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The Sadness of Supermarkets at Night

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By Lauren McKinneyThumbnail image for 3128182110_9a57e9093e_z.jpg

Every week, we three kids would pile in the 1968 Ford Country Squire station wagon.  Depending on where our military family lived, we'd drive to the Army Commissary, Penn Fruit, A & P, Acme, or Piggly Wiggly. My mom would load up the cart with frozen vegetables, boxes of cereal, cartons of milk, a couple of TV dinners, meat in styrofoam packages, instant coffee, Tang, jars of peaches, a few pale tomatoes, and heads of iceberg lettuce. At the checkout, she'd fuss with her Green Stamps and checkbook. The bagger would hustle our four or five bags out to the wagon and cram them in the back. We always seemed to get the same food no matter what season it was.  That's pretty much the only place we shopped because back then, supermarkets were where the food was, period.

Then things got complicated. I noticed that the supermarket also sold "feminine hygiene products." When did that happen? At age 14,  I was sent to buy my own Kotex at the Kaiserslautern Military Complex Commissary, on our base in Germany. In order to hide the proof of my womanhood from the other humans in the checkout line, I concealed it under my green Loden cape. It didn't help. Now I was a girl hiding a giant box of Kotex under a green Loden cape like some kind of failed superhero.

Living in Philadelphia in my 20s and 30s, and much more suave about my womanhood, I learned that the supermarket sold gossipy reading material-- tabloids featuring Lady Diana Spencer, then Princess Di, then the royal divorce. I read the saga in line, too snobby to purchase an issue, never picking one up to read beyond the cover. Then, living in Virginia in the early years of my marriage, I often had to run to Kroger's, Food Lion, or Red Front Grocery to pick up diapers. How long had they been selling diapers? And in so many different sizes, too. That was when the desperate night trips began. But I began to hate it, a big, chilly, garishly lit room that played hits from my adolescent Kotex shopping days like Badfinger's "Day after Day," or Melanie's "Brand New Key."

Now, living in Swarthmore with my own family,  our food comes to us via Lancaster Farm Fresh CSA, the Swarthmore Co-op, Philly Cowshare, Trader Joe's, and our garden. The supermarket's role has shrunk over the years to the point where I only go there after the Swarthmore Co-op closes at 8:00 p.m. and I need something before 8 a.m.the next day. Usually milk. Or it could be ice cream to celebrate a baseball or Pinewood Derby success. My closest supermarket is Genuardi's.

And every time I go to Genuardi's, here's what happens. I enter to the usual "oldies" on the sound system and start having flashbacks. "The Long and Winding Road"-- eating tuna sandwiches at the Officers' Club every day of 7th grade because the school on our army base in Germany had no cafeteria. "Both Sides Now" -- love wasn't all it was cracked up to be, said my 9th grade teacher, Miss Porter, knowingly. "Benny and the Jets" -- 10th grade gym class and those baggy navy blue jumpsuits that did nothing for us. Wait, why am I here? Milk. It's always about a kilometer away from the door. Hike over to get it, pass the baked goods that look tasty but aren't, and get in the line.

The line is short because so few people inhabit this fluorescently-lit echo-y nocturnal world. However, it's just long enough for me to read some tabloid headlines about Jennifer Aniston or Angelina Jolie. It's long enough for me to remember my single years of supermarket shopping, and the lines I waited in then. My single years were many, and the lines were longer then. Even without buying a magazine, over those years I had time to comprehend Diana's almost-plump virginal phase, big-hat phase, baby phase, anorexic moping phase, thirty and separated and wearing a kick-ass black turtleneck phase, the extra-blond extra- divorced phase, and then the end.

Supermarkets at night connects me to all the other supermarkets I've ever been to, the trips to get diapers (no longer needed) and Tampax (no longer needed) and milk and Benadryl blending into one long string of banal experiences that never quite disappear from memory. The rise and fall of princesses and movie stars continues. My mother's supermarkets are never coming back, any more than my mother is coming back, any more than Princess Di or Whitney Houston or my youth are coming back.

"Will that be all, ma'am?" It will. And when did I become "ma'am"? A long time ago.

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