Dear Dirty America


What Is Your Plan In All of This?

What Is Your Plan In All of This?
February 02
09:03 2016

checking over the receipt

It was just before sunset as I stood in line at the grocery store waiting to pay for my goods. A great throng of folks were lined up along every checkout aisle.

My turn came. The cashier, a tall, tanned, shaggy blonde-haired rascal said, “Hey man, what’s up bro?”


Banksy art

These double greetings–man and bro in the same sentence–are not uncommon in Southern California, especially when you’re like me and you wear your hair long and tangled like George Armstrong Custer just before a pivotal meeting with a lugubrious, aggressive Ulysses S Grant. I suspect that’s why people here assume I’m cooler than I am.

Suddenly, there was movement over my right shoulder. A flash pricked my vision. The dong of a bell vibrated the hairs in my ear canal. Hands were on my shoulders. Patting me. Squeezing. Congratulating me. “You’re the 100,000th shopper,” a voice said.

I turned to see a young Asian man with a manager’s pin clipped to his breast. He presented me with a t-shirt. He was smiling. But why?

“You’re the winner,” he said. Everybody was watching us. All ten checkout aisles had ceased their action. What could I do? I put on the t-shirt as a show of gratitude. I really hurled it over my head and yanked it down and threw my arms into the holes. It was extra large. I smiled.

The clamor died down. The manager disappeared back into the throng. My heart still pumped savagely. The people got back to shopping and paying for their goods.

I tried to greet my friendly cashier and for a second got lost in his rolling, sloppy grey and blue eyes. The man was on some kind of substance, legal or otherwise. I set onto the counter my bag of jalapeno peppers, a few sprigs of cilantro, and a sack of golden potatoes. Their colors were rich, heady, and they demanded something culinary be done.

“You planning anything here?” the cashier asked, whilst scanning the produce.

I heaved a sigh. A real, living sigh. I’d been feeling dreadful, anxious. Heavy days were upon us, despite my fortune of being the 100,000th shopper. Time seemed to be speeding up. The blessing in time stripped away and replaced with trivial tasks and burdens.

The people’s minds had all gone blank. Whatever I heard being said on the TV, I would hear repeated in public. We’d been rewired and now the software was fully installed and updated every hour for some new campaign or agenda that eerily fits the interests of the mighty (even if at first glance it doesn’t seem to).

Could my cashier feel it too? Was he wondering why I was so wound up? What was I planning? I turned his questionMan_grocery_shopping over in my mind. I felt like I could be honest with the drugged fellow.

I shook my head and looked down at the peppers. “I’m not planning,” I told him, “but I’m wondering why in public, crowded places my face feels like it’s going to explode. All the muscles become strained. My eyes are pulsing in their sockets. Too much stimulation. Too much going on.”

I held up a hand. “I try to relax, to calm down, to let my face go completely slack, to let my shoulders droop and my belly protrude, but then I look as deadbeat and miserable as everybody else, so I keep up the strain of holding a constant smile in public. I don’t want anyone else feeling miserable on account of me.”

I glanced up at him. “I think that’s the sense of anticipation, or planning, that you’re feeling coming off of me. I’m just trying to hold it all together.”

My cashier jerked his head once, like he’d been swimming and had gotten water lodged in his ear canal. “Man, I meant with the potatoes and stuff.” His eyes, I noticed again, were cloudy and the color of unearthed Civil War uniforms.

“No, no,” I said firmly, “it’s got nothing to do with diet. Potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, lentils, quinoa, frozen peas. Nothing seems to make a difference. Tension is in the air. We’ve taken the material ride too far, it seems, and now we’re going to be snapped back like a spring stretched to its capacity.”

He laughed, but his eyes weren’t radiating any kind of humor. “All I know is that I’m off in an hour, and those peppers look good, I might have to get some myself.” He greeted the next customer and left me to bag my own groceries.

Outside, I strolled through the parking lot. Only a mile to home. I liked the walk. So loose and free next to the gridlock on the street. Only halfway through the lot a woman pushing a cart stopped me. Her face was flushed, her breathing rapid. She held one hand up to block the sharp rays of the lowering sun. It would soon be the golden hour for filming, yet she was in no shape to strike a worthy pose.

Shopping_Cart_Trapped“Excuse me,” she said, and, “Yoo hoo,” when I didn’t stop at first.

I don’t care for boisterous strangers, but I stopped anyway. She seemed harmless enough. Maybe she was suffering a stroke. I wouldn’t want to answer for that on Judgement Day.

“How come there are no cart corrals out here in the parking lot?” she asked. She took in a few windy breaths. “You guys realize most of us have to park a long way from the store, and then hoof the carts all the way back, don’t you?”

I realized I was wearing the grocery store t-shirt over my regular shirt. I raised my eyebrows as high on my head as I could to show my concern.

“What is your guys’ plan to do about this?” she asked.

I almost told her I wasn’t an employee. But I didn’t.

“Well,” I said, “T— J— believes that their customers should have to do a little work for their food. In fact, we believe having to push a cart around the parking lot for a few minutes is a small physical price to pay for one’s sustenance.”

Her face changed. A distorted frown that kept halfway stretching into an incredulous smile.

“Seriously,” I said. “We live so comfortably these days. Material progress has stretched beyond what anybody could imagine in all of our past written human history. And yet, are we happy?” I shook my head. “Not really. We here at T— J— believe that the missing component to our missing happiness is not more worldly pleasure and material comfort, but a little moderated hardship. A little honest work for your daily bread.”

“I work every day for a paycheck,” she blurted out. Her eyes were reddened behind a searing gaze. “To buy my groceries.”

I held up a hand to stop her from butting in.

“An electronic paycheck. A sedentary job, no doubt. But by forcing folks to psychologically link a hardship–and let’s be honest, a little walking is a minor hardship–we believe the spiritual aspect in even just the slightest degree,” I said, and here I raised one finger for emphasis, “will have a chance to emerge in that narrow window of honest toil, and sound character will have a chance to bloom.”

She made a spluttering sound with her lips, as if to blow off my theory. “I’ll never shop here again. I’ll never spend another dollar here again.”

“T— J— isn’t right for everyone,” I said.

“You take the damn cart!” she said, and shoved it at me.

And so I did. I was the 100,000th shopper, after all. I straightened my baggy shirt to look more official and struck a smart path for home.

[Banksy “Shop ‘Til You Drop” in Wikimedia Commons from QuentinUK; header photo from zeevveez; trapped in shopping cart art from Anne-Sophie Ofrim]


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