I just spent $119.15 at the grocery store the other day. It was at Smith’s. Sort of like the Safeway or Fred Meyer of Utah. Is it named after Joseph Smith? I asked myself the same question and I don’t think so, although the coincidence seems hard to discredit.
I grew up in Colorado where Safeway’s are in abundance, but in Utah there’s no such fucking thing as a Safeway. I hadn’t heard of Fred Meyer until I moved to Portland from Colorado when I was nineteen and everyone was asking me if I wanted to go to Fred Meyers. I guess so, I said, is he a weirdo? Does he have beer? Where does he live? Other places of the country have other names. Where my wife grew up they have stores like Ralph’s and Vons. In the South and Northeast I’m not exactly sure what they have. Probably doesn’t matter. Same version of Kroger or whatever other conglomerate. In fact I think Kroger owns both Fred Meyer and Smiths, but I could be wrong.
It made me sad though, me, spending $119.15 at a grocery store. Some of it was good stuff—yogurt, juice, broccoli. Some of it bad or unnecessary—pizza, cream cheese, nicotine. Regardless, it was a lot of money, for me as a resident of a two-person household, no kids.
The other day I was flipping through my friend Mike’s photo project after he returned from a trip to Jordan photographing Syrian refugees. He told me about how folks in the refugee camp have a budget of $34 a month for food to feed their entire family. I thought about how I nearly spent triple that on food that would last my partner and I a week or so. It’s just easy. I don’t even make that much money. Our car: medium. House we reside in: medium. But I still have the money to purchase nearly whatever I want at a box building filled with food. Mike said he met one guy in Syria who had to take out loans above his $34 a month budget so he could feed his family. For some reason the thought of a guy having to take out money on a thirty-four-dollar-fucking loan broke my heart more than any national news story.
My friends Isaac, Grace, and Rusty live in Haiti. I went down to visit them once and I remember Isaac telling me how he was trying to forgo one meal a day as to stand in solidarity with most of the kids who ran around his neighborhood, most of whom only got two meals a day instead of three.
It’s not just the third world either. Earlier this year in Utah a school gave out lunches to some of it’s students only to take them back and dump them in the trash because of negative balances on students parents’ accounts. Was it the parent’s fault? The schools? Did they forget? Or not have enough money? Either way, kids go hungry in Utah. It seems kids go hungry nearly everywhere. I mean, you think at least you could deny students their lunch at first, rather than to give them lunch and then in turn, take it and throw it away.
I think about such things now because I want to remind myself. Not in a holier-than-thou-white-first-world-guilt sort of bullshit, but because it seems a necessity to remember. The world we live in is not fair and yet I partake of the privilege, race, nationality, and gender bestowed upon me. And still it like seems like a sham. What do I do with my “freedom,” and my “riches?” Absolutely nothing. Mostly I just drink a lot of gin and complain about how I’m trying to quit smoking and nothing’s fair and then I spend money eating out. It’s not an absurd amount, and yet it is absurd in the same breath.
Are there people who give generously and live in a manner that is counter-cultural to the gluttony and idolatry of American living? Absolutely. Did I want to be one of these people once? Yes. Am I? No. I try to be, some days. My grandparents, for however conservative their politics may be, have discovered the practice of giving and living generously. And then there’s me, who get’s depressed and can’t fucking wait to shove a burger and a beer down my throat, or buy something, or pleasure myself upon the false icons of beauty we men have created and enforced for years.
My friend Rusty said that as soon as he returned to the U.S. he found himself at a Starbucks one day, looking at a coffee appliance on the stores’ shelves. He said that he remembered his first inclination was that he wanted this, this thing. And then he thought it odd that he hadn’t even been back to the U.S. for more than thirty minutes and he was already lusting over objects to buy. This coming from the guy with dreads and a bandana who really never went to Starbucks or any other chain store.
I’ve always hated America. With it strip malls and unavoidable luxuries. I shouldn’t say always. My wife tells me to not use superlatives. I said that to my mom once and she said, “Well then why don’t you just leave!”
I feel as if, for better or worse, God has trapped me in America. I would do much better in a third world country where people ride on motorcycles and you can buy fruit from the side of the road. Where everything is more visceral and less sterile. Where you don’t need to have health insurance or worry about car payments because you don’t worry about things like that. I’d rather worry about putting food on the table than about worrying if I’m eating too much. Because I am eating too much. And drinking too much. And buying too much. And it feels as if none of it matters. In America.
It’s not America the place so much as it is western society. Or civilization maybe. I don’t really know what it is. But it’s not a place with geographical boundaries. Besides, the world we live in now has no geographical boundaries, late capitalism and globalization have ruined any sense of the word “boundary.” People in one country make things to send to another. People in one country make calls to another. McDonalds are everywhere. Starbucks too.
Some people would say that people who live in third world places only wish they could have the luxury of car payments and insurance and so on, which is probably true. I am a lower-middle class white American after all who has the ability to wax philosophical without any real consequence. But I think it goes deeper. I’m talking about the individual vs. society, man vs. nature, machines vs. man etc., and I don’t know that we’ve actually created any thing called “progress.”
Part of it for me is unrealistic idealism. Problems in one place don’t disappear in another place. Brown people are probably tired of white people coming to their countries and trying to “find” themselves or build houses or whatever else they’re doing. At the end of the day I can say I hate America, but I really love America. Because in America I can say shit like this and not get my front door busted down. Well, almost.
Maybe my mom’s right and I should just leave.
I used to snowboard a lot. I grew up in Colorado where snowboarding and skiing were as natural as soccer practice. Even if you didn’t have money you found a way to make it work. I loved it. I loved being in the outdoors. I loved the drives up with mugs of gas station coffee and Red Bulls and granola bars. I loved the drives down with stops to pizza shops and movies at home afterwards. The snowboarding was fun, obviously, but it was the whole experience. It was minimal suffering with a known reward in sight. Sure, your hands might start freezing and you’d have to wake up early, but then you’d see the sun rise gloriously on I-70 and on the way back maybe you’d stop at Beaujo’s pizza, where the crust was made of wheat and the pizza weighed by the pound. And then when you got back home your head would feel hot from sunburn and your ankles worn from your boot pressing into your sock, but you could forget all that and lie down on a couch and feel exhausted, but incredible. I wish I could rest in the simplicity of such things for years.
But eventually I was on my own and I ran out of money to buy a season pass. So I stopped snowboarding. I also got frustrated with how expensive and bourgeoisie everything could be. It was undoubtedly a luxury. So I stopped for a while and lived my life in coffee shops and bars and in the mess and grime of city life. But I noticed the lack of life and the outdoors. I wanted to go snowboarding. Yet, it seemed like an unnecessary expense. I felt like I should live in solidarity with those who would never have a chance to go snowboarding or to afford basic necessities like clothes and food, but did it mean anything? After all, it’s not like I took the money I would have spent on snowboarding and gave it away to refugees.
And if I really wanted to just be “outdoors” I could go on a hike, which cost absolutely nothing. But I missed it. I still miss it. It felt like a lost something in the quest of my intellectual or literary or social justice aspirations. Snowboarding, in the sense was the problem. It made me feel bourgeoisie and stuck up. But it also made me less depressed. So what to choose? The ideal or the feeling? This was the problem, because perhaps not right now, but maybe next year I will be able to afford a season pass again, and so should I purchase it?
It will stem the tide of my own darkness in the winter. But it’s also a lot of money.
Perhaps America is the idea I like to take out my own inner frustrations on. My own addictions and darkness. Perhaps it’s easier to blame an abstract idea like “society” than to take the blame for the madness you’ve made.
It’s fucking ridiculous though, spending $119 at a grocery store. I feel like it’s this kind of stuff that should someone to hell, me at the front of the line. Not because of the amount or guilt, or that spending money on “luxuries” is inherently evil, but because of the way in which we can live lives of luxury and barely give a thought to the how or why we got here. On the one hand $119 doesn’t seem that much. I just spent $200 in gas over the weekend on a road trip. On the other hand $119 is an incredible amount. I guess for me it’s just hard to know how much is too much. Perhaps it comes down to responsibility and stewardship. I don’t know.