics. (Walmart, on the other hand, has no charm or aesthetics from which to detract.) There’s a personal accountability in play at the local grocery, that simply doesn’t exist in the big box store near the interstate.

Maybe it’s some reflection of socioeconomic factors that I don’t feel like dwelling on for fear of revealing my extreme privilege. Is it nothing more than classist or worse, racist bougie pride to point out that at my local market, we always bring the carts back, and that the people of Walmart can’t be expected to behave responsibly? Look, that sounds horrible on paper, because it is horrible, but you’re a fool if you think a lot of Americans don’t think that way. Or perhaps it’s simply that shopping at Walmart is such a dispiriting experience that it’s only human nature to want to stick it to the man in some small way before you leave the premises. Unfortunately, “the man” is Sam Walton, but the person you’re sticking it to is the high school kid in the neon vest pushing carts for minimum wage in the 95-degree heat.

Or maybe it’s that the customers of my local grocery store have gotten to know its employees, and respect their basic human dignity. It’s harder to leave behind a shopping cart for someone to collect when that someone might be classed as your friend. There is no organic dignity in the anonymous transactions of big box stores. You can chat up your Walmart cashier all you like—I usually do—but isn’t it kind of like talking to a toll collector? It might make you feel friendly, but are you ever going to see that person again?

I don’t do all my shopping at my local grocery store because I know that a bag of Stacy’s Pita Chips costs six dollars there, and costs $2.50 at Albertson’s. I don’t make a ton of money. Budget is always the first concern. But I refuse to let it be my only concern. Time is money, we say in America, but when we say this, we’re usually urging someone to do something more efficiently. We never recognize that this turn of speech is actually a statement of equivalence: that time is as valuable as money. Stop thinking about how you will spend your money. How will you spend your time? In your car, idling in smog to get to a discount retailer? Wandering the aisles of one giant store that purports convenience, because it contains all products, looking for the three or four things you actually need? We’re not all so lucky to have a local grocery around the corner—but we should be, and this is the American problem—so is it worth it to drive a little bit further to the locally owned store? Or even to a more humane big box store like Costco, where employees are paid relatively fair wages and benefits?

How did you spend your time? This is what we ask of the departed. It sounds dramatic and Gwyneth Paltrow-y to say this, but it turns out the act of choosing a grocery store, is the act of choosing a way of life. Baton Rouge, I love you, and one of the reasons I love you is that you’ve made me realize this like never before.

Once I went to a nearby Walmart in search of an oyster knife. When I finally figured out where the kitchen tool aisle was, I went up and down, up and down, but to no avail. No oyster knives. I tried the outdoors section—looked near the fishing tackle, the camping gear—but didn’t see any there, either. Maybe!, I thought, Maybe they’re on the food side, near some kind of shellfish display. So I trekked to the grocery area, went over to the fish freezers (no) and then to the paper-plate aisle (no). Finally I asked an employee. “Do you sell oyster knives?” I said. “No,” she said without stopping. I tried another. “Do you sell oyster knives?” I said. “Um,” he said, “Did you see them over by the frozen seafood?” “No,” I said. “Oh, I don’t know then,” he concluded. I decided the third time might be the charm. “Do you sell oyster knives?” I asked an older woman wearing both a headset and a decided air of authority. “We do,” she said. “Follow me.” We walked back to the kitchen tools. She immediately located, on a forty-foot pegboard display of dangling utensils, one empty white peg in the forest. Its was labeled, like all the other white pegs, with a yellow barcode that apparently signified what gadget meant to hang there. “This is where the oyster knives should be,” she said. “Looks like we’re sold out.”

On the way home, I would stop by the local grocery store, head directly to the one small shelf of kitchen tools, and immediately locate two different types of reasonably priced oyster knives. But first, I had to check out at Walmart. I waited in line for twenty minutes (every Walmart has at least fifty cash registers, but usually only four or five are ever staffed). I made small talk about coupons with the young girl who rang up my paper towels and detergent. When it came time to pay, I asked if she could split the purchase on two cards (this is how my fiancée and I pay for everything; we haven’t graduated to a shared checking account yet). Sure, she said, and punched some buttons, and told me to swipe the first card. “Oops,” she said. “I put the entire amount on that card.” “No problem,” I said. “Can you just void half?” “No,” she said, “You have to go to customer service. I can’t undo it.” I turned. There were at least ten people in the customer service line. I could have gone to an ATM, sure, taken out forty dollars cash, paid my partner back. But the Walmart ATM wasn’t my bank, and I didn’t feel like paying six dollars in transaction fees, and I didn’t feel like driving in more terrible Baton Rouge traffic to get to my own bank. So I pushed my cart to customer service, waited another twenty minutes, and when I finally got to the counter, the cashier announced that she would have to void my entire purchase, item by item, then re-ring everything, and then split the total. “You can’t just take the charge off the card,” I asked, mind boggled. “Nope,” she said, and without further explanation, began her Sisyphean task.

So I waited some more, and looked around. The two beleaguered women behind the counter, faced with a never-ending line of unhappy customers. Piles and piles and carts full of returned junk everywhere. An ominous beeping noise coming from some machine I was never able to identify. No one, including me, picking up the various bits of trash—empty Coke bottles, crumpled receipts—that littered the floor and the counter. The same announcement for “all hands to the loading dock” made over and over on the tinny loudspeaker. For some reason, the phrase too big to fail popped into my head. Too big to fail, I thought. More like too big to function.

When I finally got out to the parking lot, there were shopping carts everywhere.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.