A Brief History of Supermarkets

"The supermarket is very crowded."

November 29, 2017

Alan Hanson is a writer from California. 

This is something about supermar—

This is something about depression, like all is when you are.

 “I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out.”
—The Clash, “Lost in the Supermarket”

In the stark silence of memory, I am young. Young enough to be riding inside the shopping cart at the Stater Brothers grocery store on Magnolia. I am old enough to know what my parents mean by “you spoil him” but not old enough to understand why my grandmother, pushing the cart, has darker skin than I do. She holds my amateur hand in hers, wood-brown and well-lotioned. I don’t understand her Spanglish. I am frightened by the brimstone imagery of her Catholicism. I don’t know what she’s trying to erase with a facelift. The market beeps, the turnstile squeaks as she guides us back out into the world. Corona, California is quiet. Bent October sun in the parking lot. There is a saturation of confusion, and it won’t ever leave. Sometimes I will remember this moment, caught in the spaces between shadows of leaves, casting a net over the sidewalk, during golden hour.

“In the blizzard of ’77, the cars were just lumps on the snow. And then later, tripping at 7-Eleven, the shelves were stretching out of control.”
—Nada Surf, “Blizzard of ‘77”

I’m nineteen, standing in the Albertson’s on Yorba Linda Boulevard, while my college roommates purchase a Styrofoam cooler for a beach bonfire. We wear Hollister and our haircuts are shaggy on purpose. I wear Vans, my roommates wear Rainbows. I’ve just eaten mushrooms for the first time, the fluorescence all coated celluloid, watching the twenty-five-cent toy machines slowly sway. It’s all blue and blonde in there. I miss my family. I was fleeing. Later, at the beach, the dark surf crashes in the void, and oh how it frightens me, forever.

I took her to a supermarket. I don’t know why but I had to start it somewhere.”
—Pulp, “Common People,”

We are twenty-one, twenty-two, and walking past the Ralph’s grocery store that is halfway between my apartment and the Starbucks, our destination, where we are meeting to break up. I stop, I blurt it out, incapable of bearing the half block farther, the ordering of coffee. She’s angry, flushed in the face, Jean Seberg in red, her ski-jump nose cocked into a sneer. She says I’m too dramatic, I make everything a movie. I will tell this story many times in the years that follow, thinking it says something funny about my romanticism, but more honestly fearing that it says something about my disassociation with reality. Which it does.

“It makes no difference. Night or day. Nobody teaches you how to live. Cups of tea are a clock. A clock, a clock, a clock.”
—The Raincoats, “Fairytale in the Supermarket”

I am twenty-five and spend no fewer than three nights a week aimlessly wandering the Vons Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard. It’s 2AM and I’m stoned on the couch, no longer interested in the television, so I slink down to the street where I resurrect my 1992 Acura Legend and hump it to the 24-hour supermarket. No goal. No plan.  Tommy James and the Shondells play over the tinny radio while I pace the mostly empty aisles. The few other patrons look equally blank, awash in white light and cooler chill.

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent.

Things we all must do. Shopping for now. Wondering, scared, what happens when these bulbs stop humming.

“So let it begin. Let her be dipped in the dazzling bounty/
and raised and wrung out again and again.”
—Tony Hoagland, “At the Galleria Shopping Mall”

I shop when I’m sad, like well-designed packaging could re-skin my life.

I couldn’t satisfy myself if I tried.

“…the supermarket is very crowded…”
—David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water”

No shit.

Countless graduates from a certain age, bathed in the dim cathode rays of this story, these American doldrums, something about living, something about wanting, eyes glassy, glazed, already gone. Yes, life is everywhere.

Countless film characters staring to corners, bored with yearning, as the camera pushes slowly into their checkout counter, their aprons and pouts, the supermarket whirring behind them, even though life is everywhere.

California spring is a taunt. We stop at the Vons on Figueroa. The parking lot is crushed in nightlight, all the moths in love have received an invite. Once inside, I buy a case of “throwback” Mountain Dew and you a case of La Croix. I can’t remember the flavor. I am almost thirty, we are falling out of love, you are moving back to New York. Every time I attempt to buy something there’s a problem with the register. That charged electric hum of the market, it seeps into all. Everything is so goddamn bright sometimes, I have to close my eyes.

—Chris Iller, “2:30am at a 7-11 near Disney World – 1987”

This is the year I am born.

And oh god, what if life is everywhere?

Alan Hanson is a writer from California.