A visit to one of my city's discount grocers is like a social experiment for me.
I went there the other month to acquire a potato, some sour cream and various other foodstuffs. I grabbed my cart and began wielding it, maneuvering through the clumps of young mothers with newly expanded hips on which to balance wailing whelps; teenagers clad in hand-me-down Wal-Mart fashions loudly snapping their gum and trying to look bored; crack heads twitching and picking through the bargain bin bulk section; strutting grown-up high school dropouts wearing low-slung pants showing off their practiced swaggers, perfected over a lifetime of afternoons spent swigging 40s on tattered couches on sagging front porches; morbidly obese grandparents wheezing their way toward the frozen food aisles, tattered t-shirts hanging off their fat rolls proclaiming their allegiance to the Chicago Cubs or emblazoned with outdated slogans from the '80s.
An acne-scarred woman in her late 30s screamed into her cell phone in the produce section, berating the person on the other end for not warning her about the crowd that Winco always produces around the first of the month, when welfare checks arrive, and food stamp funds are replenished. And, she hollered, on Super Bowl weekend, too! Ah, the Super Bowl, when God-fearing Americans everywhere get together to celebrate the athleticism and physical prowess that is so prized in our culture by drinking in excess, eating salty, greasy animal byproducts and screaming incoherently at large-screen televisions in smoky bars.
It took me a solid three minutes to get my greedy little fingers around a potato. After patiently waiting for a mullet-sporting family with shiny black Raiders jackets in front of me to finally stop yanking their children about and move on to another aisle, I had been parked in front of the potato section for what seemed like an eternity. Likening the crowd to a herd of obstinate sheep unaware of their surroundings, I decided to change my tactic: instead of waiting for them to notice me and let me pass, I barreled ahead, letting them know by my steely gaze and purposeful stride that it was get out of the way or get sliced open with my cart-shaped cage of knotted steel. It worked momentarily, until a middle-aged ex-meth user / gas station attendant announced loudly that if you're in a hurry, Winco is not the place to be.
I stopped. I thought about what he'd said. I then shrugged, abandoned my cart, and carefully but quickly fled the scene of my social discomfort. I got back in the car and drove all the way across town to the decidedly more bourgeoisie Albertson's, where I could shop without having to rub elbows with the rabble.
So what does it mean that the poverty-stricken residents of Medford made me so uncomfortable that I had to leave? It can't be that I hate poor people: I stood in the poor kid's line at the cafeteria in my middle school; I wore the same three pairs of pants with holes in the knees for most of my early adolescence; survived without shiny new CD players (or any CD player at all). My family's class status has swung wildly during my lifetime, which means a number of things, one of which is I'm pretty comfortable in a wide range of social situations. Maybe I was just cranky. Maybe I just really hate football. But maybe it's just a cultural thing.