In these last few years of (sort of) voluntary reduced means, one spending pleasure that remains is the grocery store. There is no concern at the grocery store for if one should be spending money, one must buy food, mustn’t one? A child of the ’80s, the grocery store is also the only place I feel good about capitalism, with all its choices.
(This comes at the cost of periodic fury when, with all the myriad options, they still don’t stock my New Orleans coffee, or my vanilla yogurt.)
I loaded up the cart and pulled out my debit card.
I had $85 in my checking account.
The clerk had already loaded all $85 of my food into my two reusable bags. One was a bag someone gave me, with wildlife on it, showing someone else had donated to wildlife. The other was my New Yorker tote bag, which every snob needs, to show that one is that type of person.
I said, I work! I swear I work! And I’m a good person! I’ve been working in public education for twenty fucking years and I still owe $30,000 in student loans, I don’t need a house with an ‘updated kitchen’ or a speaker I can talk to because I’m lazier than George Jetson and can’t even push buttons, just let me have some fucking groceries, man, be cool!
Oh, I’m so sorry, ma’am, I didn’t know who you were, the check out guy said. I had no idea. Our educational system is so messed up. Thank you for all your hard work. I respect you so much. Please take your groceries, and this coupon for a free bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon next door, and a free orchid on your way out, and have a nice evening.
It’s no problem, I said. Everyone makes mistakes.
We will not be charging you for groceries in the future. Please come see us again.
The reason our family had money, for the first ten years of my life, was that my dad happened to have been born with skills and interest and been born at a time he could go to college cheap, he met a woman who helped him return to college, and he did work men had traditionally done, work that was well compensated and highly respected by most people (except Shakespeare).
If you can’t get your parents to stop fighting, you will have to start worrying about so many things you never considered: did you bring your gym clothes to Dad’s? Who are you going to ask for money for the field trip everyone else is going on? Whose house will you be at on that day?
When I couldn’t pay for my groceries, I wished I was back in my Brooklyn, where I knew a lot of people were struggling financially, and I did once have my card declined. I went ahead and sorted out what I wanted and didn’t, and I felt okay about it. Shit happens, right? Even to white ladies. In the scruffier part of Brooklyn or Queens, I felt like we all knew good people sometimes came up short because it was hard to make ends meet. Everyone knew the city was a hard place to make it.
I decided that the Lawrence gods had punished me for going to the too-fancy grocery store instead of what everyone knew to be the best local, no-frills grocery store in the world. I took my mom’s money and bought trash bags and cat litter and a few green vegetables. The card went through.
I carried five bags of groceries around the side of the house. They were so heavy. In New York, I never would have bought this many groceries at once. I wouldn’t have been able to haul them home, or get them up and down subway stairs.
So it worked out this time, the cat said.
Well, I brought you some wet food, I said.
Meow, she said. Meow.
I picked her up, and she purred for 30 seconds. Then she wiggled.
I put her back down.
I’m sorry you live under this brutal capitalism regime, she said, as I put half and half in the fridge.
Can I have some wet food?
I’m sorry, too, I said. Here you go.
Image: detail of “Grocery Store Window, Macon, Georgia, February 1935,” Walker Evans. Metropolitan Museum of Art.