Most of the time, when I go to the grocery store, I think about Gorbachev. The Threat of Communism is something I vaguely remember, and the vision of a Soviet store where there is one kind of toothbrush (ugly, straight, and red) and one kind of bread (brown) has a firm place in my imagination.
Probably people born five or ten years after me don’t have these ideas as anything other than textbook asides, crammed into the last week of the school year. (The Soviet Union existed for most of my grade school career, but didn’t make it to middle school.)
The most wonderful place in an American capitalist system is the supermarket. I usually call it the “grocery store,” but you know a grocery store could be a place with a grocer, who actually sells you your food, or knows something about it. No one at the supermarket knows anything. They are just working there. The thing is, a supermarket offers you such great bounty that there are not questions to be asked. You don’t have to inquire, as Gorbachev did, Are there any toothbrushes today? There are. There are 83 toothbrushes, and you only need one.
The ceiling is outrageously high for no reason. The approach to the place often has some Temple of Dendur-style colonnade. Everything about the place is designed to prove to you that not only is there enough food here, there is so much food, you can strengthen and/or fatten yourself up until you feel like stopping, if you ever do.
Then you go inside, and the part that always inspires me with capitalist pig pride is the outrageous number of choices. Would you like orange juice? Maybe you want to squeeze it yourself. Maybe you want it condensed and frozen. Maybe condensed and bottled. Maybe you’d prefer it ready to pour and bottled. Would you like calcium thrown in? Extra vitamin C? Pulp? No pulp? What size? Glass or plastic bottle? Fake orange juice? Juice boxes? Refrigerated now, individual size, or bigger to take home later? Name brand or generic? Organic or filthy conventional? It’s morning in America, indeed.
(I thought this was a grocery place? It is, but you can also get drugs and cleaners and pet food and liquor and holiday decorations and plants and office supplies and possibly folding chairs or beach balls.)
I guess I could still compare our supermarkets with Cuban stores. The trouble is, I think of Cuba in terms of cigars and old cars and palm trees. I know the Cubans are suffering, but their suffering doesn’t turn me on the same way Soviet suffering does. Maybe I’m mixing a Russian style of suffering, garnered from Doestoevsky and Pasternak, into my supermarket scenario. This must be the fault of Reinaldo Arenas, who describes his suffering vividly, alongside the fabulous fun he had. Russians in literature do party. They just don’t have fun.
Even crazier than the selection, though, is the wildly inefficient way that the place is open 24 hours a day. The huge place– the giant freezers that don’t even have doors, the ones that just leak and breathe out cold air constantly so their siren song to you is stronger– this place is open 24 hours a day so that you can buy almost anything to make and eat almost anything whenever the hell you want to. Really, we only need a drugstore open 24 hours a day, with emergency-staple food and a pharmacy. But we’ve got so much more.
The idea of more, of course, is what Americans are so excited about, and what makes them so sexy and also so repellent. There are a million situations in which more is a terrible mistake. It creates shocking amounts of waste. It also inspires creative people, though. More, more, more! Blogs. Paintings. Songs. Nobody needs them. Still we churn them out, insisting that more will help. And actually, I think it will.