Tuesday, 24 March 2009

My super(market) award

Fiona's post Death by Shopping made me think a bit. I thunked and thunked and then decided I'd better 'fess up and be done with it. I'm a poseur, a hypocrite, another shame-faced contender for the If You Think You're a Naturalist or Environmentalist or Conservationist or Humanist or Whatever Grand and Noble Label You Love to Apply to Yourself You're, Like, Totally Deluded award.

I remember the little shops of yesteryear. My grandfather owned one. These shops fascinated me as a small child - a fascination that turned into aversion as I grew older and joined the throngs stampeding our way to the supermarkets.

Supermarkets are spacious. They have parking. They are clean. They don't smell. The goods are shiny and spotless, tastefully arranged, and the choices border on bewildering. They are impersonal. The little shops and mini-marts, on the other hand, are none of the above. My grandfather's shop smelled of the salt fish, the buckets of pig's tails in brine, the smoked herring that used to be an important part of the local diet. Produce was weighed on a crude scale (like the one pictured above) and wrapped in brown paper. There was a system of 'trust', or credit. No one ever went without because they were short of cash; Grandfather would remove the pencil from behind his ear and write the amount owed on a scrap of paper, which he would then slip on to a wire hook that hung from a nail in plain view. Customers settled their account when they were able, and there were no late-payment fees. No money for bread? You could 'trust' it, and some butter and milk too, from my grandfather.

The lady who served at the counter was chatty, and I could never get away until I had answered a stream of enquiries about the health of every member of my extended family, and assured her that I was doing well at school. Going to the shop was a social event for many, and Miss Olive would not even notice my presence if she was engrossed in a lively conversation with her customers. As a child, back then, I couldn't ever betray signs of impatience. To do so would be 'womanish', and an accusation of womanishness would get back to my mother resulting in dire consequences for me. So I stood in the hot, close space, surrounded by odours and humanity - humanity that knew me and every member of my family for generations back - and suffered in silence.

Do you know what I love most about supermarkets? The air conditioning. Really, I'm an AC whore. I live on a tropical island but I hate to sweat. There are exceptions, of course, such as when I'm exercising. If I'm hiking in the forest with the prospect of the sea of a rock pool ahead of me, I tolerate stuff oozing out of my pores. Outside of these and a couple other special circumstances, I try to live a no-sweat existence. So, I bypass all the hot little shops struggling for survival and sashay into the cool and cavernous, overpriced supermarket, conveniently forgetting that it contains all those tons of plastic - yes, that non-biodegradable stuff that ends up in the landfills, the waterways, and the sea. I shop in splendid isolation, avoiding eye contact with the strangers around, silently bitching about all the high-cholesterol, high sodium, high sugar, high trans fat, high everything processed foods from which I must choose.

See why I'm a contender for that award? The little shops and minimarts are so much better for the environment, for the community, for health, for humanity. They are usually within walking distance, mind you, but I ignore them and join the streams of cars headed for the huge, shiny, electricity-guzzling, plastic-spewing, air-conditioned box on the horizon, our toxic exhaust and stupidity puffing in our wake. And heaven help me if I run out of cash, or the snarky little machine declines my bank card - as it has done on occasion with no provocation whatsoever.


kim said...

Oh, the guilt.
I get mad at humanity for putting me in that kind of position in the first place.
Sometimes I speak with my purchasing power, sometimes not -- we should not have set it up so hard for ourselves.

KeVin K. said...

I read this at about 1AM and decided I was too tired to think of a cogent answer. Now, six hours' sleep and a pot of coffee later, I'm still not sure.

I understand the guilt entirely. I drive past neighborhood shops to support the big grocery store and -- while I avoid malls and will only shop in WalMart after I've established what I want is nowhere else -- I do not practice my ideals when it comes to supporting local merchants and farmers. I shop price, and that usually means big chain stores.

Valerie and I belong to an organic co-op, but after the third or fourth time we brought home bugs with the produce, we stopped going back.

It's not opposition that makes us abandon our convictions, it's inconvenience.

Debs said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I like the idea of popping into one shop and buying everything I need, then racing home and getting on with everything.

I remember when my mother went shopping every day with her basket, mind you she didn't work and had the time to wander from shop to shop chatting. There, now I feel a bit better and less guilty.

Lane said...

Such a great post! I love the descriptions of the shops of your childhood. Wonderful:-)

I shop by price and convenience too. Even if I wanted to support the 'little' shops, there are very few of them left. High street rents have priced them out. The ones that remain are mainly, chi-chi, specialist and expensive. I also don't have time to treat shopping as a pastime, so speed is important. Having it all delivered is even better.

Yes, I understand that guilt. So well:-)

Ola said...

Great post! Your description of your grandparents’ shop took me back to my childhood! My grandparents, who I lived with, had a shop also and I loved every minute of it! It takes me some time to get re-adjusted to that kind of shop after living in the states for so long. First it’s the smell. My nose has become sensitive and my word! I have a love hate relationship with bodegas and Indian stores here, while I love them for carrying products I can’t find in the general stores I am a snob when it comes to how they smell and look. If the floors aren’t spotless I make my visit very, very short. And if the smell is especially strong, I again, keep my visits short. But I’ll always hold a place in my heart for them because the people are friendly and always remember my face and are sometimes willing to bargain. Plus it all reminds me of growing up in Guyana.

But I’m also with Kevin, my loyalties lie with price. I’m cheap……lol.

Whole Foods is a nice balance between supporting the environment/being natural and carrying those products that you like to bring back to the states because you could never find them here. However because they are a big business and said items are difficult to come by there prices are ridiculous. I only shop there if there is a sale, other wise I just browse.

Ola said...

P.S. check your email for the info about the D40.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Kim, it is hard. Life just gets more complicated, doesn't it?

KeVin, interestingly enough the usual rules of commerce don't apply here. The big chains are more expensive: we pay for the privilege of shopping in relative comfort. As for those bugs, much as I hate 'em, someone pointed out to me that if the bugs are around then the plants haven't been pest- and fung-icided to the gills, which means you won't be either. Comfort and convenience, btw, are downright insidious. It shouldn't be so hard to do the right thing.

Debs, my mother said that in her youth few people had refrigerators, so going to the shop or market was something that housewives, basket in hand, did every day. My mother has that wandering and chatting thing ingrained - which annoys me no end when I want to zoom through the aisles of the supermarket and move on but I can't because she's deep in conversation with a total stranger.

Lane, "Having it all delivered is even better" = my idea of Utopia. I know the little shops were wonderful in their way but I so much prefer speed, convenience and comfort.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Ola, the shops in Guyana would have been very much like those here in Trinidad, and they were a delight to small children. Sweets! Soft drinks! Tamarind balls! Yo-yos, marbles, tops... It's a pity we grow up and outgrow that wonder. I too have a very low threshold for smells, dirt, and, um, bugs!

I'm lucky in that my mother loves to garden and has always been a stickler for good nutrition, so we get quite a bit of fresh, organically grown food from the yard. Now that the rains have stopped she's growing tomatoes and cabbages again and I swear they taste nothing like the commercial produce.

I'll check my e-mail for the D40 info. Thanks!

Stephe said...

A great post and great responses. Yup.

I too am an AC Whore. I sweat buckets much too quickly and my vision turns purple and I'm sprawled in a heap somewhere whenever I try not to be an AC Whore. Just call me the Human Heat Collector. It sucks, but oh well.

I went through a period of getting back to nature with my food, once. I really wish it had worked out, because I love the idea of it coming straight from the farm, to my hands, to my kitchen. But after finding so many gy-normous insects and worms and Goliath beetles in the corn I was shucking, and rip-roaring backaches from trying to wash all the grit from a bundle of greens (that would take almost an hour, sometimes), etc., then having to suck dinner down in five minutes because no time was left to eat, I couldn't take it anymore.

I get a few things at a small market. I get most of my things a big grocery store. I just do the best I can with that balance of the two, for now. Guilt about it would stress me and use up precious energy I need to solve other problems, so I'm not bothering with that.

Good topic, Liane.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Stephe, last week the electricity went at work and I decided to soldier it out and remain in the office. Had to leave when that box turned into a grill. By the time I got home and sprawled in front of the fan I was staggering. Yes, the visual effects had switched on, too.

You're right, we can't obsess over everything, just do the best with what we're given.

(Insects, beetles, I will survive. Worms - not!)

Fiona said...

Womanish. What a great word. I will use it all week.
Oh don't feel guilty m'dear. I also remember going into a little shops with my mother where they would cut the blowfly bits off the ham and then sell you the rest.

And who can blame you for wanting to be cool - you are cool - but cold, cool.

I will say,though, that the photo and your wonderful discription of your grandfather's shop makes me yearn for a kinder world.

Anonymous said...

All supermarkets have parking except Hi-Lo in St. Augustine. I prefer the scaled down, or hybrid versions of supermarkets to the real thing. The mini markets usually have the right blend of small crowds, enough parking, that personal touch, and smelly salt fish. These mini marts prefer cash and have a permanent temporarily out-of-order sign on the Linx machine. Some people get credit but those are the ones who went to school with the owner. There is no air conditioning or spacious aisle so people browse less and shop with smaller carts.

I know an old shop that was still an old shop until last year. The owner's son from "away" is gradually talking over and now people can get pig tail and Nokia over the same counter.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

Fiona, womanish is a great word but it seems to have fallen into disuse like so many other local expressions. American slang rules now. :(

Yes, it seems the world was kinder back then, and communities were what they were supposed to be.

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

akalol, I lived in St. Joseph for a few years and shopped at Hi-Lo in St. Augustine. There was never a problem for parking then. Different times, all right. As for the scaled down versions of supermarkets with the little aisles - well, maybe we can come to an arrangement where you do my grocery shopping and I, um, okay, this will take some thinking through. I'd offer to wash your car but after seeing a photo of it covered in mud I might be biting off more than I can chew.

Pig tail and Nokia in the same store? How weird is that? But then, this is a weird place we call home.