A trip to Babylon — the imagined and the real
When the new Safeway opened on Beretania, I approached with caution. I used to live in Makiki and the old store conveniently shared a parking lot with my bank. It was right-sized, neither dauntingly big, like Costco, nor cramped, like Foodland Beretania. I knew all the checkers by name. The manager was a particular friend, who always asked what recipe I was testing in the era when I was in and out of three three or four times a day while working for the newspaper. I knew the layout by heart, even the location of the secret bathroom, and could shop at lightning speed.
A few weeks after it opened, I finally navigated the slightly less convenient route to the new edifice, a sprawling, two-story building of cream stucco, vaguely Territorial in design, with a carved floral motif, an open-air balcony and — huh?— escalators and elevators to carry you to the shopping floor. I stood in the parking lot as my eyes scanned upward and I whispered, “Babylon.” Babylon in the Bible is an allegory for sin, greed, sensuality and indulgence; a place where God and good sense were without honor. And yet it was very beautiful; thousands of years after it was destroyed, we still speak of its hanging gardens and terraced palace as a Wonder of the World.
Here was a monument to Babylon, American style: shopping, retail therapy, abundance, consumerism. Should I go in or run? I went in, of course. It’s my job, I told myself. I was prepared to dislike it. I couldn’t find the bathrooms (still haven’t, though I’ve heard rumors of an unmarked corner hallway). (And I’m sorry about this preoccupation with relief stations but something about entering an over air-conditioned building — which means every air-conditioned building — puts me in mind of a small stall, preferably post-haste).
There were miles of shelves and many new things: international ingredients, gluten-free products, more local produce, a huge hot bakery and deli, and, on the opposite corner, an equally huge floral department. And a Starbucks. With couches. And outdoor seating. And WiFi. I wasn’t too sure about this elevator business, trundling a cart, but there was plenty of room and it all went smoothly. I visited the store at least five times before I realized, just yesterday, there’s an escalator for shopping carts.
Yes, I’ve been there several times. Here, I swallow my words as contentedly as I swallow my double tall skinny decaf at the Bucks: I like it. It probably helps that I get to go there when everyone else is at work but it’s never crowded. The lighting is adequate. It smells good. There’s better bread and more of it. There is a wider inventory (I spent half an hour Valentine’s Card shopping; there’s half an aisle of cards). They make these artisanal pizzas that are perfect for two and not half bad. The checkout folks are still friendly, though I haven’t seen my nice manager yet.
I was thinking about this in part because I’m considering a radical move: Breaking up with Costco. For one thing, just recently I got a free membership to Sam’s in return for helping a disabled friend to shop. But that’s not it; I don’t find the two membership stores very alike.
No, I’m considering giving Costco’s ring back because I just don’t like it there. I think the store brings out the worst in us. It really IS Babylon. We become completely inner-focused, all about which parking place WE consider ours, what WE need to get, which aisle WE need to take up three-quarters of, which product WE have to stand pondering, unconcsious of anyone behind us.
Though I know the store well, the atrocious lighting and lack of signage makes me fractious and easily confused. The sampling stations clog the aisles and make greedy pigs of my fellow shoppers (once again, why do we have to EAT everywhere we go, even when we’re shopping for food????). Everything it outsize, like you headed out for a walk in a normal park and found yourself hiking the Grand Canyon all of a sudden. The carts are difficult to manage. The boxes are too big. I flat told my husband kitty litter was his job from now on; I put my back out wrestling 35 pounds into a cart almost as tall as I am.
I’m always put in mind of one of my favorite comedy routines: a whimpering Ellen DeGeneres trying to tease some disintegrating toilet tissue from a roll in a public lav; “I . . . just . . . want . . . some . . . ” Sniffle.
And here’s where it really becomes Babylon. They don’t keep you captive with whips and chains anymore. They get you with prices that feel like stealing. I think I’ve gone in there for one thing 100 times only to come out with half a dozen, at $100 or more. I ALWAYS spend more money than I planned to. Always. And have less fun doing it.
I tell myself, as so many do, that I only go there for the paper products, or for special deals on electronics and such. But then I end up with a chiller full of fruit half of which will spoil (and much of which isn’t really ripe), cold cuts that will get slimy before we’re through with them even with my husband taking at least one sandwich a day, huge sacks of snacks we absolutely do not need but which looked good at the time.
And can we talk about paper products? There are two people in this house. And two cats who still haven’t learned to wipe their puckered little butts. So why do we need several months’ worth of toilet paper and paper towels? I’ve been told that you can do just as well, or better, by watching the sales at Longs and taking advantage of grocery store deals, particularly online lists. If the Rapture comes and we have toilet paper left, do we get to take it with us? I’ve got nothing against immense packaging for large families, or people who are willing to do the work of dividing up the spoils between households. But we fall into neither category.
Costco and other Big Box stores are supposed to be where you stock up in special, occasional trips. But if you can get good deals at small, more convenient and pleasant stores, and if you, like me, go to the grocery store and Longs several times a week anyway, the point is . . . ????
This, by the way, is nothing “personal” against Costco. I like many Kirkland (their house) brand products. I love La Brea breads and Aidell’s sausages. I appreciate the kick in the profit books they’ve given to some local businesses, such as Hamakua Mushrooms. I love it that “gourmet” items such as logs of goat cheese and imported pasta make it on to their shelves.
But like a boyfriend who’s not a bad guy, just not THE guy, I’m not sure we fit anymore. I’m thinking on it. What are you thinking?