Sunday, January 30, 2011

Existence and the Grocery Store

Our ability to go through most of the day as a stranger has increased. The cities we live in have changed. At first we had the suburbs, by which I mean true suburbs which were incorporated as part of a city. True suburban incorporation, in the case of Detroit, is more the case of Birmingham, Royal Oak and Bloomfield Township. As you move further west the nature of cities changes and the Technoburb emerges. I see the Technoburb as a place that is not anchored by resource, commerce or vacation spot, but is a hub of commuters, at home employees and collections of houses. It is curious to me because as we move more into a virtual marketplace where individuals can work from home cities change. They become unmoored and are no longer attached to a given structure. Often this means the elimination of a downtown, and the result is the public space that becomes commercial, and the market place is privately owned.

We are not allowed to linger or congregate in these spaces.

The change of city is isolating because we are expected to move in and out of the space after achieving our purchasing objective. Loitering is prohibited, and armed men or polite mangers, will escort you away. As a result we speak to almost no one unfamiliar aside from coworkers (maybe).

In previous eras there was a forum (see Rome) or at least a market where you might exchange ideas or hot gossip. Now we have the water cooler and maybe the pretentious coffee shop. The advent of television and the virtual world seemed the largest opportunity for connection and idea exchange, but as a country, we seem to have never felt more isolated from each other.

Before I leave this introduction for an anecdote, and my point, let me say that I am not calling for some previous era where everything was perfect. It never existed. I am simply interested here in taking a peek at our public interaction, about the privacy and quiet we entitled to while waiting in line.

In my grocery line yesterday, a man came through and started talking to me about the virtues of the market place. He explained it as an opportunity to exchange ideas. He said that we should not go to the store simply to get goods but, as in ages past, use the market as an opportunity to interact with our fellow citizens. His insight was sparked by his conversation with my previous customer about mathematics, economics and Wall Street. He, a businessman, and she, a snow plow driver, had a spirited discussion of America’s problems. I refuse to write this off as “time filler”. This may have been the one conversation these two individuals will have with each other in their life. In taking a moment to interact with someone we leave our routine and become more aware in a given moment. Frequently we avoid this awareness, and go through our days refusing to talk to anyone new.

I have many opportunities to notice it at my own store, but also at any public place I go to. We avoid chance encounters, conversation in public, people who seem to be “Talkers”, and yet are charmed by elderly men who seem to be able to break the ice and tell us a poignant anecdote. Basically we’re in a big hurry All The Time. There is ferocity in our independence, which at its limit results isolation and depression, which seems to be an epidemic these days.

In public we expect silence and space, and independence from others. We have this same desire as Americans in our communities, houses, living rooms and friendships. Many of us simply want to be left alone. As a result our already myopic experience of existence becomes narrower. In pained interaction in the supermarket, the library or the drug store we have a chance to break this routine if only when waiting in line. I can tell you from interacting with so much of the public that there are a lot of interesting people out there. There are a lot of psychopaths and degenerates too, but it all makes for a good story at some point. I am not insisting that we go out an attempt to solve the answers of the universe at the supermarket, but perhaps when waiting in line see what the person next to you is really thinking about. Step beyond “How are you?” (An awful question if there ever was one), and see where else you can go.


  1. Although by-gone eras were certainly not perfect the absence of the current technology resulted in people actually communicating face to face.
    The man/woman who owned the local market knew your name and what you liked to purchase. It was the same with most local businesses. This was also true in the larger grocery stores as well, where you knew the cashiers and the managers.
    There were block parties where neighbors got together and everyone knew everyone else.
    There were "cocktail" parties and weekly poker/card games.
    It was highly unusual for people to move, unless it was in the same city and they needed/wanted a bigger home.
    Children attended the same school, kindergarten through high school graduation. Most remained friends long after graduation and attended college in their home state.
    It does make one somewhat nostalgic for the by-gone days.
    I'm not saying technology is not great, but I agree we need to once again start socializing face to face, whether it's a one time encounter or regular outings with our friends and family.
    I always loved the quote, "Every ones a stranger the first time you meet them". And sometimes they turn out to be long time friends.

  2. Read Jane Jacobs. Life and Death of the American city. BTW when I read "talkers" I laughed in self recognition.

  3. @Barnaby, I'll check that book out for sure. This whole new climate is interesting to me. You are a talker, but it's not a skill too many people have any more. Most individuals have replaced talking with griping. Boo.