Few experiences are so central to American life as going to the supermarket. Not everyone goes to church or temple. Not everyone goes to a school or a job. But sooner or later everyone ends up in line at the Vons or Ralphs or Walmart or Albertsons or wherever.
You can be a hermit, seeking to be as disconnected as possible from the rest of the world and still get a pretty good idea of what is happening in society just from cruising the vegetable section. You put your finger on the pulse of your community while trying to find the right flavor of cat food (hint: there is no right flavor. Cats change their taste in chow like Mickey Rooney changed wives).
I rather enjoy going to the market, either alone or with Marilyn. On display is the vast variety of choices that are made available through American capitalist democracy. On the other hand, you can also see all the unnecessary and basically worthless products that prey on our fears, vanity, ignorance and insecurity.
Is Axe body spray really going to make you irresistible to women? Since there is very little in terms of regulation on just what constitutes “organic,” what are you really getting for that extra 10 cents a pound? Has anyone ever found a toilet cleaner that worked without 20 minutes of elbow grease, contrary to commercial claims otherwise?
Supermarkets tend to divide us up by social, economic and ethnic classes. The upper and upper middle classes (and those who aspire to those statuses) push their carts through Whole Foods Market and Sprouts. The folks at the other end are at Food For Less or Aldi’s. The middle class ends up at the big chains and moves up or down based on our economic resources.
We now have markets aimed at primarily Asian or Hispanic clientele, showing us how much more diverse Orange County has become. In consequence of that, the mainline markets are stocking items once seen only in a specialty stores in ethnic enclaves. And, as time goes on, we are seeing a greater mix of peoples in the aisles as immigrants – and especially their children – become more Americanized and start developing a taste for the products advertised on network TV.
Having lived in the OC since 1960, I feel I can measure the changes in the community by paying close attention to who’s in the checkout line ahead of me. That once all-“white” bunch has become an array of skin tones and accents, reflecting what’s happening all across the state, nation and world. It must be like a hundred years ago, when the “white” Americans in the East watched – sometimes with alarm – all the immigrants coming in from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Russia and elsewhere.
The supermarket line educates us about eating habits, education levels – how many people are thumbing through the latest issue of National Enquirer – and technology. Is there anyone there under the age of 60 who pays with cash or a check anymore? My debit card flies out of my wallet and the days of change and rummaging for pennies and nickels are as antiquated as 10-cent ice cream cones at Thrifty drug stores. Paper money appears to be going the way of the paper news. The extinction of either seems to be just a matter of time.
Just a couple of days ago I spotted a loving young couple holding hands and kissing while strolling past the seasonal Oreo display. What was a little noteworthy was that they were both women. The “love that daren’t not speak its name” once is now picking out cheese at the deli case in Target.
Each year, the President gives an address on the State of the Union before Congress. You can get your own much more relevant and reliable intel on what’s really going on by pushing that wire cart toward the cereals.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column appears weekly, usually on Wednesdays. Except when he forgets and is a day late.