There is very little appeal to spending ones’ waking hours in the supermarket. Bright lights, row upon row of crap to stuff your face with, packaged in disposal crap to stuff the Brady Landfill with. People move about, distracted after a long work day, or groggy upon waking and in need of caffeine. Couples bicker over meaningless items or household budgets. An alcoholic eyes the de-alcoholized cans of Blue longingly. Clean-up on aisle four.
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As long as there have been supermarkets, there has been artistic backlash against them. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg published “A Supermarket in California,” a beautiful, if nostalgic, paean to Walt Witman’s America, lost in the neon supermarket glare of post-War California. In 1979, the Clash released “Lost in the Supermarket,” a delayed response, in many ways, to Ginsberg’s poem, updated to reflect the blank generation zeitgeist of depressed British youth in an age of mounting social austerity.
I think of the lyrics to both often as I meander about my own shopping experience, more often than not in Osborne Village’s Safeway location. I think of Ginsberg when I bemoan the price of canned beans or far-from-fresh avocado, of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer when I note the special offer of Bonus Airmiles along with my bag of Fair Trade Coffee.
This past Saturday, I shuffled into the Safeway an hour from closing time, when the streets outside were dark and full of life. Soon, the bars would be brimming with sex and violence, and I would be in bed, dreaming of home renovations and armed polar bear conflict. But at 10:00pm, I was eight or nine pops deep and well electrified.
I was on a mission for Sunday’s breakfast and a bednight snack. I made my way from one point on my list to the next, bright lights glaring off every surface, through my retinas and deep into my brain. I begin to notice that the aisles I’m perusing are nearly empty. I look around the bakery department, and find I am its only patron. The same goes for the dairy section. An odd sense of calm settles upon my shoulders, and I smile.
In the midst of the soda pop section, I pass another lone denizen of this artificial world. His eyes are red rimmed and swimming in saline solution, and he wears a confused grin; a fellow traveller lost in an electric haze. I avert my gaze as we pass, and head towards produce. The last thing I need is a stop and chat with a blasted stranger about the glories of Doc P.
At the far end of the produce section lingers a beautiful woman, hemming and hawing over the price of peaches. Or something. I never get close to her to find out. As I make my way past the mushrooms, she disappears around the corner. And I am alone again. She could have been an apparition, and I none the wiser.
At the checkout line, I watch a wasted couple argue over the Red Box selection. She favours The Big Wedding, he leans towards Oblivion. An exhausted employee pushes a string of carts from one entrance to another before deking outside for a final smoke before shift’s end. I ask the woman at the check-out counter if Saturday’s are always this exciting.
“What?” she asks, laughing. At me or my question, I’m unsure. To her, it’s another day on the job. Another set of hours stacked on a paycheque at the end of the month. There’s no excitement, here.
“Nevermind,” I tell her, with a goofy grin. I am just another patron passing through her supermarket, headed for the tree-lined streets beyond. “Just doing some research.”
She hands me my groceries with a weary smile, and I am gone.
Sheldon Birnie is an editor at large for The Albatross and the editor of Stylus Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @badguybirnie