Alex R. Jones | The Threepenny Review | Summer 2014 | 10 minutes (2,524 words)

After I was let go from my job, I started to go grocery shopping at night. This was some time ago, when I was younger and the city was dirtier. I didn’t like to shop in the day when there were only old ladies in the stores, because it reminded me that I was out of work. And at night I didn’t have much else to do. I had a small TV set on my kitchen table, and I would watch TV during dinner. It was winter then, and while I ate the sky outside my kitchen window darkened. In the apartment across the courtyard, the blue light glowed through the curtains, so I knew that those people were watching TV, too. When the commercials came on I shut off it off. Through the wall, I could hear the old Armenian man next door hacking up phlegm. That’s when I would grab my keys and take off.

I lived then in Hollywood, in the dark streets below the foothills of Griffith Park, in one of the pastel-colored apartment buildings which were built in the 1940s and 50s and had names like The Franklinaire or The Regency. It was the part of town where Raymond Chandler’s character Philip Marlowe had lived, coming home late at night with a bottle of scotch to find strange women lying in his bed. That never happened to me, though. When I was there, Chandler was long gone, and the streets smelled of fried rice, lawn clippings, and dog excrement. Rotting sofas lined the sidewalks. The streets, grid-like in daytime, at night seemed twisted and confusing, lined on each side with beaten old cars, running this way and that, but always downhill into the city, and the sodium streetlights illuminated the fog with a weird glow.

I shopped at the Giant on Sunset and Western, located across the street from the Triple X Theater. There were other supermarkets in town. There was the Pioneer on Franklin, or the Vons farther down Sunset, but there was only one Giant. I don’t know if it was the largest grocery store in the world, but it was big, especially for back then. It stood two storeys high and had a large oval sign which read GIANT that you could see all the way down on La Brea. The Giant was not only a source of sustenance, a Mecca of mostly licit trade, but was also a clean well-lighted place. Illuminated at night like an urban supernova, probably discernible from outer space, the Giant was surrounded by a black hole of a parking lot in which decade-old American cars leaked vital fluids in silence while shadow people materialized between them to beg for money.

The floor was perfect, clean white and seamless, like an eggshell — so different from the varying shades of filth to be found in the rest of Hollywood.

The parking lot was bordered with a black iron fence ostensibly to keep out crime. On the sidewalk beyond the fence, under the orange glow of the streetlights on Sunset, women in skirts of lime green, orange, or bright yellow paced back and forth, twirling tiny purses with impatience. When I looked at them, they would call out to me: “Got a car, mister? Got a car?”

After a while, I didn’t look at them anymore.

It was hard to get a good shopping cart at the Giant. The chrome of the Giant carts was covered with a layer of native filth so they barely shone anymore. Each had a yellow plastic flap with the Giant logo. Some squeaked when you pushed them, and others had wheels that didn’t roll, and some rolled but with a ruined gait, thumpity, thump, thumpity, thump, like a broken-down horse being forced to run. Some were missing wheels altogether. This was back before supermarkets had inventory controls on the carts to keep them in the lot. The carts of the Giant were a form of neighborhood largess to be borrowed as needed by street people for lengthy tours all around town.  I saw them on side streets and vacant lots as far away as Silverlake.

They were kept outside the door, where the light from the store glittered off their filthy chrome with a dark brilliance. Once I selected my cart, I pushed it toward the entrance, and the doors opened to greet me, which, though impersonal and automatic, somehow always made me feel a little better. Inside, the Giant was a wonderful cathedral of light and commerce. The air was clean and cool. From the high ceiling — so high over my head that it may as well have been heaven itself — came a pure white light that cast no shadows. And the floor was perfect, too, clean white and seamless, like an eggshell — so different from the varying shades of filth to be found in the rest of Hollywood.

Under that light, my cart looked dingy, my sneakers old and gray. My cart and I had that in common. We had come from the world outside, and soon enough we would return. We were sojourners, travelers, pilgrims, moths, nothing more, passing through dark in search of light.

I remembered the day I was laid off. The firm was a place of toy-like sculptures, plush carpets, and private dreams where nobody laughed. The office manager, who heretofore had favored me only with floorward-directed sad half smiles, had called me in to see her. Joining her in this new sociability was the head partner, a clean-shaven bastard with a pastel tie.  He asked me to take a seat, and when I did, he informed me in easy-to-understand terms that they were letting me go, that a final check had been issued. It was understood that in order to be cooperative I need only shake his hand, gather my things, and never return. He was calm. I sat there for a moment. Outside the window, against the horizon of West Los Angeles, a solitary palm tree stood in slender profile against a brown blue sky. It was still morning. For some reason, I looked down at his hands and I noticed for the first time how neat his nails were. He must get manicures, I thought. But I couldn’t believe that any of this was happening.

“Why me?” I remember asking.

At the Giant, there was no thought of the past, no concern for the future, only the satisfaction of filling our carts.

I guess it was the wrong question because his face took on a sad expression. He pursed his lips with disappointment as though he had just found a stain on his tie that might require special attention at the dry cleaners. “Do we really want to go into that?” he asked. I felt confused, but in the back of my head, bursting like sunshine through the clouds, was the thought  I don’t have to come in here tomorrow! It was a crazy, exultant feeling — but of course, it didn’t last.

I always started out in the section identified by the large scripted sign as PRODUCE, even though at the time most vegetables held only an academic interest for me. Anything beyond iceberg lettuce I viewed back then with awe or suspicion. But most stores know that once you get your vegetables, you pat yourself on the back, and you’re all set to stock up on packaged processed foods. And the Giant’s green section was huge, larger than the entirety of smaller markets. It was like a rainforest of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. I didn’t know the names of most of the stuff they had there. I pushed my cart past three different kinds of cabbages, past jicama, past rutabaga, past mint. There were purple eggplants, guavas, little kiwis like old men’s heads, kumquats, and string beans. Running along the lettuce case was a rubber tube that every now and then sprayed water out in a subdued, reassuring hiss, covering the leaves in sensual drops. Being among the greens was comforting and alien at the same time. It made me think of when I was seven and my mom drove my brother, my sister, and me down to a place called Lion Country Safari in Irvine, an exotic animal park you could drive your car through. They had giraffes, elephants, and zebras, along with real lions that came up to your car. I remember sitting in the back seat of our Mercury station wagon and looking out the window at a lion with its long tail twitching back and forth nervously as the guy in the car in front of us held a richly marbled porterhouse steak out the half-open window. Being in the back of my mom’s station wagon and seeing real lions was something like going through the Giant and seeing all those vegetables, while outside the iron fence, in the fog, pleasure was being procured, palms crossed with silver, and dreams forgotten.

With my trusty shopping cart as companion, I would shop in a search pattern — that is, down one aisle and up the next. This method satisfied my need to feel as though there was a grand scheme to my shopping, and by extension to my whole life, that was unfolding successfully. This, of course, was untrue. Despite this pretense at a system, my shopping trips were characterized mostly by a sort of serendipity. I never made a list. In the vast acreage of the Giant, I spent countless evenings trudging down the aisles in a daze, vaguely pleased by the plenty that surrounded me, but for the most part, unseeing. I walked past groceries that I needed and sometimes bought others for which I had no use. Around me, Armenian men, Hispanic mothers, and old Russian ladies passed by me in their own search patterns. We were all alone. But we were alone together. And for me, and probably for all of us at the Giant, there was no thought of the past, no concern for the future, only the satisfaction of filling our carts.

I loved that at the Giant there was nothing I could not afford. While the employed slept moneyed dreams, I walked the aisles under that gorgeous white light, pondering the gentle smile of the Quaker Oats man. I admired Mr. Peanut with his white spats and monocled gaze. I was pleased at the black man offering the bowl of Cream of Wheat with the whiffs of steam rising off. I wanted to come over to Betty Crocker’s house, sit in her kitchen, have her cook meals for me, and forever disappear into her sexless world of baked goods and homemaking. I was drawn to promises. I would pick up boxes of pancake mix, feel the heft of their contents, and read their labels. Some items I placed in my cart. Others I returned to the shelf, satisfied just to handle them. In the BAKERY section, I would pore over bread loaves for claims of heartiness, tradition, quality, freshness, and wholesome goodness, and these items I placed into my cart. I tried not to think of the world outside. I rolled my cart with its halting gait on the smooth bright floors of the Giant, unconscious of the passage of time.

At the checkout line, I could see through the windows of the electric doors the darkness of the parking lot outside, and that’s when I would first think of my waiting apartment, silent, dim, bed unmade from the night before, the black extinguished eye of the TV dully gleaming. I knew that when I woke up the next day, the sun would come in through the blinds, and outside the night would have disappeared as if it never had been. For the last time, I looked up at the bright lights overhead.

After the cashier bagged my groceries, I proffered a check of the palest blue. There was a lack of memory. Despite my multiple visits through his line, he always asked for my ID and studied it, his eyes moving from my license to my check to me, with no recognition. Finally, he’d stamp the check and issue a receipt, and I was on my way. The doors obediently whirred open and I walked out into the cool grayness.

I was drawn to promises. I would pick up boxes of pancake mix, feel the heft of their contents, and read their labels.

I never knew what time I finished, but it was always late. The fog was thick, and in the distance, there were always the twirling spotlights of a premiere. The lights were barely visible in the hills. Around me, the parking lot had emptied. I walked slowly toward my car. The parking-lot lights were smeared by fog. I pushed my cart alongside my car and unloaded it. I looked around to see if anybody was watching. If nobody was, I would shove it as hard as I could across the lot. It would take off slowly at first, a spurned friend, but then it picked up speed, receding into the haze before crashing into the concrete planter on the far side of the lot, coming to a rest on its side.

I had to drag my grocery bags up to the third floor. With the bags at my feet, I unlocked my front door. I took a deep breath and opened it. It was dark as a pit. I walked to the kitchen and turned on the light. The neighbor across the courtyard had shut his TV off, and his apartment was dark. Everything was quiet. Not even the old man was coughing.

I stared out my kitchen window at the city and wondered if there were any parties going on in the hills. I remembered going to a party there a few years ago at a big house with a lighted pool and a view of the city. It was one of those parties where you don’t even know who is throwing it. I came with friends. And I remember talking to this woman in a red party dress. She was one of those women you come across in the city who are so beautiful that they exist only in magazines or in the fine dark air of certain parties and then disappear forever. I didn’t talk to her long. At one point I touched her waist with one hand, and with the other, I sipped from a fifth of Jack Daniels. The stereo was loud, and I remember shouting my name, and she looked at me and nodded. She had eyes that were the difference between brown and black, and her skin was pale. I was excited and a little drunk, and I shouted to her something about what a great evening it was, or something like that. She laughed, but in a nice way. I don’t know what happened after that. Maybe a girlfriend of hers came over and interrupted us — I forget. I never saw her again.

I lifted my groceries out of their bags and placed them on the kitchen table. There they were: a head of lettuce, Aunt Jemima Biscuit Mix that I would probably never use, a package of chicken drumsticks, a bottle of salad dressing and a box of sugar with incomparable whiteness and purity. I examined them under my kitchen light as though seeing them for the first time. Somehow, now that they were home, they looked strange to me. I stood in my kitchen, staring down at my groceries, and I tried to remember how they looked in the Giant.

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This essay originally appeared in the Sumer 2014 issue of The Threepenny Review, the venerated print arts quarterly founded in California in 1980 by Wendy Lesser. Our thanks to Alex R. Jones and the Review for letting us share it with the Longreads community.