Ward Nicholson

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Neanderthal America: the grocery store

Every now and then you just feel like letting loose with a real rant. Here’s one on how a typical shopping trip to the grocery store has become a microcosm of everything our country now seems to stand for.

When I first began writing this post, its working title for some time was “Introvert Hell: The Grocery Store.” That’s because I am by nature an introvert and find most grocery stores here in the U.S. to be loud and oppressive places, with their dense press of humanity, blaring public address systems, and omnipresent, rumbling refrigeration compressors creating a constant din wherever one goes inside. (To name a few items as a start.) And since research suggests one-third to one-half of the population are introverts — despite the widespread disregard for us in this country’s implicit promotion of the “extrovert ideal” everywhere — there would be no shortage of potential readers.

But as I took down notes it became apparent there was more to my dislike of grocery shopping than simple introversion. Grocery stores today, like many other things in this country, are a microcosm of the larger society. They reflect much about our guiding value system and collective behavior.

So to enlarge the scope of the post title to cover everything on the agenda here, I thought a better-fitting phrase for the range of things at issue would be the more provocative “Neanderthal America.” Which to me is largely what the U.S. has devolved to in recent decades, as the country has passed its former heights as the leading nation others once looked up to, but now is past its prime, like an aging prizefighter, still full of chest-beating bluster, but lacking discipline, vigor, and not least, intelligence.

Dodging the parking vultures

The annoyance of the grocery store experience begins as soon as you enter the parking lot — actually, just about any large parking lot in an American city of a couple hundred thousand or larger these days, other than a dead or dying regional mall or strip mall’s parking lot. Unless you happen to arrive during off-hours, the lot is typically packed, with all the good spots close to the entrance taken. Yet there is no shortage of “parking vultures” greedily circling around, hoping for that 10 or 20% chance they might, just might, happen to alight on an empty parking stall just a few steps from the entrance anyway.

Lazy Americans. Don’t they realize it would be quicker after a brief survey of the lot to just immediately go and park one or two rows further away, rather than slowly inching their way down the row closest to the entrance, getting stuck waiting on pedestrians before they can proceed, only to find in the majority of cases there is no prize spot waiting for them? Apparently not. Apparently they are so lazy that that would be anathema, and it would simply be beneath them to have to walk an extra 50 strides.

Lizard-brained shopping cart ad inserts

The annoyances continue as you walk over to pull out a shopping cart from the cart bay just inside or outside the entrance. Nowadays, advertisements have invaded the carts themselves: 8.5 x 11″ inserts or thereabouts (I haven’t measured exactly) that have been slid into plastic frames on the end of each cart, facing out from both the inside and outside of the cart.

It’s anybody’s guess who might be responsible for this slimy little lizard-brained idea, whether it was hatched, for example, at the parent conglomerate at the corporate level, or whether the idea came instead from the management at our local chain of grocery stores. But whoever was behind it, one can imagine the advertisers rubbing together their scaly, Gollum-like hands with evil glee: “Ah-ha-ha-HAH! Now we can force all the captive shoppers to look at our glorious ads every stinking minute they are in the store pushing their carts! My precious, my precious!”

Please, can we have even more stupid ads? Today it isn’t enough that we’re assaulted every few minutes over the grocery-store PA system by singsongy, fakey-voiced “Attention, Shoppers!” ads for stuff you would never buy. Or at least that I wouldn’t. Because if they have to hawk it to rats trapped in the grocery-store maze, it probably isn’t worth buying in the first place. Or if I would buy it, thereafter I would purposely not buy it at this company’s grocery stores, and go find it somewhere else just because they spoiled my peace and quiet with a useless ad that wasn’t even needed.

No, the “Attention Shoppers!” ads are not enough. In truth, nothing would ever be enough for sleazeballs like these. Now they want to have their ad parked in front your face like a Chinese-water-torture experience, like some invasion of the mind-snatchers. Well, I don’t know about others, but I refuse to submit to that sort of shameless attempt at not-so-subliminal persuasion or brainwashing.

Civil disobedience. My response to the cart ad, then, has been simple and consistent: If I can’t easily find a cart without an ad insert facing me, I simply yank the ad out and toss it into the nearest trash can. True, the inserts may not always come out that easily, but that’s only been motivation to perfect my technique further. So far I have refrained from tearing the ads in half, so as not to be accused of being a vandal, but it’s possible I might well do so, if pressed, just to make a point to store management.

And if they pushed the point, I would say something like, “Hey, I can go shop somewhere else if you’d like. Is that what you really want, or are you going to let me shop in peace without having to stare at your damned ad the whole time? I am already here shopping, you idiot. What more do you want?”

Can’t get no respect. To me, the cart ads have crossed a line. Part of what should be, or at least used to be, the implied contract between advertiser and consumer was a certain amount of leeway and respect — that a person has the choice whether or not to view or listen to an ad. You can advertise if, when I have had enough of it, I am allowed to turn the page, or turn down the volume, or go to the bathroom to pee while your ad is playing, considering how often ads are repeated.

But if your ad follows me into the bathroom while I am peeing, or follows me around the computer screen when I scroll away, then you don’t know when to quit. You have become the enemy. You have alienated your potential customer, and overstepped your role as a sponsor. Now you are a coercer.

The same goes for an ad in a shopping cart that is purposely plopped in my direct line of sight no matter where I turn the cart. You are now scum. Have you no human decency? No ethics? (And I say this as someone who, as a typographer, graphic designer, and proofreader serving advertising agencies and other clientele, has in part made a living from the advertising business myself.)

Unseen accomplices. Apparently, there are other grocery shoppers who think this crosses a line as well, because I notice more often now that I don’t necessarily have to tear the ad inserts out of carts myself any longer. At times others have already spared me the chore. Or at least it sure seems that way, because I doubt I can single-handedly have been responsible for the number of missing ad inserts I sometimes see now.

The overcrowded, over-bright sensory assault

The next thing I notice once I’ve walked through the double-door airlock entry to the store proper is how crowded and loud things typically are. But at least the other Americans in view here are on their feet. Apparently, shopping is the national sport, since aside from lying or sitting on their butts with a TV remote or cellphone in hand or driving their cars, the only time you see most people on their feet when they aren’t working is when they’re out shopping.

And a sport it nearly is, because the steeplechase event in horse racing or track and field has nothing on the modern grocery store. It sometimes appears that in certain areas the aisles, pathways, kiosks, counters, bins, and shelves have almost purposely been laid out to form an obstacle course — keen maneuvering skills and sharp reflexes are required to keep from bumping into things if you’re traveling at any real rate of speed.

Kamikaze shopping cart pilots. This is before you introduce any other shoppers wielding their own carts in between the boundaries of the maze. Once they’re thrown into the mix, it’s like a bunch of kamikaze pilots displaced from World War II have been run through a time warp and spit out the other end of a wormhole to find themselves in the alien universe that is the modern grocery store. Still oblivious to anything around them, eyes glazed over, peripheral vision narrowed, brain maxed-out with the single mind-bending task directly in front of them, unable to take in anything beyond the goal on the horizon ahead. Except that in the world in which they now find themselves, the target is what is exploding right in front of them on the battlefield of their cellphone screen.

Bright lights, big savings. Then there is how glaringly bright the store is lit. Fluorescent lights save stores money, of course, when it comes to illuminating large areas. However, the densely packed banks of overhead lights are just harsh, there’s no other way to say it. A little attention to more indirect or reflected lighting would go a long way toward make shopping a more pleasant experience. But of course it would cost some extra money, so we can’t have that, now, can we?

Nope, life is about money, money, money, not happiness. But do you think the bean-counting managers overseeing grocery and department stores have ever thought any further about this? Doubtful. Our Neanderthal value system here in America has its own ape-like answer for anyone who doesn’t like standard-issue gear of whatever type: “Whatsa matter, ya too sensitive or good for the rest of us?! Har, har, har.”

Doing the salad bar limbo

The first stop for me in the store, since I am a bite-the-bullet kind of guy, is the most distasteful so I can get it out of the way to begin with: building a salad at the salad bar. Why the most distasteful? Two reasons. First, because the salad bar area is the loudest in the entire store due to the interstate-trucking-like roar of the refrigeration compressors lurking just underneath all the chopped-vegetable bins.

A sneeze guard built with chimps in mind. Second, the placement of the sneeze guard seems designed to be purposely aggravating. Who was it that decided on placing these so low and in such as position that you have to crouch like a chimpanzee or second-baseman, then do a pretzel-like yoga pose just to be able to snake your arm far enough back beneath to be able to scoop anything out?

I will admit things have gotten better at some stores in the last few years. Probably someone in management at the grocery chain finally had the occasion to actually shop at their own local store (no!), and experienced it for themselves. Duh. What a novel idea! That you should test out your own products: “eat your own dog food,” as it’s sometimes termed these days.

Geez, make up your mind will ya? Then — and yeah, maybe this is a little impatient — there are the salad-bar ditherers. The people who can’t make up their minds what they want on their salad. Or those who are simultaneously building two salads at once, one for themselves and one for hubby or teen-queen daughter. Or the apparent anorexic I once ran across who was slowly and painstakingly picking out the leaf lettuce with the salad tongs a single leaf at time, while I built the entirety of my salad sans the leaf lettuce they were monopolizing all the while. And all of these individuals seemingly oblivious to the fact anyone else besides themselves might also be in need of access to the salad bar at the same time. (I could almost as easily have titled this post “Oblivious America” or “Me-First America” as opposed to “Neanderthal America.”)

Decibel overload everywhere

The noise level, though: Aside from the other things I’ve mentioned so far, the din at grocery stores has always been the number-one factor behind my dislike. (Number two is too many slugs crowding the aisles without apparent regard for others who might need to move past them, which we’ll get to in a moment.) On one recent shopping trip, I decided just for the heck of it to take some decibel readings at various points around the store with a cellphone app I have. Just as I thought, the salad bar was the loudest in the entire store, at least among the areas I frequent. For the record, here are the various readings registered by the app:

Grocery Store LocationNoise Level in Decibels (dB)Reference Levels For Comparison
Quietest location in middle of store (laundry detergent aisle)6360 dB: Low noise. Fairly quiet. Conversational speech. Half as loud as 70 dB. Doctor’s office. Hotel lobby. Background music. A/C unit at 100 ft.
Cat food aisle65
Produce dept. in aisles away from compressors6765 to 75 dB: Medium noise. Must raise voice to be heard. Noisy office.
Produce dept. in fruit/veg bins above compressors7270 dB: Vacuum cleaner (70 dB). Freeway at 50 ft. from pavement (76 dB). Passenger car, 65 mph at 25 ft. (77 dB).
Underneath ceiling HVAC vents in middle of store72
Salad bar, over compressors, dishing salad75 to 8075 to 85 dB: High noise. Upper 70s are annoyingly loud to some people. 80 dB: Two times as loud as 70 dB. Noisy restaurant/bar. Shipping warehouse. Garbage disposal (80 dB). Diesel truck, 40 mph at 50 ft. (84 dB). Prop plane overhead at 1,000 ft. (88 dB).
(Reference-level comparisons: Source 1, Source 2.)

So basically, the noise is almost as bad as having your kitchen’s garbage disposal running the entire time you’re building your salad, or doing so in the aisle of a shipping warehouse with forklifts motoring by. Is there any concept in America of muffling noise with sound-damping technology? Are we just supposed to put up with it? Apparently no, and apparently yes. Or else people are already partially deaf, or wearing earbuds listening to music to drown the noise out. Gosh, the capital investment in such equipment might impact the grocery chain’s profits by a whole whopping 0.3%, which would be sacrilege in profit-is-our-god-everything-else-be-damned America.

Inedible fruit bought by clueless shoppers only encourages more

Next, I head over to the central area of the produce department for bananas, grapes, avocados, kiwifruit, apples, oranges, berries, vegetables, potatoes, and so forth. Gripe number one here is: why are people even buying the tomatoes, or the peaches or nectarines, the mangoes, and sometimes, the kiwifruit as well? Much of the produce should not even be on sale it’s of such poor quality. Mangoes that are nowhere close to succulently plump, but fibrous, astringent, and tasteless pap. Terribly sour oranges with awful taste. Kiwifruit that are picked far too early and will never ripen.

Mantra: “If we stock it, they will buy. If we stock it…” And the tomatoes — as many know, very much a poor excuse for themselves these days. Yet people seem to buy them anyway. Do those who buy them really not know any better? If you cannot get homegrown or farmer’s-market tomatoes, I can see why you might want to buy one in the store once in a while for a special occasion, even considering how poor an excuse it might be for a real one. But people have to be buying these in ongoing quantity for grocery stores to continue offering them in the volume they do.

And when it comes to the peaches, nectarines, and plums — mostly they are as hard as a rubber handball or tennis ball. What idiots buy this stuff, and why? They aren’t edible except in the most limited sense. Just awful-tasting. Are the people buying them that stupid? Sadly, I have to conclude the answer is yes. Which really doesn’t surprise me, I must admit. (In another arena, all one has to look at are the typical sitcoms and reality TV shows that Americans obviously think are worth watching to come to this conclusion.)

Baseball practice, anyone? Don’t people know even the merest basics about how to pick good fruit out? Apples excepted and oranges aside, the latter of which you would have to cut into to be able to tell, most types of sweet fruit should be at least somewhat soft with a certain amount of give, but not mushy on the one hand, or hard as a rock on the other. Is this not common knowledge? Are the people who buy the rock-hard peaches and nectarines really planning to use them for baseball practice? Because except for one month out of the year when they’re actually in anything close to ripened form, that’s all they are really good for.

Don’t they know if they buy the foam-textured tomatoes or hard, acidic kiwifruit that burns your mouth, it only encourages the produce manager to buy more of the same crap the next time? Do people not understand there are growing seasons and cycles to nature? That we don’t need the same fruits available every single month year-round? And that the only way that can happen is what does happen: if out-of-season stuff is shipped in from other countries that are so far away, even if it’s in-season there, it has to be picked so early it will never ripen?

If it’s no good, leave it in the bin to rot. Let it rot and let the supermarket pick up the losses, and maybe they won’t stock the bins with the same crap next time. Or if they do, continue refusing to buy it, and let it rot another time. Sooner or later, store management might get it through their thick Neanderthal skulls it doesn’t pay. Unless of course, they are supported by clueless shoppers who don’t know a good peach from a bad one. Neanderthals on both sides: that’s why grocery stores have become what they are.

Lying signs and stickers concocted by sleazeball managers

And then there are the little bright orange stickers they put on grossly overripe, rotten-to-the-core avocados that say “Ripe for Tonight” to try and fob off the decaying mush on the ignorant — which is a considerate choice of words here, really, to describe anyone who would buy them in such condition. “Ripe for Tonight?” Yeah, sure, if you consider rotten-to-the-core hunks of browned gunk ripe.

Let’s be straight here: “Ripe for Tonight” is nothing but a bald-faced lie. In America these days it has somehow become okay to lie about anything, even something so transparent as this. We expect the hype. We expect to be lied to — with or without a wink. So the liars spin even more lies than before. Is this what they are teaching in marketing or grocery management classes these days?

If at first they don’t believe you, lie, lie again. Another example of the lies: Just as it was becoming obvious to about everyone that inflation in food prices had taken on new momentum in recent years, the grocery chain decided to come out with more lying signs in the produce department that say: “New! Lower Prices!” Lower? Really? Compared to what? Two days ago? Two weeks ago? Who does the store management think they’re fooling? Surely they jest.

Yeah, maybe lower prices than last week, but higher than they were last month, and considerably higher than last year. Nobody has that short a memory. The price of food keeps going up every year, and they have the gall to say “New! Lower Prices!” when it’s for all of one week, and then they jack them up once again? More lies.

By my reckoning, food prices are easily 25% higher than they were just a few years ago. Temporarily knocking prices down by 5 or 10% is a joke, especially when they will be another 25% higher in another few years.

Dazzle ’em with day-glo colors. When I mention the “Ripe for Tonight” stickers and “New! Lower Prices!” signs to my wife, she points out something I had forgotten, or perhaps never noticed. To attract attention and fake you out, the store also puts bright, day-glo-colored price stickers on things in the produce department to try and trick you into thinking they’re running a special on something, when in fact it’s the same price as before. (“Oh, sorry, just joshin’, heh-heh-heh!”) We expect to be lied to by our politicians but when our groceries join in on the act, it’s gone too far.

The incredible shrinking — no, wait! — expanding portion size. On top of this, there are the portion sizes of all the household items in the store, which keep shrinking, shrinking, shrinking over the years. Two ounces less here, another couple there. Soap, toilet paper, whatever. Till finally the whole charade becomes so stupid they come out with a revamped product option, sporting starburst graphics that say “New! Jumbo Size! Buy in Bulk and you Save!” So the cycle can start inflating all over again, feeding the country’s need to continually fool itself evermore.

Lies, all lies. We lie to others and we lie to ourselves. Whatever you have to do to put one over on someone else and get ahead is quite all right here in lack-of-integrity land. No harm intended. It’s just business. Sorry, Charlie. It’s the sacred, self-delusional American way.

Coupons for junk, none for real food

And when it comes to produce — real food — I have to mention coupons. Have you ever seen a coupon for real, honest-to-goodness food like produce? No, or only exceedingly rarely. Coupons are primarily for high-glycemic, sugar- and trans-fat-laden junk food with empty calories that the purveyors want to get you addicted to so you’ll come back for more, sending you down the road to eventual diabetes. Or the coupons are for brands at war with each other like Procter & Gamble or Unilever trying to cannibalize each other’s sales by using the consumer as nothing more than a pawn.

Sure, you may save some bucks in the short run, but at the cost of your future health and skyrocketing medical bills down the road that cost you much more in the long run. What a great deal that is for the math-illiterate American Neanderthal consumer who can’t see past next month or next year when it comes time to make budget decisions about dollars and cents.

Denatured aisles of death

After getting my salad and produce, and moving on to other parts of the store, I quickly wheel the cart past eight or ten consecutive aisles that are mostly unhealthy junk no one should be buying in the first place. These are aisles that could be completely removed from the store with nothing but benefit to our nation. Soda pop, prepackaged foods and confections, canned and bottled junk, boxed junk, plastic-wrapped junk. High-glycemic, overly starchy, high-calorie, low-nutritional-quotient food of the type that’s making wide swaths of America grossly overweight and sick, diabetes or not.

Saltine crackers, cookies, cakes, potato chips, cheese whiz, whipped cream, denatured flours, white fluffy bread more similar to angel-food cake than anything else, and so forth. Perhaps once in a while as a rare treat or splurge, it might be no big deal to junk out a bit.

But when you look at what many people are overstuffing their carts with, it’s clear most are addicted to the stuff. Get rid of those items, and you put the vampire companies out of business who are sucking the life out of the American populace, along with improving the nation’s health all in one move. But we all have to quit taking pride in being Neanderthals.

Playing bumper cars with aisle-blocking mouth-breathers

As you continue moving through the store, sooner or later, even after skipping the miles of aisles with junked-out goodies attracting the unthinkingly addicted, you will run into someone right in the middle of the next aisle, cart parked askew, blocking your way. Yep, one of those: a myopic, me-first, uncomprehending, bona fide Midwestern mouth-breather, oblivious to the possibility anyone else could possibly be inhabiting the aisle at the same time or need access to pass around them.

“Excuse me?!” you say. “Oh, hey, sorry, I didn’t see you,” they reply. No kidding. That is exactly the problem — just the opposite of an excuse. Thanks for telling me what was blindingly obvious to begin with. You don’t look around. Don’t notice. Don’t think. Don’t care. Not even about your own body, apparently. At least not enough to do anything about your woefully out-of-shape sorry butt.

Don’t notice, don’t think, and don’t care — it’s a very good description of what’s the matter with American Neanderthals in general these days. And thanks for apologizing, but I’ll bet you’ll go right back to the same behavior as before. Wanna take odds? Thanks a lot, pal.

Yep, this is Neanderthal America. Where common courtesy and consideration for our fellow human has gone right out the door, and doesn’t rate a second thought, certainly not when there are so many other more important things on our minds. Like Kim Kardashian’s derrière, the next episode of Survivor, or who’s going to be America’s next browbeating cooking-show celebrity chef.

These bumper-car games and the obstacle course that grocery stores present are due to just too many people in too few square feet. One way to mitigate this is to simply shop less often. In the past, if I planned things carefully, I could often reduce my grocery store trips to one per week. Nowadays, it’s more like two trips per weeks, since a downside to once-a-week trips is that a salad from the salad bar is generally good for a maximum of about four to five days before it goes bad.

Another tack is to try hitting the store during off-hours. After about 6:30 to 7:00 or so in the evening, once the after-work rush has petered out, things normally thin out considerably. However, you have to pick your spots carefully. At the chain of grocery stores that dominates the landscape where I live, the salad bar closes down at 8:00 p.m., and the keepers of the bar try to get by without replenishing the bins after 7:30 or thereabouts. So if you don’t land in the store in the hour just before that, you may find some of the salad pickings sparse to nonexistent. Saturday and particularly Sunday mornings can be low-traffic times as well, but if you need to catch up on your sleep on weekends, that may not be an option.

The blaring overhead PA system

Here is another area where cheapness takes precedence over consideration for human biology, in this case our ears’ comfort: the squawky public address system. Why does the approach always seem to be lowest common denominator? Evidently the volume is set at whatever level the person on staff with the worst hearing can manage to make out. This means, though, that the volume is perhaps twice as loud as is comfortable for everybody else. Not to mention that when the volume is pushed too high, it becomes distorted and blaring, and uncomfortable for that reason as well.

But who cares, it’s work, right? The attitude apparently being that it’s almost supposed to be unpleasant, because, well, that’s our Puritan heritage. Life shouldn’t be too much fun, now, should it? We should all have to suffer during work hours to some degree. Customers included since we aren’t having that much fun as employees ourselves.

Android PA system announcements take over. In the past, individual employees would get on the public horn themselves and, for example, ask for more cashiers or sackers up front if the checkout lanes were getting backed up. You would hear an actual human individual’s voice on the phone if someone was needed in such-and-such a department. Now, though, most of the announcements are made by a computerized, android-like female voice that varies not a whit in its delivery from one time to the next.

Perhaps some people like this, but to me, not only is the robot voice annoying on its own, it adds an impersonal feel of automated “Big Brother” management to the store. Especially with the way the announcements are worded.

For example, at the grocery store I most often frequent, the rendition goes like this: “There is a call parked for the Meat and Seafood Department on… one… one… nine.” Then in another 10 seconds, it gets repeated like a broken record with 100% annoying fidelity one more time. With rigid jargon like “There is a call parked for…” that sounds officially distant and coldly corporate — especially after hearing it for the 50th or 100th time — you want to just short-circuit that robot algorithm and smash in the PA speakers once and for all.

How about we spoil the peace and quiet with Muzak

Come to think of it, depriving stores of their PA system and loudspeakers might be one of the best ideas around for improving the grocery-store experience. Beyond what has already been mentioned, it would be great for ridding the store of Muzak. Which is one of the best examples of how Americans seem to find it impossible to be alone with simple events and their own thoughts without something in the background to distract them. How terrible that we might have to just be with ourselves in relative peace and quiet and focus on the basic activity we are involved in at the moment.

Uh-oh, taboo subject alert: let’s not talk about this! It is one of the taboos we have in this country that if you bring up the subject of turning off any background music in the workplace (whether it’s Muzak or not; rock music, whatever), you mostly get blank stares. The attitude seems to be, “So what? If it bothers you, just ignore it. It’s not that big a deal. It’s your problem.” To which I would say, perhaps it’s not that big a deal if one has deadened themselves enough to things around them that they don’t really notice things like background music to begin with — if you have turned yourself off to the impact of things around you to the extent that the volume has to go way up before you wake up to it.

“Small things” are a trap door to the big things. Annoyance with Muzak or the radio playing while working may seem like a small thing, but the fact that so many people don’t seem to notice it much or care — until it’s turned off, especially if it’s their music or radio — to my mind, shows how unconscious we have become to smaller things around us. This is actually an important topic all its own, because small issues, when ignored, generally become much bigger issues. That is why the health of people in our country is in such dire straits. We don’t pay attention to things until they are either gone or screaming at us.

And if you continue to ignore them until the point they are loud and clear or screaming out at you, eventually they can be very difficult to turn around. It makes a difference if you begin paying attention to them when they are small. The human body, for instance, sends out small signals to begin with when things aren’t quite right. If you pay attention to the signals then, and start looking into what you can do to prevent the issue causing the body to protest, usually you can eventually find the cause and figure out what to do about it. But you have to be interested in tuning in and paying attention. What do we do instead? We uphold the American way of attacking the messenger and getting rid of the pain by blocking it out rather than listening to what it’s saying.

Muzak is just one in a string of examples how one can see in some seemingly otherwise small detail a larger overarching pattern pointing to our value systems, and how they are inculcated in our attitudes and way of life from the overall to the lowest-level detail. Brushing small things off like this as unimportant or not worth bothering about is yet another typically American Neanderthal response.

The devil is in the details. The details are life, are our experience. If you don’t care about the details, then you don’t care about the overall either, really. That is how habits of perception work: you cannot simply turn them on and off. They simultaneously govern how you experience both the small and the large. If we don’t care about the details, then despite what we say, ultimately we don’t exhibit much care about the overall either. The overall is just one end of the scope of perception, how the macro meets the micro.

Inept, pushover parents and their untamed, screaming little brats

Another thing in grocery stores I will complain about — that I feel a bit bad about having to bring up — is screaming kids and babies. Don’t get me wrong, I get it: Moms and dads are more time-pressed than the rest of us, and often can’t just leave the kids at home when they go get groceries.

Try a dose of dog training. When it comes to infants and toddlers, say up to two or three years old, I can give the parents a pass. But with kids any older than that, if the parents haven’t learned how to discipline them to better behavior by then, something is wrong and the kid has learned how to manipulate them. By this time, parents should not be bringing kids like this to stores or other public places if they can’t be controlled. Instead, you’d better get them off to dog training school fast before they turn into holy terrors spoiling not only your life but everyone else’s too.

But no, this is America where me-first rights take precedence over everyone else’s rights, and tough on ya if you don’t like it. With rights come responsibilities, but try telling that to the average American Neanderthal. Losing battle.

Walling it all off with earplugs

And on that note — that the noise level in grocery stores is a losing battle — here’s a solution for those of you like myself who are particularly noise-sensitive: Wear earplugs. I’m not joking. Now I’ll admit, even for an unconventionally minded individual like myself, when this idea for combating the noise issue in grocery stores finally dawned on me one day, I thought, geez, people are gonna think I’m a weirdo. But at that I immediately brightened: Since when have I ever cared about people thinking I was a little strange? This is right up my alley — screw ’em if they think that. Why not wear earplugs? And with that I almost began cackling at the very fun and thumb-my-nose-atcha attitude of it.

Embarrassing? Nah. Yes, at first it sounds a little embarrassing, but… If excess noise really does get to you, if it puts you in a crabby or antagonistic mood, tires you out physically, or even hurts your ears (it does mine and makes me wince beyond a certain level that wouldn’t affect others the same way), you owe it to yourself to give earplugs a try. I know some people don’t like the feeling of having even well-made foam plugs in their ears, but if noise is truly a problem for you, I’ll bet you can easily get used to it. It didn’t take me long.

And if you are worried that walking around with the kind of bright, sometimes neon-colored earplugs made these days stuffed in your ears makes you look weird (I have to admit I too prefer not to look weird), I have an answer for that too. Buy the neutral, flesh-colored ones. In fact, here’s a link. The ones I have been buying are the Hearos Ultimate Softness make. Or here’s some similar ones by Mack’s that look like they might be worth trying.

Most people won’t even notice you’re wearing these unless you stop and get into a conversation. And because of the color, those who do notice will likely just assume you’re wearing hearing aids — at least if you’re age 55 or older — and not even think it’s anything worth commenting on. (If you’re younger, be creative and make a joke about it.) If you have brown/black skin, granted, the neutral “flesh color” won’t blend in as well as for Caucasian skin, but they’re still less noticeable than typical fluorescent-colored ones.

Ahhhh, what a relief it is. For me, the difference in experience is that of walking around the grocery store in a bad mood just wanting the experience to be over, versus one where I can slow down a bit, relax more, and at least be physically comfortable in terms of isolating myself from the noise and hubbub. My whole being goes “Ahhhh, this is so much nicer!” I relax, I calm down, I can build my salad above the rumbling compressors in relative muffled peace, and no longer automatically want to ram my cart into the inevitable numbskull blocking an aisle somewhere along the way — well, at least not so much (wink).

Earplugs don’t actually block all sound. And here’s something else, you’ll still be able to carry on brief conversations or interactions with store employees. People who haven’t used earplugs may not realize they only block some of the sound. My estimate is two-thirds of it at best, and maybe more like half, at least with the plugs linked above. (To get the maximum noise-blocking and hearing protection possible, for activities like sleeping and lawn-mowing, I use a different make/model by one of the same companies as above, the Hearos Xtreme that are more brightly colored.)

Also, you can buy earplug cases to stash them in, which are handy for carrying extra pairs with you for various situations. The older I get, the more that excessive noise seems to hurt my ears. So these days I almost never leave home without a few sets of earplugs squirreled away in handy places: in the console or glovebox of the car, in my work tool belt, jeans pocket, jacket or coat pocket, etc. There is so much noise everywhere these days, some of it at hearing-damaging levels, they come in handy more often than you might think.

The beeping, booping checkout stands

After you’ve completed your store rounds and wheel your cart around to the checkout stands, if you’re not wearing those earplugs, yet more noise awaits. I don’t know if this affects others like it does me, but the beeps and boops of the bar-code scanning stations at the checkout registers seem turned up twice as loud as they need to be. If I were a cashier, I would worry about hearing loss with the eight-hours-a-day exposure they have to put up with. When I use the self-checkout registers, as I often do, the beeps and boops sometimes hurt my own ears unless I have earplugs in.

Imagine an eight-hour shift’s worth of beeps and boops. The issue is not just the potential hearing-loss either. Can you imagine having to listen to those beeps and boops all day long, day after day after day? This is the type of thing that begins to infest your dreams.

I have some experience with this to a limited extent because we live near an aircraft plant where there are certain periods when a lot of loud and highly annoying prop-engine testing occurs off and on all day long sometimes. And if it has gone on very long, even when it stops, the incessant buzzing sound can continue to reverberate around in your noggin’ for some time afterward, driving you a little nuts. Sometimes when the engine testing starts early in the morning when I’m sleeping, even if I have earplugs in, the sound still bleeds through and can wake me up. Or it may have stopped but I can still “hear” it — by then it has invaded my brain and sometimes takes up residence of its own there until the “echoes,” as it were, slowly die out.

Pity the poor cashiers. I don’t know how they take it.

The cart corral mess back out in the parking lot

Once the groceries have been sacked up and paid for, and after offloading them into the trunk of my car, I wheel the now-empty shopping cart over to the nearest cart corral. Here, once again, you encounter evidence of how sloppy, lazy, and inconsiderate the Neanderthal American populace is. Most corrals can handle two columns of shopping carts, yet used carts typically have been trundled recklessly into the corral, forming a disorderly jumble like unappreciated castoffs.

It seems that shoppers can’t even be bothered to take an extra few seconds to steer their empty carts into either the left or right column of the corral, all the way to the back, and to nest them neatly inside the next cart in line. You would think shoppers might have an appreciation for the low wages people working at grocery stores make, and perhaps do a simple, small thing like this to make their jobs a little easier, to at least show a little respect.

No. By and large, Americans as a whole carelessly demonstrate in a myriad of small ways what selfish, unthinking bozos they are. Neanderthal Nation R Us.

The fading dream

I began this rant by noting I had at first planned to title it “Introvert Hell: The Grocery Store,” then decided the complaints encompassed more than just those relevant to introverts, and retitled the post. Now, as I look back and review the litany, perhaps I should reconsider whether to pare back the rant to the original introvert concerns… but the post has already been written, so I’ll leave it as it is.

That said, it’s obvious there are a great number of positive things I could also have covered but have ignored to focus on the ones that are fun to rant about. The sheer variety and usefulness of what we can buy, and the incredible convenience of having it all available just a short drive away, is a modern miracle. So many things that keep our everyday lives going: not only food to keep us fed, but laundry detergent to keep our clothes clean, soap and deodorant for personal hygiene, toilet paper, plastic bags, common first-aid supplies, nail clippers, batteries, flashlights, usually a small section of the most-often-used hardware items, even clothing sections these days.

Isn’t it awfully unfair to pick on just the downsides? It may be. But for perspective, consider that the grocery store in its modern form, like the infrastructure of much of the rest of our society, is an unsustainable invention, and unsustainability is what is bringing down our culture and civilization. (As one example, have you taken a look at the overall condition of the road system in your area lately and where it’s headed?)

Waking up

All of it has been magically conjured thanks to the wonder of the master resource — high-octane energy in the form of fossil fuels — that enables the extraction of all other resources, and powers and undergirds everything about modern civilization. But it is finite and being used up far faster than new sources are being discovered.

Chimerical sources like fusion energy are a pipe dream. Conventional nuclear power is a boondoggle that cannot pay its own way (especially when the huge decommissioning costs of spent plants are accounted for in the life cycle), and exists only because of massive government subsidies we can no longer afford, and this is without considering the still-unsolved radioactive waste problem.

Renewable energies like solar and wind are a pale imitation, in both reality and theory, in terms of the sheer amount of energy that would be required to sustain our civilization in anything remotely close to its current high-tech form. But even if some unlimited new energy source were to be found to permit continued economic growth, it would actually only escalate humanity’s overall predicament by accelerating our out-of-control destruction of the environment that supports us.

Whether a good dream or a bad one, as our society continues on its downward trajectory of decline to go the eventual way of earlier civilizations that overreached and fell back to earth, the dream will fade. Over time we, or our descendants, will wake up to find ourselves in another world, undoubtedly one with its own set of tradeoffs. But likely, a slower and quieter world — and perhaps one more congenial to the one-third to one-half of us who are introverts.

Thus shall ye think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

—From the Diamond Sutra

3 Responses to Neanderthal America: the grocery store

  1. That takes me back…. when I came to America, I was impressed by the electronic doors, and the profusion of goods. So much so that I later photographed every aisle to show my friends back home. I cringe now, remembering. Some things were hard to find… poppy seeds, unsalted butter… and some impossible: good crusty bread, other finenesses of flour besides the usual (Wondra appeared much later, and grainier flour never made it here), bakers who were taught to grind poppies before baking them into pastries.

    We were delighted to find buckets of ice cream, and for a couple of weeks put away a few dishes. Then we realized it tasted like crap. This was a long time before fancy ice creams appeared. I bore it badly because ice cream tortes were my favorite birthday things.

    Then we wondered why apples tasted so poorly. Red Delicious, anyone? A scam many a farmer paid dearly for.

    None of us were ever converted to corn flakes for breakfast, so that saves me a whole aisle when I shop. But I do wonder why so many brands have to provide essentially the same thing…

    Yes, the muzak is nasty. I once complained in a health food store about it, and a frightened employee told me none of them were allowed to mess with that equipment. Boggles the mind.

    The worst? The missing taste. In just about everything.

    There is the convenience. When we shopped in the old country, we turned the corner and lo and behold, there was the dairy store, the meat store, the tobacconist and chewing gum seller, the fruit and veggie store, and a general food store. My grandmother had a bakery on her street, and that was a real advantage. Easy walking distance, but somewhat of a lesser choice. Small supermarkets appeared and people liked being able to pick their own goods.

    If I had to pick between the two systems, I would go for flavor. Keep self service, bring back specialty stores or parts of stores who deal directly with the farmers. And stop subsidizing long distance goods unless it really really does not grow here. Like lemons in Denver. FLAVOR!!! What’s the point of eating imitation food grown to look good after sitting on the shelves forever?

  2. One other thing: coupons and stamps. In the old days, you got reams of stamps you glued into books and then spent a miserable evening on the bus traveling to and from the redemption center. And now there are people who spend part of their Sundays cutting out coupons. If I try, I invariably forget to take them, or to offer them at the register. Wasting the time and energy of people’s lives seems to be an important goal of the kleptocrats.

  3. Your comment about being impressed by the electronic doors and wealth of goods, and taking pictures of each aisle to send back home, reminded me of this scene (“Coffee, coffee, coffee!”) from the movie “Moscow on the Hudson” with Robin Williams. He plays a Russian who’s defected to the U.S., and on his first visit to a grocery store becomes overwhelmed by the sheer number of coffee brands available:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHIcmoY3_lE

    Re: “why so many brands have to provide essentially the same thing…”

    I’ll take a stab: it seems we need the illusion of choice in America, whether good ones exist or not. My experience is that many of the choices for any given item anywhere (hardware store, grocery store, electronics store, plug-ins at WordPress.org, etc.) are fairly worthless. If you threw out the choices that constitute poorly made or conceived junk, not a lot would be left.

    Some of these choices cater to the failure to think ahead, to pay a little more for something that will last longer but be cheaper over the long run. That these lesser choices may appear attractive often comes down to a lack of math literacy and preying on people’s ignorance. It’s a cultural failing. If people were better educated about this kind of thing, the companies providing the many meaningless alternatives might be driven out of business.

    Presumably many of the choices are due to the operation of the so-called “free market,” but a lot of that represents considerable duplication of effort and waste of resources. It seems to me much of capitalism is conceived to burn through resources at a high rate just to make money and generates needless amounts of waste.

    It can really only do this profitably by externalizing the costs onto the larger society and the environment. When all the costs are tallied and thoroughly accounted for, much of the vaunted efficiency of the “invisible hand of the market” goes out the window and turns out to be as much a religious belief as a reality. Rather than serve as good stewards of valuable resources, instead you “gotta keep the product moving” to serve the beast to short-term benefit but eventual long-term ruin. What is “efficient” depends on what the aims are, how you’re keeping score, and what you’re accounting for — or not.

    I guess one should not equate capitalism with “free markets” or “free enterprise,” though. They aren’t necessarily the same.

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