YOU might see supermarket shopping like a war-zone. You’ve already fought for that elusive parking-space; negotiated through all of the local community’s freaks slow-walking, dragging screaming snot-nosed children around and not watching where they’re going through the shopping centre; and have found yourself in front of Coles or Woolworths’ blinding neon-signs. Hideous pop-music plays from within like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. Uniformed staff profess to help and fellow shoppers would, you’d think, possess empathy under shared unfortunate circumstances. But no. From the moment you’re inside the supermarket you’re dodging little old ladies struggling to control their often broken trolleys, defending from over-zealous or bitterly-indifferent service staff and battling with yourself over prices and whether you really do need that bag of corn chips or block of chocolate. Waging above this melee, of course, is Coles and Woolies’ duopolistic corporate war that keeps its management neurotic, its staff criminally overworked and prices – in both the short and long-term at the expense of mum and dad small businesses – down.
While this atavistic anarchy swirls among First Worlders not content enough with their lot to resist scouring the supermarkets like vultures for reduced for quick sale items, there’s another creature much less-savagely stalking supermarkets – the Zen Shopper. Many checkout operators will tell you with a sigh how many people say to them they “only came in for one thing”, while loading more than 12 items onto the register’s conveyor belt. Of course this is but a minor symptom of the phenomenon. Unless you are a Zen Shopper you would have to deliberately slow your blurred race from the fresh produce section to the freezers to the checkout (and everything hastily in-between), and actively look for these people. If you care to notice, Zen Shoppers are serenely scanning different types of dip for new or untried types. They’re wandering languidly through the health and beauty section with glazed eyes because a song has come over the PA system that reminds them of a long-lost lover. They’re ordering just a little bit each of artichokes, olives, feta cheese, semi-dried tomatoes, garlic prawns and smoked salmon from the deli, with much less urgency than their frustrated service assistant. They are incomparable to any other entity within a literal war-zone. Not United Nations vehicles or innocent bystanders. Zen Shoppers exist in the alternate universe of the supermarket. They are the happy ghosts of unfinished consumerist business.
Madness, I hear you say. I work 50-60 hours a week and my highlight, in fact it’s a chore, outside those hours is certainly not shopping for basics, you expound. What kind of person could possibly find solace in a supermarket? You ignorantly deride. As you likely do with this special breed of modern consumer, you’re missing the point. Some have churches, others clubs, more still the comfort of their own homes in which to pass unproductive hours. The Zen Shopper is not religious. Even if not overtly consumerist, they’re more familiar with the idea of retail therapy over spiritual enlightenment. The Zen Shopper could well be social, but perhaps her or his employment requires socialisation of which they grow tired by the end of the day. Carrots and cereal neither judge nor argue. The Zen Shopper doesn’t always feel comfortable in their own home for many reasons, especially within share-houses, that even the most militaristic market-goer can relate to. The local supermarket can with regular patronage become a kind of half-way house between the public and the private, quite apart from the workplace (unless you’re unlucky or un-educated enough to work at a supermarket). Nothing is quite real in a supermarket. It’s a place of plastic and marketing and pop-music and feigned employee friendliness. Why shouldn’t this provide comfort to someone who either feels themself a fraud or wishes for more delicious fakery in their life?
A minimalist pleasure, is Zen Shopping. The supermarket is a refuge for these little-known people. The broke, the battered, the isolated and bereft flow in and out of the supermarket in their hasty and warlike ways from day to day, week to week, for the duration of their adult lives. But it’s just another form of work for these people; another stressful experience to add to those keeping them up at night and forever moving but never enjoying. The Zen Shopper is at once a very basic and complicated human. She or he might be just as, or more so, afflicted as the above. The difference is the quite literally meditative state these creatures of the night or period just after work adopt when “inside”. Is it so hard to understand? “Nothing is quite real in a supermarket”, I wrote above. Is it then surprising many people mostly of substance descend into a state of little mental substance while inside a place of very little – forgive me – substance? Work, relationships, household chores. All three are occasionally and inevitably difficult; requiring a mental application which hardly ever compliments the other two. Supermarket shopping, however. Wear your heart on your sleeve, place your brain in your shopping basket and glide without care over the linoleum floor. Reality can wait.