Mutual Self-Loathing at the Discount Grocery

At first glance, the aisles of Lou's Discount Grocery are third world depressing. Christmas cupcakes, a defunct meat case filled with dry goods and, in case you can't make it out in the accompanying photo's background, freezer-burned empanadas. 
When I was a kid, my mother would shop at a similar grocery store. I remember her arguing with my dad, a salesman for Sunshine Biscuits at the time, about the relative safety of shopping at a place like this.
"We're going to get botulism," he told the ceiling.
She didn't purchase meat there, she said, just soap, house goods and the occasional can of vegetables. 
I remember she checked the cans thoroughly for dents and, after finding out what botulism was, so did I. It was, in fact, a habit I carried into adulthood, checking very closely for any potentially-deadly can breach.
In retrospect, the store I went to with my mother was shabby but not tragic. In a world where all checkout counters looked the same, with cashiers typing the price from the tag into the register, it was just another store, except we didn't buy meat or fresh vegetables there and it smelled like the food warehouse it was. 

Second Hand Food
After the botulism crack, and another about the having seen the proprietor hanging around grocery store dumpsters, my father gave me a brief overview of the second-hand food business. Wholesalers and distributors often would rather sell food that was likely to expire at a loss than throw it out. So if they ordered too much food, or soap, or whatever, whether it had an expiration date three years or three days out, they would sell it to the secondhand grocer. This meant paying somewhere between a tenth and a quarter retail.
The catch was, every item had to be thoroughly inspected in a way not necessary in the proper grocery store. I don't know how far caveat emptor goes, but I believe there's something unspoken between the second hand grocer and his clients, a mutual agreement not to judge. He knows what he's selling and why it's so cheap and so do his customers.
We weren't poor, but we were broke a lot, as I understand it. The occasional can of string beans from the secondhand grocer probably paid for sausage or chicken from the butcher (we went to the butcher until there was no longer such a thing). Also, given that our primary diet was macaroni and my father wasn't what you'd call a vegetable guy, I can't imagine we purchased many edibles there.
Lou's Discount Grocery
Often, or at least when I noticed it, I have been tempted to go into Lou's, but my financial situation never allowed it. As a member of the lower middle class, I was as afraid shopping at Lou's Discount Grocery was too close to becoming a patron of Lou's Discount Grocery. Plus, now there is such a thing as +Walmart, which has plenty of outrageously (possibly dangerously) inexpensive food for those toying with poverty.
I drove past Lou's on a recent excursion with Mrs. and, given our financial position (we're both employed), I thought it was safe to pay an ironic visit. 
It is clear Lou's Discount Grocery once was a legitimate grocery store. The fixtures still belong to a 1960s-era mom and pop country grocery. On the outskirts of an eroding concrete apron, metal posts keep shoppers from stealing carts. Through the push doors, which used to open automatically, triggered by pressure mats, lies what could very well have been the first failed grocery store in the region. A cold case for meats runs along the side wall, to the back, where once could be found a bread display. The store room no longer has a nifty, swinging metal door but, instead, something of luan framed in cheap wire fencing. The aisles, five deep and maybe 25 feet long, are stocked in a haphazard manor and, as opposed to a warehouse, the store smells of dust and exhaustion. If the place my mom shopped had a mutual understanding with its customers, Lou's has a mutual self-loathing. 
Still, there are buys for the savvy shopper. When we were there, Lou's had a case of goat cheese on offer. It was well before the expiration date and priced at about a third retail. But there was no charm in it, no thrill of the well-executed shopping hustle. The prices are handwritten in black Sharpie and at random on the packages. Along the far wall is a collection of returned toys with pieces missing, some uncollected giveaways from corporate functions and dollar store rejects. This wasn't about gaming the system for either Lou or for his customers, it was about admitting defeat. Like his customers; Lou doesn't hustle, he accepts load after load of the detritus of a better life. 
If anyone is looking to complete their set, I found the lost Rogaine mug shipment.

Wasted on the Young
As I stood before the freezer, enjoying a disclaimer that read like a threat and photographing empanadas, four stoned teenagers filed out of the back room headed toward the front and, presumably, some detail work. They weren't visibly high, but they had a conspiratorial air that made me envy them for a second. Clearly, they were having some sort of elicit fun. Except for the kids, my wife and I were the youngest people in the store by at least a decade. Rather than be paralyzed by fear of old age I've begun embracing it. So, for a second, I admired the old people who shopped Lou's. 
"They have better things to spend their money on," I thought. "They've finally dropped all the pretense we younger people are saddled with."
Even if it is true that the aged have the ability to drop pretense and live their lives on their own terms, I wonder if it is desirable. What was going on at Lou's wasn't penny-pinching, it was resolution. Spending a hot Saturday afternoon in an un-airconditioned discount grocery, wasn't about living on their own terms. Shopping at Lou's Discount Grocery is evidence of poor choices, bad luck or a combination of the two, it is certainly not a reward for longevity, or an incentive for the thrifty. The only pretense a person sends when shopping at Lou's, is the pretense things are going to get better.


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