To encapsulate urban America’s divisions and tensions and unities, one need look no further than the grocery store. There are so many, sometimes so close, yet always so far. You must choose where to shop. Whole Paycheck? Trader Joe’s? The Safeway in the Hills? The Safeway on San Pablo? Grocery Outlet?
The Outlet thrives under adversity. Paycheck thrives under disparity.
Since years before the deluge, I shopped at the Outlet. I used to lock up my bike and slink through the dirty aisles with head hung low, embarrassed not only by my bank account, but the discrimination of other white people too.
One must dress down to shop at the Outlet.
One waits in line and finds oneself surrounded by dirty folk, poor folk, black folk, Asians and Mexicans and who-knows-whats. Maybe they recognize you and remember your halting, paltry efforts to relate to them, you among the legions who are taking their neighborhoods from beneath their feet in a parallel universe of protected prosperity.
The Outlet’s customers are the first line of defense. They do not want you there, they tell you.
The employees have no choice but to want you there, or so you have been told. And yet eventually they leer at you too. They turn their carts suddenly in front of you. They answer your questions with words bored and surly. Their attitudes sour, and you cannot take it personally because then that makes it worse, worse and worse every week, so that sometimes you don’t want to go back. They don’t want me there, fuck them! But where else can I go? I’m unemployed too, you want to tell them. I grew up here too, you want to tell them. They do not care. You are a meal ticket. You do not receive food stamps. You are their overlords’ target, not theirs.
But the more you come back, the more they seem to seek you out. They bother you, yell at you, and ask derisively if you want cash back even after you have already pressed the “No” button.
Once a cashier at the Outlet became impatient with my arrangement of foods on the conveyer belt and took it into his own hands to rearrange them, and rudely force the plastic divider into my groceries’ hindparts. He was not smiling, but the dirty black couple behind me were.
I had cash. Nervously fished my wallet out my pocket and held it conspicuously in my right hand while I waited for him to ask for money.
“You don’t get the fruits in the same bag,” he said.
“Put your fruits in different bags.”
“Oh man, damn, I didn’t mean to, they were all mixed up or somethin’, haha!”
In the line next to ours they started yelling about “Cash,” and this was because I had raised my voice and tried to be friendly to them. You raise your voice and they raise theirs. They wish to make me unwelcome. They compel themselves to anger. I’d felt the same way when I got a hamburger at IHOP, where some miserable family pounced upon my every motion, and the fat mother with a baby in the neighboring booth asked the waiter pointedly for “Hot Chocolate” and her eyes squirmed unpredictably at me while she breathed audibly through her piggish snout.
Like I do at the Outlet, I glowered and lowered my head. These people don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me.
But maybe it’s also because they like something about me, I begin to understand. They want to see what will make me tick, because I don’t look like an ordinary white person.
They want me to think about them, to psychoanalyze they and their motivations and consider them the forces that must be reckoned with. There’s something unfair about that, because I love Oakland but these people do not make it easy.
And I gracelessly leave Grocery Outlet stuffing foods into my backpack, and when I reach my bicycle I am relieved that the front tire is still there and that the homeless person sitting on the curb does not ask for money. Instead he pointedly ignores my presence.
They yell at me but they want me there. They are getting to know me, but I would rather be ignored. They are invading my privacy, they are studying my habits and they are talking about me. They want me to run their gauntlet. I will do no such thing.
It is time for me to find a new grocery store. The Outlet’s usefulness has run its course. I will find a new and more hospitable grocery. This is my resolution — that is, until the reality of yawning price differences dawns anew, at which point it becomes clear that progressively more miserable returns to the Outlet are as inevitable as they ever were.