“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Today I went to Pathmark for the first time in over 20 years. Pathmark is a Long Island supermarket chain and a bright memory from my youth. Childhood grocery shopping meant trips to Pathmark, often and happily enough ending with a trip to the adjoining pizza place and video arcade. Whenever my parents did groceries, the first thing they’d do was swing by the store’s magazine section so my sisters and I pick Archie comics to read while they shopped.
I think I’m old enough now to attempt my first “when I was a kid, [generic concept] was better than it is today.” Here goes: when I was a kid, grocery shopping was better than it is today. Not because the store was remarkable. Pathmark is indistinguishable from a lot of joints on L.I., and as anyone who’s been upstate knows, Wegmans is the Versailles of supermarkets; even Tops, the red-headed stepchild to Wegmans’ gold standard (and the best place for a drunken undergrad to pass out in a freezer full of pizza rolls—trust me), stacks up favorably compared to Pathmark. And I don’t think people in general or children specifically are any better today than they were in the 80’s. Ronald Reagan sucked. Bush I sucked. Bush II and Obama suck too. Some people are monsters—Vladimir Putin, and Spencer Pratt, for example. Some people are transubstantive marvels–I suspect Lindsay Lohan is one of these bright lights (then again, I’ve a weakness for redheads, so take that for what it’s worth). But most of us fall in the middle of the bell curve: neither angels nor demons. Generally unremarkable. Like Pathmark.
An irony borne repeatedly through history is how the worst of times often reveal, if not elicit, the best of the human condition, and vice-versa. Beethoven loses his hearing and gains the pinnacle of creative artistry. Want to see unfathomable heroism and unconditional love? Read “Escape from Sobibor,” the true story of the only successful concentration-camp rebellion during the Holocaust. Today, in the sucralose saccharine “Made In China” bubble that is America 2010, hundreds of people make a living pumping out ‘Jersey Shore’ to millions of people. Some marvels. Some monsters. Most middling. Same as it ever was.
I think grocery shopping was better when I was a kid because it was used as a catalyst for reading and imagination. Last week I saw a 5-year old polishing off a can of Pringles while his parents bought more. I don’t mean grocery shopping as a whole was any better back in the day. Maybe where you shopped it sucked. Maybe the Pathmark milk I grew up drinking came from imported subway rats. Who knows?
I like when the world seems bigger. I hate when it seems smaller. Eating food while buying food is spiritually descended from Christopher Columbus. It’s a form of shrinking. An ugly one.
When I was ready to check-out—yucca; platanos; Q-tips—I encountered a modern dilemma. All the checkout lines were long, 6-8 people deep. At first I attributed this to the approaching Hurricane Earl. But nobody was stocking up on bottled water or flashlights, or D-batteries or Spam. The faces around me weren’t anxious or strained. It could have been any ol’ day at the grocery store. Something about the scene struck me. Something about the exchange of access and intimacy.
Millions of people knew that a force of nature was nearing the area, an elemental torrent of wind and rain rarely glimpsed…and thanks to Doppler and 24 hour news and a media-saturated society, millions of people knew not to sweat it. Hurricane Earl was going down as a downer, yet another homecoming that failed to meet the hype (see: Bobby Bonilla). No one knew exactly how it would play out, of course. But they knew enough about shortcomings to anticipate one.
I felt a sadness on me then. Not because I wanted Long Island to get slammed by a hurricane. Already saw that in ’86 with Hurricane Gloria. Also lived through the ice storm upstate a few years later that shut everything down for what felt like weeks (with no hot water, your non-humble and at-the-time 12-year old narrator couldn’t get that just-right look he wanted for his hair. Ended up wearing a paper-mache Knicks’ hat that they gave away that season [’90-‘91] at a home game vs. the Jazz. Hat-head, the bane of junior high masculinity, was preferable to showering with cold water. How I miss hat-head). Maybe the sadness I felt was because whenever knowledge is gained, there’s a reflexive myopia that zeroes in on the correspondent access that’s been gained.
But the intimacy that’s lost deserves to be mourned, too. The more we know, the less we know of what we don’t. I like lighting candles for the extinct.
Pathmark, like most chain stores these days, offers self-checkout lines. I despise self-checkout lines. Beastly things. Bad mojo, they’s is. Self-checkouts offend me the way cash pre-pay gas stations do, the way Wal-Mart does by having their door-greeters treat everyone who walks into the store like their best friend and then like ex-cons on their way out, demanding they stop and submit to a search & seizure to ensure they really did pay $2.75 for those 300 plastic hangars.
Self-checkouts are offensive in a management/labor/consumer sense. Tangibly, they benefit management, threaten labor, and inconvenience consumers. The customer performs the work that a laborer normally would, and receives no compensation for their work. The laborers suffer by losing hours and opportunities to an unpaid worker, i.e. the customer, a particularly egregious fact in a downsized, recession-hit economy (hey, immigrant-bashers: self-checkouts take jobs away from Americans! Go protest something inanimate, for once). Management saves money on labor costs by coercing consumers to do the work for free, with the added benefit of being able to reduce or eliminate jobs that are now redundant.
Self-checkout enthusiasts justify their complicity in the sinister triangle by pointing to the length of the lines at the 1 or 2 checkout lines that are staffed. They won’t ask management why there aren’t enough cashiers to handle the numbers of customers checking out. They won’t ask the workers if they’ve received any benefits in exchange for the loss of jobs and hours available. They’ll be home soon enough, and narcotized. S’all good.
I saw something I could not understand, nor explain. It made my head tickle. But like a tickling that hurts, like when you’re a kid and someone keeps tickling and tickling and you cross the point where it feels good, and now it’s just manic and unpleasant and frightening. There were four self-checkout registers. Three were open. One was closed.
Why is a self-checkout line ever closed? Ever? Ever? Nobody works there! Was Nobody on their lunch break? Was Pathmark short-staffed that day on stock boys, or the girl working in the bakery never showed up, and they needed Nobody to fill in? If self-checkouts exist to ease the crush of people checking out, and the store is packed, why have one closed?
It’s been decades since Pathmark was what I remember it as. The distance in my memory grows farther and faster than the distance in time does. If bloodshed tends toward creative genius and peace toward cuckoo clocks, what do self-checkout lines tend toward? Hegemony? Insanity? Hegemonic insanity? Hegenity?