25 April 2005

Blogging at Wegmans

A few years ago, I got in the habit of stopping at Wegmans on my way back from an overnight with friends who live out in the country in Berks County, PA. As I pulled into the parking lot, I always sang (to the tune of "Springtime for Hitler"):

at Wegmans...
in Allentown...

I'd enter through the Market Cafe door, head straight for the Boulangerie, and snap up a still-warm loaf of multigrain bread, then swing by the Coffee House for some decaf Donut Shop Roast, and park upstairs, either by the window to watch the shoppers coming and going, or else by the balcony railing to observe my fellow consumers browsing the boutique food stands, pointing, conferring, moving on, carts bumple-bumpling over the faux-marble tiles.

When Deb and I first moved to Staten Island 25 years ago, the Pathmark on Forest Avenue was the only supersized grocery store in reach (until we got a car a few years later -- refugees from Manhattan, we never needed one before). We'd joke that the Cold War would end in seconds if a handful of Russian housewives could only be transported to the produce section for an afternoon -- once back home, they'd pull down the entire economic structure of communism in no time. I don't remember how we thought that would actually work.

This afternoon, after a modestly productive visit to my therapist, I turned left instead of right off Cedar Crest onto Tilghman, for a sentimental journey to the Market Cafe (it's been months since I saw Berks County). Business was brisk in the caf proper, but upstairs in the balcony sat only a small work group at a central table, a loner like me gazing out the window over the parking lot at the bruise-colored sky, and a young mom with her two under-fives, the younger one cranking, the older full of questions. I unpacked by the railing, lifted the lid on my trusty iToilet, and started to blog.

Of course, my old hippie heart is grossed out by the utter vulgarity of so much *stuff* in one place. It would seem that Wegmans (and Shoprite and Giant and Target and Walmart and Costco and every other retailer in America) has pre-empted one of infomonger's early slogans: Everything. Everywhere. All the Time.

It's simply impossible to imagine that all of this product is actually moved, that in fact most of this phantasmagoria doesn't end up out back in the dumpster, to be hauled off to rot somewhere in -- well, if this were New York, it would be somewhere in Pennsylvania, but since this is already Pennsylvania, it must be... somewhere in Pennsylvania. But, as with so many things, I just don't know enough about how this works to be able to imagine any further.

On the walls are poster-size photos of Wegmans's early years, or so they're meant to suggest: in grainy black and white, two farm workers in stained driver shirts and suspendered trousers gaze unimpressed at the camera; an ancient tractor throws a cloud of dust over a horse-drawn wagon; a roadside stand displays its roughly piled wares beneath a sagging tattered awning.

Now there's a world I recognize: I grew up in the proto-burbs southwest of Pittsburgh, our quarter-acre cut from somebody's front forty, but we were early adopters -- and many of our neighbors looked exactly like those guys regarding us so skeptically from beneath the broke-brimmed newsboy cap and the fedora with the pinched-out peak. You can probably find that world's vestige not far from here, down the pike towards York, where the Amish still try to keep it simple.

But the rest of us let go that rope long ago, and the rising tide of *things* is lifting every boat there is, so seems there's nothing to do but surf as long as we can.

Which is probably how I manage to overcome so easily my pre-programmed disgust at this obscene spectacle of mega-consumption. Dr. Strangelove encouraged us to stop worrying and love the bomb -- and that turned out OK, didn't it? I mean, the nosh here is really cherce, the coffee's weakish but it kicks, and the people-watching, why, it's first-rate.

So this is how I kill the time between therapy and choir practice. That and

at Wegmans...
in Bethlehem...


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