The Goldberg Variations: Market Fluctuations

I wouldn’t describe myself as a world traveler, but still – I have visited the Louvre, the White House and the Tower of London. I have driven to the top of a volcano on Maui and walked with my children down the Champs Elysee. And yet, one of my favorite tourist destinations of all time is the Publix Supermarket in Tamarac, Florida.

For years, whenever we would visit my in-laws in Florida, I would look forward to wandering the clean, wide aisles of this market, gape mouthed and in awe of the gleaming rows of produce, packaged goods, and wholesome prepared foods. This store was a direct and glaring contrast to my neighborhood market in New York, which was on its very last legs and had been allowed to devolve into the Bates Motel of food emporiums. It was cramped and gloomy and badly lit, with a low ceiling and an inch of dust on its tired boxes of cereal. The store was redolent with that unmistakable old-supermarket aroma of sour milk and perspiration. The entire market was clearly past its sell-by date.

As befits a retail hell-hole, this supermarket was populated with the shadiest of employees, surly crones who sneered at my cold cut choices, sullen teenage bag boys, and one especially skeevy young man who made a point of licking his fingers before counting out my change. It was so unlike Publix with its aggressively helpful sales staff – good natured retirees who would not only insist on wheeling my cart to the parking lot, they would call me “Miss” in the bargain (by Florida standards, I am dewy and youthful).

The market, finally, was torn down, and its place sprang a structure that rivaled Publix in its size and cleanliness – a model of well-lit, high-ceilinged commercial space. I was thrilled at first, but it wasn’t long before I found fault with my spiffy new market. The size began to feel oppressive, especially if I was running in for just one thing; I began to dread having to drag myself across a space the size of a football field just to buy a pint of fat free half and half. The new store is more expensive than the one it replaced, although I qualify for discounts if I use my member card. Apparently, it is no longer enough to patronize a supermarket – now you are expected to join the supermarket. My member card allows the market to keep track of points I’ve accrued from previous shopping trips. Call me paranoid, but I’m not crazy about having some faceless corporate bureaucracy know every detail of my Chips Ahoy purchasing history.

But mostly I find myself wishing the store was not such an extreme waste of space and resources. Is it really necessary to have a supermarket the size of an airplane hangar? Are slightly cramped aisles such a big price to pay for a store that is less costly to heat and light and air condition? In addition to the reckless waste of fossil fuels, there is something overly sunny and glitzy and un-New York about the new market – buying groceries now makes me feel like one of the Real Housewives of Boca Raton.

I think I preferred this type of happy, shiny shopping experience when it was a break from the norm, a thing to do on vacation before an early dinner in a Florida strip mall. As part of my everyday life it has lost some of its allure. With supermarkets, as with all things, be careful what you wish for.

Editor’s Note: Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: Marcin Wichary