Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fat people’s supermarket and skinny people’s supermarket

In San Francisco, two supermarkets stand at opposite corners, along Folsom Street at 14th Street. One of these supermarkets has the fattest clientele in San Francisco; the other has the skinniest clientele.

Foods Co. I used to shop at Foods Co from time to time. This is a store owned by Cincinnati-based Kroger, which also operated San Francisco’s depressing Bell Markets and Cala Foods until most of them were shuttered in the last two years. I once ran into someone I knew at Foods Co who said to me, “Wow. You do ghetto shopping too?”

The front parking lot of Foods Co is littered with cola cans, pork rinds bags and broken grocery carts tucked between Cadillacs, small Hyundais, Toyotas and small trucks. The sidewalks around the parking lot are covered with blankets and pigeons and a handful of homeless men with grocery carts, suitcases, bushels, and bags. The sidewalks have never been swept and are only washed by San Francisco’s wintertime rain showers.

What I describe may sound like an upsetting science fiction film, but turn and face the store and you’ll see the newly added aluminum siding and false façade enhancements that make the store appear to be a welcoming, sprawling suburban-style grocery. Walk through the glass doors, past the two security guards talking about their kids in prison or their cousin who was shot and take a whiff of the produce. The remodeled store is characterized by its concrete floors and bag-it-yourself checkouts, just like they had at Cub Foods when I was a child in Atlanta.

Foods Co has an amazing display of produce. Although some bins are filled with remainder plums, squished and oozing, most of the produce department is characterized by bins of red mangos, stacks of key limes, piles of pineapple, tomatillos, jicama, papayas, watermelons, yellow melons, green melons and bittermelon – all of the produce that the average white person doesn’t eat. All of the subsequent aisles are bursting with Kroger brand chips and cereal and frozen potatoes and an otherwise good supermarket selection of brand-name boxed and jarred and bagged products, with their colorful labels competing for space on the warehouse-style supermarket’s shelves. The cheese aisle is filled with 20 kinds of American cheese, Velveeta, cotija and other Mexican cheeses. The chilled drink aisle has the usual orange juice cartons, along with jugs of brightly colored fruit-flavored drinks, horchata, Sunny Delight, chocolate milk, strawberry milk, banana milk, and even more of corn syrup-packed fruit nectars.

I wandered into Foods Co Friday to buy some rum, limes, and ingredients for guacamole. All of the liquor is displayed on shelves behind lock and key up at the front of the store, with signs glued to the screen directing patrons to request alcoholic beverages from the cashier, just to make the check-out process take even longer for the poor souls waiting in line behind the wino redeeming food stamps. Fortunately for me, I found the tequila and rum cabinet had been left unlocked, so I pried open the door and dug through all of the fruit-flavored store brand rums to find a basic bottle of Bacardi. Then I marched over to the produce department to grab limes and tomatoes and onions, before heading to the back of the store for Perrier and chips. And when I returned to the front of the store to go to the checkout, I was hit with a clusterfuck of shoppers waiting to check out, no lane with fewer than 10 patrons, and the express lanes reaching halfway to the back of the store. It was as if the disarray from the front parking lot had been transported inside. I was an American visiting a supermarket in the USSR trying to figure out to which of the day-long lines I would assign myself. I stood in one for a while and looked around all of the people. The enormous woman in the motorized wheelchair buying six plastic three-gallon tubs of Kreem Tastee Neapolitan Ice Cream, potato salad, ground beef and lots and lots of chips. She seemed to know all of the other plus size patrons and was talking about how she loved her ice cream. I did exactly what large people do not like less large people to do when we are in the supermarket: I scanned their grocery carts. Jumbo hunks of cheese, piles of pasta, gallons of gloopy colorful drinks, flats of chicken thighs, packages of ham and bologna, large squeezable jars of mayonnaise, pre-made roasted chicken, and cola. Lots of cola. And dusty Mexican cookies and garbage can-sized bags of fun size candies (which I really consider to be sad size because they are so small, individually). This mass of humanity . And their carts filled and their food stamps ready for their purchases.

I switched to another line which only had three carts in front of me, not realizing that it was an express lane. I finally realized it was an express lane when the checker on my lane made an announcement over the store’s scratchy intercom system that lane 8 was limited to 15 items or less. Here, I would be negligent if I left out some of the ethnicities involves, because it was indeed a Black woman with incredibly long eyelashes and meticulously straightened hair behind the cash register who looked at the Chinese woman whose ramen noodle purchase would have exceeded the express lane’s limitations by a factor of 8. The Chinese woman took out her wallet and handed a $10 bill to each of her children and they went about dividing up the purchases to make them look smaller (maybe 30 items per person?) and each took a separate turn passing by the cash register. I sighed loudly about ten times, but my white man sighs were nothing compared to the look of a Black woman who is angry at a Chinese woman.

I finally made my purchase, put my items in a “green” bag I’d brought along, and walked out of the store. Feeling skinny and rattled and grateful not to be on welfare.

Which logo do you like better?

Across the street. Rainbow Grocery is a large supermarket, and is operated as a worker’s cooperative. The store is open almost every day of the year, excepting a few holidays, including Labor Day and Gay Pride Day. The store has three parking lots, one of which is shaded and partly sheltered, while others surround the store, offering car access from three different streets. Unlike the Foods Co logo, which Brad suggested was designed by the kid of a middle manager in Cincinnati, Rainbow Grocery has a lovingly designed image and hand-painted logo on the exterior of the store. The parking lots are clean and filled Subarus, old Volvos, VWs, Mini Coopers and SMART Cars, along with dozens of bicycles chained to the outside of the store. A security guard stands in the lot and directs people to their parking space, while animal rescue and recycling representatives solicit customers as they enter or exit the store.

Inside, the store feels green: the lights are bit dim, the shelves are made of wood, and the smell is unmistakably health food. A counter for recycling and community announcements, ATMs, and other things I’ve never given much attention to stand at the front of the store. Once you pass through the gate, you’re immediately in the bulk foods section, with a u-shaped aisle of spices and teas, followed by another with nuts, grains and legumes. The shoppers go about scooping small amounts of juniper berries or organic bay leaves into paper sacks and writing the product code on them. Some people fill their own spice sacks or jars they brought from home.

The produce department in the back of the store is preceded by a chilled dried fruit aisle, with beautiful dried blueberries selling for more than all of the ramen noodles at Foods Co. Behind the dried fruit are locally farmed apples, berries, peaches and corn. There are kales and chards of many colors and bundles of organic carrots in red, purple white, and of course, orange hues.
Just past the produce department is a busy little cheese department with samples of raw sheep’s milk cheese from Ecuador and blocks and block of coffee-crusted Edam and olive-infused cheddar. The rest of the store is mostly aisles of packaged health foods and alternative products designed to complete directly with the foods being sold across the street at Foods Co. And of course there are a couple of aisles of vitamins and herbal supplements and shampoos without sodium lauryl sulfate.

Walking into Rainbow a couple of days ago, our goal was to find something for dinner. I headed to the soup aisle and found a can of natural non-pureed split pea soup. I also gathered a few yellow pluots, while Brad picked up a couple of orange tomatoes and a carton of wildberry kefir. I snatched a box of unsweetened almond milk to go with the cereal we had back at home and Brad pulled a box of organic saltines from the shelf.

It was not especially busy at the front of the store, but on certain days of the month, the store is a mob scene, with hippies who steal telephone books from Foods Co scrambling to redeem their “20% off your entire purchase” coupons. I have not experienced that crush load, but Brad found it on a recent expedition and walked out, giving up on some fresh cheese and breads to eat Foods Co garden burgers with me. Tonight, it was mellow, with space between the patchouli-scented beings who worked and shopped at the store. I looked at all of the employees and saw a cast of malnourishment: thin lanky bodies made to look more durable with big heads of curly hair. Women with long multicolored braids, their breasts swaddled in flowing sheer robes, making them appear larger than the stick figures they were. Although the Foods Co shoppers are primarily non-white, the Rainbow shoppers are mostly white, but I honed in on a few skinny ashen Latino children with gay parents and a Black family with dreadlocked children analyzing a wrapped package of Newman’s Own version of Oreos.

Rainbow’s strategy is to sell small lots of expensive high-quality food, so people who shop there will have very little to eat when they get home and will come back to the store tomorrow just as skinny as they were yesterday, withered but flexible from hot tubs and yoga and herbs to keep them tiny. As I took my change back from the double-pierced young cashier, I dropped the few measly pennies into my pocket and strutted out, hungrier than when I had arrived, but with a satchel of greens and healthy crackers and peas in a can that would provide my basic nourishment until I would have to return with my oversized body for more food the next day.

As I walked past a cashier with no visible signs of a butt and a young woman as pale as two day old boiled quinoa, I felt my obese self craving the squalor and brightly packaged foods of Foods Co, where a donut would surely be cooked in Crisco rather than cultured out of wheatless grains. I did not know where I belonged.

To be the skinniest person at Foods Co or the fattest person at Rainbow?

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