Last Semi-Public Place in Southern California
by Elaine Lewinnek
When the casual conversation veered towards conspiracy theories, she decided she did not need anything from the baking supplies and breakfast food aisle anyway. She uttered a noncommittal noise and walked towards pasta and canned goods, proud of herself for finally mastering the etiquette of disengagement. At least, that’s what she told her husband when she got home. He’s an avoider of conflict, sometimes embarrassed by her tendency to talk more than necessary, especially about politics.
Then she looked at their teen daughter, fiercely committed to many social causes in that beautiful incandescent way generally only seen in teens, before they burn out and mute their own edges. Her daughter holds her accountable. “Maybe I should have confronted the conspiracy theorist?” she wonders aloud. “Maybe she wasn’t even a conspiracy theorist anyway, and maybe the supermarket is the last public sphere, so it’s kind of our duty to engage in conversation.” Supermarkets aren’t truly public, she knows even before her daughter rolls her eyes to tell her, yet they are one of the last few places where we venture even slightly out of our bubbles. We all need to eat.
Back in the market, she had been expressing surprise over the lack of milk, only three or four cartons where there were usually 50. She asked a clerk what had happened, and he explained, with an apologetic shrug “We forgot to order dairy this week.” She had laughed, thanked him for his honesty, and mentioned she’s glad it wasn’t a cow emergency. She was thinking of the striking cows in the kids’ book, Click Clack Moo, and the chickens currently suffering from some
disease whose name she can’t remember, but then the other shopper laughed at the idea of “cow emergency,” and declared that what she believes is it’s all manufactured now-a-days anyway. She wanted to ask, “What do you mean? Is all milk manufactured, do you think, or all emergencies, or both?” She still doesn’t know if she should have inquired. If all that other woman ever hears is an online echo chamber, do we have a neighborly duty to help her consider other perspectives when we happen to encounter her in the supermarket?
Neighbor, public: these are important words to her. Her mother understood their importance. Her mother shopped at the supermarket in the next town over, because she is shy and anxious and eager to avoid conversation with casual acquaintances. She’s grown beyond her mother, though, and moved across the country from her.
“You’ve been coming here a while, haven’t you?” the checkout clerk asked her last week. “You were here in 2020, during the early pandemic. I remember you. I was having a terrible week, you couldn’t have known that, but you said something to me. I don’t even remember what it was you said, but I remember how it made me feel. You made my week better. I’ve been meaning to thank you for almost two years now.” She does not remember this clerk. But she mulls it over, this generous compliment saved up for years.
She is certain this is not the same clerk who had told her, on Mother’s Day last year, “You know, I have 6 kids. That’s why I took this job: the pay’s not good, but the store discount makes it worthwhile when you have 7 mouths to feed. But it means I’m away from my kids a lot. My manager called me in in the middle of bath time the other night, said it was an emergency and I needed to come in right away, so my oldest daughter took over washing my youngest one’s hair. The oldest one ends up doing a lot of the mothering like that. And today, the younger ones one said ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ to me and to the oldest one. The kids got us two mother’s day bouquets, actually, one for me and one for their big sister. This makes me happy, you know, but also really, really sad.”
She thinks of herself as a bad listener, most of the time, but apparently not when she’s bagging groceries that someone else is ringing up. “Food is good to think with,” anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss declared. He meant it is good for understanding rituals, traditions, and beliefs in the remote villages where anthropologists of his era hung around. He probably wasn’t thinking about her suburban southern California supermarket, but she applies that maxim here anyway.
This is not Armistead Maupin’s San Francisco supermarket, full of newcomers flirting over papayas. This is a different kind of California conversation about labor, identities, and food. She’s never lived in a region where people chatted this way in the food store, but she remembers reading Joan Didion’s interviews after the Lakewood “Spur Posse” scandal of the 1990s. Dottie Belman, who had once been awarded ‘Mother of the Year,’ told Didion: “Now I go to Von’s at 5 a.m. in disguise.” [Belman quoted in Joan Didion, “Trouble in Lakewood,” New Yorker (June 19, 1993).] She wonders surprisingly often about Dottie Belman’s life, especially when she happens to be at the market early in the morning.
It was the random chats with strangers that she missed the most when we all quarantined in 2020, surprising herself. They bond, the last people left shopping in person, the last few people unwilling to trust an app to select their avocados.
Her own supermarket conversations are not only in the checkout line, and not usually particularly deep. Last week, someone was asking for raw horseradish. The clerk in the vegetable section said there was none, but she interrupted to suggest checking the end cap to the aisle over by dairy. “They gather Jewish foods over there,” she explained. “It’s an odd
assortment with a lot of matzoh all year round, as if they can’t find an actual Jew to tell them that we don’t need much matzoh for Hannukah. They might have horseradish there right now.” It turned out they didn’t have it fresh, only canned, but the woman lingered, chatting about Passover plans, and afterwards she regretted that they didn’t also try checking over by the ginger root and turmeric. It might have been there.
She keeps supermarket compliments like a dragon keeps gold, stored away, sometimes taking them out to admire. When her daughter was an infant, on two separate occasions, a stranger stopped her in the aisles to say, out of the blue, “You’re a really good mother.” Now she waits to pass this praise on to some other parent navigating the store with a child, but she hasn’t yet found a moment that won’t be awkward. Back then, she was inventing voices near a temporary display of puppets. She used to ask the clerks to charge her for extra mushrooms, because she allowed her bored toddler to munch on raw mushrooms as they circled the aisles, but the clerks never did. One asked, “Do you know how much candy other parents let their kids steal and never mention to us?”
Her current favorite clerk is the older bearded guy who plays with words and radical politics. “Communism means common, you and me together in common, so I’m going to use this $10 off coupon I keep around because it’s you and me against the corporation, even though the corporation also pays my salary. It’s all about love, you know? Amen, sister, I mean a-women too.”
Her husband’s current favorite clerk is the elderly guy at the meat counter in the USMC baseball hat, a vet who has plenty of retirement benefits so he doesn’t need to work, but his VA counselor advised him to find a way to get out of the house and around more people, so he stands by the supermarket deli, telling war stories, processing his PTSD next to the cheeses and sushi. Apparently, he has three Purple Hearts.
She remembers what she had told that other clerk, back in early 2020. The customer ahead of her had been impatient and rude. After that customer left, she had asked, “How often does that happen to you?” and listened in fascination to the honest answer: every day, usually once an hour. “It’s shocking,” she replied, “because you’re literally risking your life just so we can buy cilantro.”
The clerk shook her head in a kind of corkscrew motion, as if making room for a new idea, and said, “You’re right! I’m risking my life here! It is amazing I’m not more appreciated. I never thought of it that way.” She bagged her cilantro and eggs.
Elaine Lewinnek is a professor of American Studies and coordinator of Environmental Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author, with Thuy Vo Dang and Gustavo Arellano, of A People’s Guide to Orange County. She is also a mom and a person who shops for food.