Supermarkets: the beating heart of America

I recently got back from a brilliant week’s holiday in Massachusetts. My friend had her wedding just outside a little town called Groton by a big, quiet lake surrounded by forest.

It was beautiful, all of it. The wedding, the lake, the white wood-clad New England houses with their dolls-house dormer windows and immaculately striped lawns, the supermarket.

I feel like you never really know a country until you’ve been inside one of its food shops.

The supermarket quickly became my favourite place in Massachusetts. It was called Market Basket and it was exactly what I’d hoped for.

Acres of shiny strip-lit aisles packed full of weird American food. Chocolate/marshmallow/cholesterol sandwich spreads, peanut butter flavoured everything, fizzy pop (entire barrels full of glowing Mountain Dew), individually wrapped vegetables that no-one would ever buy, doughnuts the size of my face, cupcakes piped with four inch swirls of butter-cream, rows and rows of crisps (chips) in all kinds of crazy flavours and a whole section for packets of ‘3 minute’ radioactive mac ‘n’ cheese.

By entering through Market Basket’s automatic sliding doors, I’d stepped right into Don DeLillo’s White Noise. It was the heart of consumerist America in all its humming, priced-up, strip-lit beauty.

This is DeLillo’s description of a supermarket, so you can see what I mean…

“Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.

“This place recharges us spiritually, it prepares us, it’s a gateway or pathway. Look how bright. It’s full of psychic data…. The large doors slide open, they close unbidden. Energy waves, incident radiation. All the letters and numbers are here, all the colors of the spectrum, all the voices and sounds, all the code words and ceremonial phrases […. ] Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.”

The supermarket is the cathedral of the consumerist world. The clock towers, the welcome signs, the soaring ceilings and exposed beams. Cathedrals used to draw communities together, now that role is filled by places like Market Basket, and Sainsburies/Asda etc. in England. You’re more likely to bump into your next door neighbour in the ready meal aisle at a Tesco Extra than you are at a Sunday morning church service.

This is life now. Like DeLillo says, there’s a kind of spiratualism in supermarkets. A sense of hope and aspiration. The quick fizz of adrenaline that comes with a neon discount sign. Cleverly designed aisle plans that lead us to unexpected choices – impulse buys, the religious experience of the shopping world. A moment of lost control, giving ourselves entirely to the system.

Anyway. I liked the supermarket because it chimed with my dystopian vision of America. It’s happening over here in Britain too, of course.

More on other stuff another time.

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