...to Check Out the Madness


May 30, 1993|By Arlene Ehrlich

Sunlight glitters through the plate-glass windows of a thousand Safeways, Giants and Super Freshes. In a small corner of Baltimore, an anxious knot of humanity swells into a restless crowd. An ominous murmur rises and ebbs. A child shrieks; a woman groans; and from somewhere on high, a voice thunders: Will that be paper or plastic?

It's rush hour at the supermarket, and every heart and mind vibrates to a common strain: Get me out of here!

Except, of course, the team of behavioral scientists wandering the aisles and surreptitiously observing the great American shopping ritual. At long last, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists are recognizing the supermarket for what it truly is: a prefabricated, self-contained universe, a laboratory of human behavior. To the social scientist, the supermarket reveals an array of cultures, subcultures and human interactions unmatched anywhere on Earth.

Species Specifics

Scientists have identified two distinct zoological species that inhabit the modern supermarket: adults and children. Adults arrive at the supermarket in one of two conditions: alone and with children. Children arrive at the supermarket in one of two conditions: screaming and getting ready to scream.

Adults think of the supermarket as a place to buy food, but children think of it as an amusement park, complete with bumper cars and free rides. All those kids you see standing in the child seat or dancing inside the grocery cart are the same little daredevils who remove their seat belts on the roller coaster and stand up when they reach the top of the Ferris wheel.

A Shopper's Guide

Modern supermarkets reveal a wide variety of cultures and subcultures, ranging from the primitive (Produce Section) to the sophisticated and high-tech (Frozen French Bread Pizza).

The Produce Section and its Salad Bar subculture attract a handsome crowd. Preferred activities are squeezing, sniffing and sampling (also known as shoplifting).

Halfway between the bananas and the cantaloupes, a woman stands waiting for her turn at the salad bar. Her cart already contains the rewards of a well-executed raid on the produce section: broccoli, cherry tomatoes, strawberries and scallions. Unfortunately, the salad bar is backed up to last Sunday, and the woman has to wait.

No problem; that's why God invented finger foods. She pops a strawberry into her mouth. Not bad; how would that go with a bit of scallion? Ten minutes later, when she finally gets to the front of the salad bar line, the woman has consumed a good half-pound of raw veggies. Advice to the checkout clerks: Forget about weighing the produce. Weigh the customer.

A closely related subculture, Pickers and Noshers, operates in most groceries. Its membership consists of people who regard the supermarket as a kind of fast-food outlet that extends short-term credit. They arrive hungry and leave fully sated.

What distinguishes Pickers and Noshers from the free samplers in the produce section is that they pay for what they eat: candy bars, yogurt, cookies, beef jerky -- you name it. At the end of their shopping rounds, they present the checkout clerk with a series of shredded wrappers, empty cartons and crumpled soda cans.

Only a few feet past the salad bar, the Natural Foods and High Nutrition subculture is performing its arcane rituals. Its members wear sandals, natural cotton T-shirts and earnest expressions. They fill their carts with alfalfa, oats and birdseed. They buy products endorsed by famous nutritionists like Mary Lou Retton. They speak with authority about the natural laxative benefits of insoluble fiber.

Their antithesis, the Junk Food subculture, operates mostly late at night, when the High Nutrition crowd is asleep. One of the great things about this country is that you can buy Mallomars at 3:30 a.m., and Junk Food practitioners are nothing if not patriotic.

High priests of the Junk Food subculture buy cereals that come in the same colors as polyester leisure suits, in packages that boast a wide array of cancer-causing initials. Entire aisles are designed and stocked for their exclusive benefit by the Amalgamated Dental Surgeons of America. Much of what Junk Food types eat is made from petroleum distillates and has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in humans. They favor misspelled food labels; any halfway respectable member of the Junk Food subculture will swarm all over the Chee-zee Froot Krispies like fleas on a Lhasa apso.

Single people of every age constitute another important supermarket subculture. Most of them congregate in the frozen-food aisle, looking for love in all the wrong places. Sociologists have yet to document even one serious love affair, let alone one marriage, that has resulted from mutual leers exchanged over the Sara Lee cheesecake. Still, on an average night one could easily mistake the frozen-food section for a California fern bar.

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