Friday, April 3, 2009

Berkeley Bowl

Shopping or Zombie Death March?

Apologies to my faithful readers in Dubai and Lichtenstien, but I'm gonna write a little locally today, I'll try to keep you filled in enough to get my point.

Cambodians have Angor Wat, Indians have the Taj Majal, Jews have the Wailing Wall; foodies in Berkeley California have the Berkeley Bowl.

Berkeley Bowl is a vast supermarket with seas of citrus, miles of meat, and lots of everything else. The produce section itself is the size of a modest supermarket. A whole landscape of yellow, orange, red, purple, green and brown hills, peaks and plains of every apple, pear, plum, grape, leafy or root vegetable that is being grown anywhere on the planet. In the heart of February tiny glistening red tomatoes from Mexico are 79c a
pound . Star Fruit, Dragonfruit, Chermoyas, Juju Bees, even giant armored Durians emanating the fetid odor of shit, and ten other fruits you've never heard of are there for the taking.

Three aisles of food in bulk bins, enough vats of white powder to bring back Studio 54 flashbacks: Sea Salt, Fine Sea Salt, Cake Flour, Organic Cake Flour, Arrowhead Organic Pancake Mix, Garbanzo Flour, Tapioca Flour.

True, navigated carefully, great bargains can be found. I recently fought with several short Hispanic woman over some 99c clearance bags filled to bursting with tomatoes, eggplant and sea green grapes. I managed two bags before getting elbowed out by a guy in a blue oxford shirt.

But here's the rub; shopping at Berkeley Bowl is like being an extra a zombie film. The shoppers and myself are the senseless zombie hordes hurriedly clanking our oversized carts down the aisles, jostling into each other in the search not for brains, but something equally urgent to our survival, like say, seaweed salad or sustainably farmed Loch Duarte Salmon. And there is no director to yell "Cut!"

The zombie quality is palpable. A ninety pound woman in Crocs with frizzy hair , eye glasses and a blank stare (is that drool?*&!) knocked her cart into my kidneys and continued down the aisle without a backward glance. A dreadlocked white guy with a cart full of Tofu gives me a hungry glare as he reaches for a cheese sample ahead of me. It's bumper to bumper in front of the wall of Lettuce, traffic ground to a halt, and we all stand there stupefied, no one has the initiative to make a move as herd-thought takes over.

Depression overtakes me as I start to feel I'll never get out, or never get out with the best apples if I take the time to look at all forty-seven varieties. By the time I get to checkout, I'll be too late to pick up my kids from school.

Then you see the lines.

They stretch, half, even three quarters of the way up into the aisles themselves. This is not uncommon. And what is even stranger is that the people waiting in them are resigned to this thirty minute wait. No one seems upset or looks down the line with a frown or even a "hurumph".

Listless and quietly we wait. If a register opens up we all turn our pale faces slowly in that direction.

Brains... Brains... Brains...

Some of us, the stronger ones, move toward it. Others stay, calculating a shorter wait now.
I want to abandon my precious Chilean Pears and grassfed Beef from Argentina, but I am slouched over and tired. Stay with group now. Stay with group. Must buy. Must buy.

Soon I will see the sunlight again. And next time I'll go to Grocery Outlet.

It is spoken of with awe and reverence, Berkeley Bowl. True, it is not a chain, the workers are unionized, and good prepared foods may be enjoyed in a seating area.

And compared to the Whole Foods I recently visited near Lake Merritt in Oakland, in which each potato seems airbrushed to Penthouse-page perfection, it seems like a corner store.

Where are we going with all this? It is baffling, such scenes of plenty, but what is stranger is that in these cornucopian halls of total copiousnesness, that we do not marvel in wonder at everything. That is the strangest part really. How all of us are so numb to anything -no matter how wonderful or peculiar- that we see too much of.

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