There are a few things you need to understand about the particular grocery store I’m about to discuss. It’s part of a New York chain, but it is not what anyone would call a supermarket; it’s on the small side, for starters, with none of the slickness or charm one might associate with supermarkets.
It’s in a basement. You descend a broken escalator to a time that knows no season, no hour, no change. There is never any music playing; it is usually empty. There is a single, dejected cashier. It has that vaguely rancid smell endemic to urban supermarkets, with base notes of wet cardboard, old vegetables, and less-than-immaculate deli slicers.
Oh, and lest you think it is cheap—it’s not. The unit pricing is generally about 10 percent higher than that of the two other markets in a mile radius. Its one advantage is that it is open late, until midnight most evenings, although late-night trips there are even drearier than usual.
None of this is the point, however. The noteworthy thing about this market is its mysterious organization. Almost nothing is where you might expect it to be: baking needs share an aisle with cleaning supplies; pet food and dried fruit are cheek by jowl; spices are to be found in three different places, sorted by brand. (Herbs are in a different place completely.) The selection is vast, but arbitrary. On a recent visit, I found they had no whole milk—although they stocked no fewer than five varieties of eggnog, including dairy-free, low-carb, and organic.
The stockers, when they appear, are remarkable: you can ask where to find white vinegar and they’ll explain it’s next to a heretofore unknown Asian section in aisle three, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And you will have to ask. Finding anything on your own is an exercise in frustration. If you do stumble upon what you need, it’s by sheer luck, and you don’t feel any sense of accomplishment.
Generally, I love wandering the aisles of a grocery store. Initially, I even thought it might be a fun challenge to myself to try to run to earth-tricky things. But after you learn that the liquid smoke is with the prebottled lemon juice and the candied peel is not with dried fruit, nor baking stuff, nor even candy, but is, in fact, in the produce aisle, this palls. The few other shoppers look disoriented and exhausted, and everything takes twice as long as you imagine it will. We’ve all read about stores that deliberately arrange their goods so that shoppers spend a long time on the premises—Anthropologie or Ikea. But this feels different.
The thought cannot help but intrude that the whole thing is an elaborate setup; that we are being gaslighted or maybe studied like mice in a maze. It would be an expensive experiment, yes, but as we know from movies, sinister higher-ups will stop at nothing in their pursuit of godlike omnipotence. Anyway, you start to feel that way after spending a few hours underground.