You move country and your brain changes. What’s new and startling at first becomes quickly familiar—the jolt gets muffled—as new memories are banked, new synapses built and new grooves etched over the old. But ever since I moved to LA a decade ago, so help me, one of those jolts has stayed with me. It won’t die, it’s too primal. I’m talking about when you’re in a grocery store and it hits you: Sweet Jesus, the plenty. It’ll make you go blind.
The first time I moved to the plenty was from England, where the local Tescos was more human in scale, more head height and conceivable. The bounty of America knocked me sideways. Over eight years, I grew more and more accustomed—complacent is another word. And then we moved to India, where food shopping, or “marketing”, is a cramped scrum of dirt and barging in a sweatbox, a fight for the last scabbed potato in the bucket. It’s such a savage business out there that they leave it to the staff, a matter for the slaves. So to return from that to LA is all the more extreme. A visceral experience. Giddy.
I could rhapsodise about them all – a bog standard Ralphs on Crenshaw would do – but since we’re doing this, let’s wander the palaces. And by palaces, I mean places like Wholefoods on 3rd , for instance, that organic wonderland of gluten-free yoga girls with their mats rolled up under their arms. Or – and this is my current favorite, the Everest of the genre – the gay Pavilions on Santa Monica Boulevard, where Bo Derek shops. It’s so huge it messes with your perspective, like the Grand Canyon. And there’s something profound about engaging with such a vision of abundance. Lately, a trip to Pavilions has been less about shopping as epiphany.
Some days, in the afternoons, when the traffic is light, it’s as empty as a dream. I can turn a corner and see no one—it’s just me, my cart and this vast eatable landscape. Great cliffs of apples to my left, their dimples catching the tube light, and on my right, the waxy slopes of Lemon and Orange, with their bright bobbled crests, behind which in the distance, you can see a diverse province of onions, ranges of white, red, yellow and sweet Hawaiian. Up ahead is a misty forest of sprinkled greens and shoots and trees. I like to go rambling in those hills, alert for cougars as always, marvelling at the new species like broccolini and pluots.
We know that architects construct these citadels of plenty to best exploit our natural impulses and patterns. They put the candy near the checkout for a reason. They have explored decision fatigue, our preferences for lighting, aroma, aisle width and shelf height. We become lab rats in these places. But we also know that our brains physically and chemically adapt to the environments we create. So the patterns converge, brain and blueprint. It’s not unreasonable to think that the more time we spend in these superstores, the more the grooves and channels of our brains will conform to supermarket aisles.
But there are anxieties to all this. The anxiety of choice is one—the 47 varieties of all things. Another is the creeping erasure of our primal relationship with food, any hunting or farming instincts we once had. And then the extravagance. The dwarfing scale. The staggering, obscene abundance. All these imports, from Fiji, Peru, Switzerland and every other place, all arranged perfectly, so the labels turn to face you and everything gleams and winks, even the floors.
I come to Pavilions and I’m gobsmacked, I marvel and gasp, but ultimately I feel diminished, even humiliated. Amid all this perfection, I notice my bed hair, pot belly and grubby T-shirt. What self-respect I manage to leave the house with is whittled—Pavilions reduces me to a gaping ape with a pushcart, witnessing some lavish performance I neither requested nor can quite comprehend. I become a boy king, squirming at all the fuss that has been made just for me. Because I can’t fathom the trillion processes that it took to create this. All I know for sure is that I am not worthy – how could I be? No emperor in history has seen such casual abundance on the scale of the Boystown Pavilions—Caesar would weep at this shit and Alexander would kneel and pray.
They ought to airlift Darfurian refugees into the sheer pornography of the produce section, just so they can see us Angelenos, us sunbaked Americans in our stonewash and our Juicy couture, with our fat rolls and Lakers shirts, how we shuffle through the aisles, grunt and grab, and get pissed off if we forget the olives, because now we’ve got to all the way back, and it’s fucking miles.
I reach the checkout, blinking and ashamed. Pavilions is a reminder of just how fortunate and spoiled we are—the ingratest generation, full of urges and wants, who earned nothing and received everything. Present a savage with perfection and he just might recoil.