Friday, March 22, 2013

Half Pint

Notes from today’s WALK…

I can walk to the grocery store from my house. It’s not easy. I follow hilly streets without sidewalks. I traverse steep, rocky paths and uneven staircases. But I get there. It doesn’t take too long. And when I arrive on foot, I always feel slightly superior to all the people who drove. I look piously at them as they squeeze their Land Rovers into the Prius-size spaces in the Whole Foods parking lot. Sure, we are all about to spend $23.99 on a pound of salmon, but I’m doing it with a clearer conscience. And as long as I don’t buy too much, the walk back up the hill makes me feel even more superior. Not only have I saved the planet, I’ve gotten in shape doing it. 

Today I stumbled down the hill with my non-profit-logoed canvas bag and bought my $54 worth of groceries. Organic, out-of-season, heirloom tomatoes from Mexico; steel-cut oatmeal in bulk (plastic bag re-used); thick cut, black forest bacon; cave-aged gruyere from France; organic red leaf lettuce from Watsonville; a loaf of challah from Berkeley; cilantro; one serrano chili pepper, one organic red onion; one pound of medium shrimp in the shell, shipped in from Southeast Asia; and gluten-free cheesecake. In all, a veritable cornucopia of nutritional and locavorian hypocrisy. The delusional impulse that drives a person to buy groceries at Whole Foods is a close cousin of the one that causes us to close our eyes when we masturbate.

But I will not buy club soda at Whole Foods. I refuse. The over-priced cans of 365 brand club soda somehow offend my very being. What kind of spendthrift buys luxury soda water? Not I, damn it. This blue collar shopper’s code allows me to distinguish myself from the other Whole Food shoppers in yet another way. I may talk myself into paying extra for organic sausage, which is sort of like buying Fair Trade crack, but I still know when I’m being ripped off. Club soda is where I draw the line.

So I take my $54 bag of groceries across the street to Jolly King liquors. Jolly King has been there since Whole Foods was Jerry’s Meat Market. And it hasn’t changed. It is one of two remaining liquor stores in my now upscale hometown. The fact that it still exists is a testament to the universal appeal of cheap alcohol and cigarettes. 

By way of confession, I should add that I need club soda to mix with my Johnny Walker. I don’t need the Johnny Walker. I do, however, need the club soda. This subtle distinction is how I know I don’t have a drinking problem; like enjoying a cigarette but needing a pack of matches. 

I make my way to the counter where a very beautiful woman of indeterminate (to me) Middle Eastern descent is waiting. Before I reach her, a late-middle-aged man walks briskly through the door and beats me to the cash register. He has graying, shoulder length hair that reminds me of a clown’s wig. Evident dandruff is scattered along the upper back of his charcoal gray sweatshirt with sleeves hand-cut to jersey length. He is heavy set. His pallid skin is wrinkled around his eyes and mouth. The tip of his nose seems too round. I can see his blue F150 parked out front, still running. The dash is cluttered with empty cans of Copenhagen and unpaid parking tickets.  

The man places three dollar bills and one quarter on the counter.

“Half pint of Gilbey’s,” he tells the woman, matter-of-factly. 

I can’t be sure, but I think she was already reaching for it before he asked.

She hands it to him. He spins on his heels and is out the door before she can ring him up. As I approach the register, it rings, “$3.25.” Not his first half pint of Gilbeys, I think to myself.

She puts his cash in the drawer and looks up at me and my liter of Canada Dry.

“Anything else?” she asks.


I am on my way.

The non-profit logo tote is heavy on the way up the hill. I idly shift the straps from my palm, to my shoulder, to the crook of my elbow. I’m distracted from the discomfort by thoughts of the man at Jolly King. I am quite certain that his half pint will be gone by morning. I am equally certain that he does not limit his purchase to a half pint as a form of self-regulation. Presumably, a half pint is what he can afford. Though I have the strong sense that even if he had more money, he’d still by cheap gin, one half pint at a time.

I am caught between pity and admiration for the man. On the one hand, he is an alcoholic. His is a working class guy in a rich man’s town. His glory days seem well behind him. I do not want to be him. On the other hand, he is not pretending. He knows who he is and what he wants. There is not one drop of hypocrisy in a half pint of Gilbeys. And who am I to judge? I am headed home to make myself a scotch and soda or possibly three. Because the eagle flies on shabbos.

As I approach the cluster of mailboxes at the corner of my street, my mind ricochets from the people I saw at Whole Foods to the man at Jolly King; from the $7.00 tortillas to the $3.25 booze. I feel familiar questions forming in my brain.


Not me?

As usual, I conclude that I am all of them and none of them; all of it and none of it.
I enter my house. The dog looks up from her bed with a lazy greeting. I walk to the kitchen and place the canvas bag on the granite counter. As I unload the groceries, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror of our hat tree. I am reminded of a quote from some old movie I can’t quite remember.

We are not so different, you and I.

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