Oh, baby, now you’re such a drag.
The aisles of Target and their ilk, replete with inexpensive imported tripe, purchased predominately by svelte young women in yoga pants, all quite fine to behold, but leaving one feeling that too much plastic purchased portends a plastic soul.
Not so many miles away, in a small-town grocery, the aisles perhaps not so laden with “gourmet” or “premium” goods, but stacked with much more from not nearly so far away. The customers offer a rare and fascinating cross-section of a diverse people. A young man with gauged-out ears can be seen at the deli counter besides old women, who banter with the butcher just as does the hunter in his camo or the farmer in from his field, wearing wet and worn overalls and stinking of manure. Friends and neighbors meet here, and talk of life and love and dreams. Last night’s episode of that hit TV show… not so much.
It is for many in this country becoming an uncommon or even unknown scene, such that we think of it as some nostalgic view of the past, or representative of some quaint backwater. The rapidity of this change is staggering: “In Iowa the number of grocery stores with employees dropped by almost half from 1995 to 2005, from about 1,400 stores in 1995 to slightly over 700 just 10 years later. Meanwhile, “supercenter” grocery stores (Wal-Mart and Target, for example) increased by 175 percent in the 10-year period.“
Quaint backwaters do still exist, and ironically, may be more progressive than those enviro-conscious consumers at Target. They are closer in their habits and purchases to their fore-bearers, and though they may much more readily accept food presented in a can or box or plastic than their grandparents, they still tend to eat seasonally, buy locally, and recycle both materials and their money back to the community.
This isn’t strictly out of a sense of altruism, but more out of practicality. You can still (sometimes) find milk here in glass bottles not because the customer’s conscious shies away from plastic packaging, but because the dairyman can wash and re-use them. Products purchased directly from local farmers are less expensive and better tasting, if not always available. But to get one’s corn from the roadside farmstand, honey from a small home-based business, or anything not containing high-fructose corn-syrup is an arrangement often arrived at not by design, but through neglect. These places have been passed over by big box stores and national chain supermarkets as having insufficient economic density.
Many of us cannot imagine that any exit we take off the Interstate should not yield precisely the same array of stores as the last and the next. It is predictable, and that predictability is reassuring, in that we know what we’re getting (even if it isn’t particularly good for us). This isn’t a new phenomenon, as evidenced by a bit of dialogue from an episode of M*A*S*H (Out of Gas, 1972), in which Hawkeye Pierce checks in on a patient:
Hawkeye: Where are you from?
Patient: Idaville, Indiana.
H: No kidding? Idaville?
H: Ever go to the dances at the American Legion Hall there?
P: Yeah, sure.
H: And, um… on the edge of town, there’s this little place… where you can get the world’s greasiest french fries.
P: Right, Mona’s. – Yeah, yeah.
H: And, uh, uh, what else? The Studebaker dealership, always has those search lights when they bring in new models.
P: Hey, when were you in Idaville?
H: Never. I grew up in the same small town in Maine.
Rather than the predictable few, here the greasy spoon at the edge of town goes by many names, lending familiarity but not necessarily sameness. The menu is more or less the same, but each establishment is more reflective of its owners, clientele, and community. National chains deliberately look to avoid this, and, mistaking sameness for familiarity, plasticize the experience.
Maybe we’ve reached a point where we can only think of anything but what we know as that which others do, but not ourselves. Our nation is so hypocritically proud of its ethnic diversity yet always striving for utter culturally homogeneity. Perhaps it is unfashionable to think of more intimate and comfortable relations with our food suppliers, or it is has become so distant from our experience as to be unfathomable. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities describes interactions that today seem somehow improbable, even fictional, as if the idealized world Norman Rockwell illustrated for us was founded on fantasy:
“The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist…”
What she was telling us back in 1961 wasn’t strictly about the city, it was about the people in it and the communities they form. A city just happens to be a large community, but we don’t think of them that way because people in them rarely behave as one. Jacobs rightly spoke to this as founded in trust, and that all of the seemingly trivial interactions we have with one another build that trust. Without interaction, or interaction conducted solely in the name of “customer service,” we all keep our guard up even if behind a facade of friendliness.
So you can put a grocery in a small town, but you can’t necessarily put the small-town in the grocery.