Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

Horns of Plenty

The ground floor of our apartment building in the city presents a row of storefronts to the avenue: a pizzeria, a nail salon, a walk-in medical clinic, a supermarket, and a 24-hour diner. In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis scorned those who think that the ultimate source of bread is the baker’s van. Of course not: The ultimate source of bread is the supermarket.

Ours is one of a chain based in the city. It is a scrappy venue — not dirty (I never saw it closed by the Board of Health) but stressed. The space is tight — slightly longer than it is deep — which means the aisles are narrow and the carts small. Fresh vegetables are its weakest link; they were fresh, once, but they have come a long way from Hunts Point, and a longer way from the Central Valley. Meat used to be positively dodgy: When the store opened, one saw pigs’ feet and other items geared to ethnicities that live elsewhere, though over time the supermarket took better stock of its demographic. Berries, in their clear plastic coffins, are fine, if bland. Everything else, boxed, bottled, and canned, is what you find everywhere else. The canned vegetables aimed at Spanish speakers, I noticed long ago, are much more expensive than their English-labeled counterparts: Does brand loyalty enable gouging?

On the way out, what most catches my eye: reading material. The three newspapers (the royal barge and the two tabloids) and the magazines: Kardashians and the dead (Diana, Natalie Wood); the dead of the future (Oscar favorites); women’s magazines (214 Sex Positions that Will Drive Him Wild, also known as The Triumph of Feminism). In season there are special-issue one-offs about Jesus. The manager is surly, but the customer can ignore him because he is incomprehensible (thick accent + slurred speech = say what?). The women who work for him at the cash registers are friendly even so. A young one complains that her arms are fat (they aren’t). Her colleague grips her own belly (see that?) and laughs her to scorn.

City dwellers feel underserved if they lack multiple options. Two blocks away there is a supermarket belonging to a chain from the West Coast; it carries its own brands of pretty much everything, the checkout men and women wear flowered shirts and ring ship’s-bells when they need to summon a manager, good offerings and bright presentation make the lines snake forever. In season farmers come to the park bearing the produce of upstate and out-of-state. All year Turks man carts at the subway entrances, selling fruits and vegetables gotten who knows how. And on the short hidden street is the store of mystery: foreign artisanal cheeses, each with a description as detailed as a write-up in the Dictionary of National Biography; amuse-bouches from around the world — Portuguese sardines, Irish soft drinks, chocolate from Madagascar. The mystery is, how does it stay in business? The prices are steep, there are never more than three people in there, and yet it stays open. The city: something for everyone, including the curious and elusive rich.

But all these options involve a walk out of the way. City dwellers are walkers, but walking to shop for groceries means a walk home with weight, which in turn means pushing your own cart over bumpy sidewalks (rickety wheels, slow in good weather, grim in snow), or Paul Robeson totes that bale, or you pay for delivery as if prices were not high enough to begin with. Anywhere else — burbs, country — who cares? Everything there is built for space, and traversing space. The aisles in the supermarkets are as wide as highways, the shelves follow one another like midwestern states, the carts are as big as argosies. You wheel your spoil to your vehicle and drive two, five, ten miles home, no problem. In the city the only way to have no problem is to have a supermarket in your building. It is there when you want to lay in supplies, and it is there for impulse buys and last-minute emergencies. You need paper towels and there is a sale on 16-packs? You thirst and the only way to quench it is seltzer? Your wife is cooking up a storm but lacks the indispensable cloud-seeding of a bunch of dill? Get in the elevator, go through the lobby and around the corner; reverse.

So it was for the 20-some years the supermarket sat in our building, but some weeks ago word went out that it was closing. The rumor found confirmation in a slow winnowing of items on the shelves as this, then that, was not replaced. The most conspicuous casualty, interestingly, was the reading material. Suddenly the checkout lines were bare. How will we know what Lena Dunham will do next? We won’t, not in this store anyway. Then came a hand-lettered note on the door making it official, then the realtor’s ad for space available. The surly manager may find other work in the chain, unless he is ready to contemplate human baseness in retirement. The girl with the not-fat arms and the girl with the belly fat will have to seek other checkout lines.

What will take the supermarket’s place? Normally I would say one of the big-chain drug stores, except there is already one two blocks south and another one block north. My next guess would be a nail salon, except for the one that is already in the building. Bars are always good; a famous university has dormitories in the neighborhood, and who ever went broke selling liquor and tinnitus to young people?

Or there could be a surprise. Two weeks ago I discovered around the corner a café/bakery from Georgia (as in Balanchine, not Ray Charles). “Try Something Different,” the menu suggested, then offered pkaly, chiqirtmá, bazhé, chaqapúly, chahohbily, chabostnily, and jibé. This is in our alphabet; theirs makes Cyrillic look like “See Spot run.” Welcome to the neighborhood.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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