What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
–Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Death, disease, afterlife, outer space. It’s all much clearer here. I can think and see.
–Don DeLillo, White Noise
I have an innate skepticism and a profound faith in the supermarket. The overfull aisles, the banging of carts, the deep frost of freezers: it all speaks to me, even if I don’t know what it’s saying. There is something so insistent about the supermarket, something that simultaneously lulls and energizes. Yet shopping is never what I want it to be: it is an uncomfortable blend of frantic activity and hopeless passivity, of searching for the elusive product and being taken in by the product that I didn’t know I needed. And it is not just one product, but a whole cartload of allusions, associations, and ideologies that can’t be shaken off in the checkout lane. I might have felt an "impatience at the sight of naturalness,’ (Roland Barthes) a naturalness that masks the problems and peculiarities of this institution, but I ignore my impatience for the sake of convenience.
Over the last hundred years, food stores have made one great loop—from general store to grocery store back to general store—or more accurately to the general and specific store. Now stores meet not just your general needs, but all the specific needs you never knew you had. Where I grew up a multiplex of grocery store, sporting supply, plant store, department store, pet store, and gas station bulldozed its way both literally and figuratively into the hearts of the community. While a few might have pointed out that such a place was not really necessary—and was even an eyesore—their arguments were quickly squelched with reminders of convenience , the uber value that is touted in phrases such as "In today’s busy times working moms and dads look for a place that provides the convenience they need with prices they want."
For real convenience, the kind that leaves you exhausted and with a lingering headache, shoppers head not to convenience stores but to the supermegagigomarkets that litter the landscape. And from Erie to Rochester this market is Wegmans. Wegmans is a well-oiled machine, with slick little employees that scurry around just for you or bask in the aromas of their own steaming food, which they will offer with sugar-smiles. Shopping at Wegmans is not just a thing that happens, a thing that occurs, it is an event. "The oven aroma of bread and cake combined with the sight of a bloodstained man pounding at strips of living veal was pretty exciting for us all" 167 says a character in White Noise, and while the blood is hidden fairly well at Wegmans (too many vegetarians these days), there is enough going on to keep all the spectators enthralled.
Wegmans is a spectator sport, a spectacle of consumerism, a spectacle of lights and colors and gleaming pink meats spread out like fans on beds of lettuce. There is never any nothing there, no absence that inspires. There is instead the possibility of everything, and since there are "no limits to consumption," (Jean Baudrillard) particularly when it comes to food products, Wegmans is endlessly gratifying. It smoothly, deftly meets all our needs and creates new needs. When something is missing from the shelf, it is a glitch in the matrix and must be smoothed over by a half-dozen apologetic and slightly perplexed employees—they can’t fathom why the large box of Raisin Bran wouldn’t be there, and certainly it will be there by Tuesday or Wednesday at the very latest.
If someone does question the almost magical appearance of product after product on Wegmans shelves, if someone does begin to conceive the possibility of a rift between product and producer (where did they get those star fruit anyway?) Wegmans is there to emphasize who their suppliers are—at least for the small, fresh things ("This week, come in and buy tomatoes, picked fresh by growers right here in Western New York.") While the commodity is still fetishized and the producer is still several steps removed from consumer, visions of plum-pickers dance in our heads, convincing us to trust our most profound consumer instincts and go ahead and buy.
Wegmans is not despondent or indecisive about its position in a post-post-modern world. It is a cave of consumption that apparently perpetuates itself. If our heritage has been devastated or ruined, if we are condemned to live by pawing through the rubble of past decades, Wegmans does not know it. It does not admit the possibility of defeat or decay. Wegmans is kitsch mingled with high art, grinning Grandmother dolls merging with hatted chefs fluent in French sauce. It pumps out Celine Dion and offers live lobsters.
Resurrected from their couches, former neurotics flock to Wegmans and reveal simultaneously a seemingly "schizophrenic accumulation of energy" (Deleuze and Guattari) and a nervous passivity. The complex flows set in motion by capitalism resist a simple analysis and nowhere is this clearer than Wegmans. Transparent eyeballs no longer, we in Wegmans are empty stomachs, watery mouths, desirous throats. We are organs utilizing the body as a motion-machine leading us to the most delectable products that will both satisfy and expand our cravings. Here at Wegmans we hate to love to buy and we love to do it anyway.
There is no map of Wegmans. To wander is to wander in confusion, to have no clear-cut path. As I break out of the organic, I come upon a series of rows that resemble a plainer grocery store, but these too contain traps and blockades that will redirect flow and cause me to grab at the jalopeño niblets I wouldn’t have known I needed. And even though I am tired from the trek through the little town, where I have tapped melons and purchased a cartload of Amy’s cheese pockets, I’ve only just begun. The things I need are here: the toilet paper, the flour, the SoBe Orange Carrot juice. So I leave behind the aproned men and women serving up steaming vegetable stews in little ketchup containers and crackers smothered in miscellaneous cheese product in order to enter into a realm where I have to think for myself.
In an industry as competitive and dynamic as the retail food industry, it is probable that there will be many more innovations and experiments in the future" Introduction to Supermarket Occupations, 1967 (26)
Wegmans is an early 1970s Baudrillardian world, where there is an "anxious anticipation, not that there may not be enough, but that there is too much." Faced with such plentitude, I have to decide: where do I go from here? To the pharmacy and risk passing up the processed cheese products, to the yogurts and miss Kiss My Face for fifty cents off the original price? Clearly there is a decision to be made, and since neither path is more important, both paths must be taken and retaken and retaken. From "Dental needs/Shave needs" to Claussen’s Kosher Dills back to moisturizers, I pick up little items on the way: wrapped exfoliating soap, facial strips, and, invigorated by cellophaned baskets and painted wooden cabinets, some fancy shampoos.
What might have been muddled before becomes confusion at the soaps. The rows are straight and even, but objects pop up at random: evergreen trees perching on top of diaper displays, scarecrows huddling into haystacks, lawn furniture and bug discouragers, coolers, candles, crockpots, and a ceramic elf. We’re not in Wegmantown any longer, it’s clear: there are no windows and boxes, but the lattice still shelters shoppers from the piped ceiling, easing us into the vast aisles, where all of the products seem equally brilliant and desirable.
Let us not assume that the consumer will be adept, when making a purchase, at distinguishing the degrees of quality of a material. No gentlemen, the consumer cannot appreciate these degrees; he judges only according to his senses" (Chaptal quoted in The Arcades Project 51).
I am persuaded by my senses—and by the fine packaging job that so many products are dressed in. What else is there to judge? The material lies buried beneath these surfaces until I purchase it and unwrap it in privacy. I can glance over produce or thump melons, but I can’t stick a finger in the butter. Thus I am persuaded by the margarine market that margarine really is as good—and better—than butter. While the Land O’ Lakes lady may beckon with her blues and yellows and gleaming black hair, the wholesome country goodness (expressed in shades of brown) of Shedd’s Spread draws me to it.
Roland Barthes describes a margarine moment in Mythologies, commenting on a popular French advertisement: "A mousse? Made with margarine! Unthinkable!’ "Margarine? Your uncle will be furious!" He continues, "And then one’s eyes are opened, one’s conscience becomes more pliable, and margarine is a delicious food, tasty, digestible, economical, useful in all circumstances." By first inoculating the market, the margarine crowd is able to inject us with high doses of its substance without a violent reaction, despite the fact that margarine begins its life as gray gloop, made from emulsifiers and sulfur-refined coal tars. (The Secret House). Nevertheless, the margarine inoculation seems to have worked on the American population as a whole, thanks to little lidded Parkay mouths insisting "butter" and to our own desire to rid our lives of polyunsaturated and saturated fats.
Nestled near the butter are the rows and rows dedicated to yogurt. You can buy the Danon and Yoplait but, says Danny Wegman: "Our yogurt is more than just delicious, it gives all the benefits of live and active cultures. As always, if there are any problems, please bring it back." The idea of a problem with active cultures makes me nervous, but these yogurts with fancy flavors like Apricot Mango are still pretty compelling. In the yogurt section I also meet the Wegmans Kids animals like Bubba the Bear and MegaByte the Shark for the first time. This cast of cartoon characters brightens the containers of WKids yogurt, convincing kids that shopping is not a boring chore, but fun for the whole family. "MegaByte the shark told me to come to Wegmans" a little Buffalo girl announces to her mother on a radio ad, and instead of warning her daughter to be wary of radio sharks, the mother thanks Wegmans for making her life just a little bit easier.
Across from the butter and yogurt are the greeting cards, canopied by a wrought iron latticework, laced in with leaves tinted green and red. Here we find ways to say Happy Birthday for him for her, Congrats, Thanks, Friendship, Love, Care/Concern. "Just My Style" and the "Original Impressions" are here too, allowing me to "feel unique while resembling everyone else" (Baudrillard). The books bloom out from here, with several bar tables (meant to suggest an encouragement of reading without actually inviting lounging) stuck in the middle. From here, one can admire the motorized dolls and egg cartons and flip through Sidney Sheldon; The Day John Died; and Love is Everywhere, a Barbie story in which Barbie gets a puppy, cleans up her town, and still has time to go to the Sweetheart Dance with Ken.
As I look over the Wizard Sets of Crayola, the Galactic Glue, and the squeeze creations, the knowledge that I am an eager, credulous consumer does not trouble me; it does not "cast a doubt over the dazzling, compelling, authoritative images" (Susan Bordo) that beckon. Each item deserves a lingering look, but I remind myself that I am in this section only for a marble composition notebook. After finding several dozen kittens, Powerpuff Girls, and Lisa Frank unicorns, I ask an employee.
"Marble notebooks?" he nods, "Oh yeah, we had those on sale." He walks up purposefully to an empty section and freezes.
"We usually have these right here. Let me check one other place." He turns a corner and comes back holding a kitty notebook limply. "I don’t know why they aren’t here. We always have those. I’m sorry.
I thank him and wander away, but he follows me, still pawing through piles of notebooks and folders. "I’m really sorry that we don’t have it. I really do apologize."
This is when I realize it’s not just his job; he takes this loss personally, internalizing the lack in the fullness, faltering when he is unable serve. He looks queasy. I assure him that I don’t really care about the notebook.
His behavior seems suspicious to me: it is imitative, blindly slavish. He must have swallowed too many corporate ideals because nobody really likes helping customers anymore.
I move ahead a few aisles and ask two other employees what they feel their role is at Wegmans.
Play tape, track 10
Their response leaves me feeling both warm inside and coldly suspicious of the Wegmanian mechanisms that have given the women’s desire to help customers its "full" expression. The brochures, the clubs, the phraseology, the decor—this place is fundamentally creepy. Still, these women’s testimonies suggest that Wegmans works—for and within its employees and customers.
"There are excellent opportunities for women in supermarkets. Aside from the obvious jobs as cashier-checker and meat and dairy wrapper, there are many other opportunities....The work is steady, pleasant and interesting, and the working conditions are superior" Introduction to Supermarket Occupations, 1967 (60).
Just beyond the point where the two women are setting up a display of fake leaves (and just beyond the rock heaters, wild birdfeed, allerpet, aquarium salt, colas, chips, jelly/ sugared/creme filled gobs in plastic bins, wooden barrels, hometownpride Buffalo Bills flags) is the "Foods from around the world" aisle. Here, chalked signs with little flags represent the countries "Asian" German" and "Goya." In these aisles I find wasabi powder, Pompadour Mixed Fruit and Herbs beverage, gelatins of green and gold. Consumers can walk right passed the pig’s feet without being offended, and find that Jesus is rather an international young man, peering out from his candle next to the mango juice.
Wegmans encourages diversity by masking the difference of these un-American products, by normalizing them with words of encouragement, sale prices, or by offering Wegmans versions of these products. Why trust the Asians, when Wegmans allows us to orientalize ourselves, to bask in Mt. Fuji bonsai tree, slanty print glory: "Discover the Orient with Wegmans Wokery Sweet & Sour Sauce. It’s a quick way to make meats and vegetables come alive without adding fat!" "Remember, your satisfaction is always guaranteed with Wegmans brand products. Danny Wegman"
Like the yogurt, alive with active cultures, this sauce is nutritiously alive. We can wake out of our Western New York torpor, shaking ourselves free from barbecue chicken skins and beef on weck and try something a little exotic. Perhaps in this aisle I can also find something to put in my Wegmans tortillas which, Danny Wegman has told me are "From the Ancient Aztecs:" "A tortilla is Mexico’s everyday bread—unleavened, round and flat resembling a pancake. It can be wrapped around a variety of fillings." In case such fillings prove to be too much (if I can’t digest the whirlwind of international flavors) then I have only to wait another aisle or so until I’ve reached the other canned foods aisle, where there is reassurance in the Hormel and Spam, in chili and miscellaneous meat product. Nothing is exotic here; instead, everything is "hearty and good" or "meaty and delicious." There is no possibility for confusion.
It is the heart of the non-perishable or semi-perishable food world: rows and rows of cans and boxes and jars filled with food that refuses to decay. To perish is a poignant thing, a fierce and furious thing that may cause moral suffering or spiritual ruin. To be among the non-perishable, then, is a moving moment. Here, where death is so decidedly resisted, where encasement can provide protection, we can be secure.
If it is primarily humans that perish, it is primarily products that are non-perishable: the cans of cranberry sauce, macaroni and cheese, and lima beans that grow dust in the back rows of the pantry—and that are pulled out during moments of dire need or for food drives. It does not seem merely coincidental that in my childhood church parish we would collect nonperishable food items for the deserved needy in our local area—we in the parish would see to it that they did not perish. And although I sometimes wondered how a fantastic Thanksgiving dinner might be whipped up from tunafish and graham crackers, I knew that we were doing the work of eternity, of the non-perishable.
"Today, with the help of pre-mixed, prepared foods, even the new bride appears to be an experienced cook! The housewife has been liberated...." Introduction to Supermarket Occupations, 1967 (109).
In the early days of prepackaged foods, the food was high in calories and, it seemed, low on love. Guilty wives and mothers reluctantly stuck with the old recipe cards, which allowed them to spend hours over hot stoves, sweating out love. Once the manufactures realized that work equaled love, they took the milk and eggs out of prepackaged food so that women could add them back in and feel fulfilled.
TV dinners, which took even less work and equaled even less love were slow to catch on, except in the lonely bachelor set. In 1954 when C.A. Swanson & Sons Company created the first TV dinner, it was a small meat pie fish stick scandal. But fortunately, writes Clifford Butt (& co), "The American housewife has grown to trust the American food processor and her acceptance of modern convenience foods is a tribute to the integrity of the industry" (109)
Wegmans too retains its integrity, and it doesn’t hesitate to remind us of it. Old Wegmans photos depicting Wegmans through the years abound in the frozen section, hovering among sparkly ice cubes, ice pipes, penguins, cut-out snowflakes and dangling Polar Bears. They suggest that Wegmans, the little store that could, has been a community presence for decades and as we push on to the checkout, we can rest assured that our needs will all be met.
"Why is the checkout operation important?
What are the essentials of the checkout operation?"
The checkout is the place where we buy little Chapsticks or pamphlets about cats and flip without shame through magazines that we would never buy. Today the checkout girl or whatever her title is, is unusually friendly. She tells me that she has upped her bag-filling quota in the past few weeks, and that she is out to beat her own record. Her fingernails, tiny seascapes of purple and gold, have not held her back, although one or two have broken. She has learned that cans and produce are meant for different bags, that eggs in cartons really should face up and that not everyone wants plastic. Despite the fact that customers are invariably frazzled and the managers lurk in the background, she remains remarkably optimistic. It’s not a bad job.
"Do you work when there is work to be done, or do you have a tendency to be lazy and ‘goldbrick’?" "Can you laugh things off and hold your temper?" "How badly do you want to work in a supermarket?" Introduction to Supermarket Occupations, 1967 (68).
Those who work in Wegmans seem satisfied with their jobs. Although they may work mainly for scholarships or because they couldn’t get higher paying jobs, most employees seem to feel that Wegmans does look after its employees. But this looking after often translates to speaking for: when confronted by simple questions, nervous employees feel compelled to fetch their manager who fetches his manager who eyes the questioner with deep distrust. Wegmans works because questions aren’t asked, because secrets aren’t revealed—and everything is a secret at Wegmans. Every flowered trellice, every steamer trunk, every pot of fake geraniums belongs to Wegmans and is fiercely guarded, presumably since spies from Tops may be lurking in the olives. This ominous proprietarianism shatters Wegmans goody-goody we’re- here-for-you facade, and although Wegmans culture may flourish under a canopy of warm fluorescence, the cold reality of corporate Wegmans always seeps through the cracks.