Human Tragedy in Aisle Five

You have only to linger a short while in a supermarket to notice, if not tragedy itself, at least little human tragedies.

When I am in Paris and feeling exhausted for one reason or another, I sometimes patronise a small nearby supermarket—rather guiltily, for there are small shops a few hundred yards further on where the produce is of higher quality and I in any case feel almost morally obliged to support small businesses rather than patronise large corporations. I don’t want a world in which there are large chain-stores and the internet, and nothing in between. Not to take the trouble to patronise small shops and then complain that there aren’t any left is like complaining about your elected representative when you haven’t taken the trouble to vote (I believe this very common genre of complaint has been eliminated in Australia), for example as in Paris, where everyone complains about the mayor but few people voted in the mayoral election.

Anthony Daniels appears in every Quadrant.
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In the corner of the supermarket are two plastic tables and chairs where tired or elderly shoppers can rest awhile. There recently one evening I noticed a beggar, a woman of about fifty, an East European gypsy to judge from her mode of dress and her olive complexion, counting out her day’s takings on one of the tables, putting them in little piles of five euros each, and muttering the total to herself as she went. She was obviously very tired.

She was hoping that the cashier would exchange them for banknotes because forty or fifty euros in coins weigh quite a lot, but the cashier said she had more than enough change already. The beggar would have to leave the supermarket weighed down by coins.

Even allowing for the fact that the money was free of tax, forty or fifty euros was not a rich reward for having spent the day holding out a hand to thousands of passers-by, most of whom would be mildly irritated by her very existence, and even the donors feeling slightly guilty at their own lack of generosity in not giving her more. There is, of course, a persistent urban myth or rumour, that I have heard expressed many times, that such as she change into sable furs or ermine the moment the begging day is over and drive off in their expensive cars parked just round the corner: but I do not believe it. I think the myth circulates to assuage our subliminal bad conscience at the often unmerited distribution of good- and ill-fortune.  

I am not in favour of mendicancy and wish it didn’t exist, but could nevertheless not help but ask myself what kind of life the beggar in the supermarket had had, and what kind of life she had now. I have done some bad things in my life and I have made a number of stupid mistakes, for some of which I will pay to the end of my days, but at no time was I anywhere near being reduced to beggary. Even if the woman counting her coins were an unpleasant person, even if she had made terrible choices, even if her situation were entirely of her own making (which I would find it hard to believe), I could not but see her as a tragic figure.    

Soon there will be no cash and no cashiers in the supermarket, the latter having already been reduced by modern technology from four to one. What will beggars do when there is no more cash? Accept goods in kind?

I never entered the supermarket while there were still four cashiers at the tills without also wondering what their lives beyond the supermarket were like. Too often when we see a person fill a certain role, we assume that they exist only while they perform that role—waiters, for example, or barbers. They exist for us only while we perceive them, as if they were living proofs of Berkeley’s theory of being and perception.

These cashiers, all black and all women, were quietly heroic during the great Covid confinement (for supermarkets were almost a lifeline during that wretched period). They struggled to work while we of the internet-earning class pursued our activities peacefully, and not altogether unhappily, at home. In all probability, the women had to travel an hour to work from the horrible banlieues of the city, and an hour home again; six months of their labour would just about buy them one square metre of living space in the arrondissement in which they worked and in which I have my flat (it not being even the most fashionable arrondissement of the city)—provided, of course, that they saved 100 per cent of their pay, never ate a morsel or paid rent or bought clothes or amused themselves, but devoted it all to buying their one square metre of living space. I always thought of a stanza from “The Walrus and the Carpenter” when they served me, as I thought also of that square metre of living space:

      “If seven maids with seven mops
          Swept it for half a year,
      Do you suppose,” the Walrus said,
           “That they could get it clear?”
        “I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
           And shed a bitter tear.

Behind me in the queue to use the automatic checkout that day was a man so large in girth that he wheezed rather than breathed. He had only two items, whereas I had several, so with my customary thoughtfulness, I let him go ahead of me, for which he thanked me profusely.

His two items, I noticed, were cubes of ice and a very large bottle of rum. An alcoholic, I thought: he had the enlarged parotid glands of the habitually heavy imbiber, and they, the glands, had to be very considerably enlarged to be noticeable through the thick layer of blubber by which he was covered.

He looked a nice man, and while I accept that in theory there is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face, at least not with absolute certainty, we all do nevertheless judge by appearances, and I at once began to imagine reasons for this man’s resort to excessive drink, in short to imagine him a tragic figure.

I am only too aware from having been a doctor for many years that those who drink too much are only too ready to ascribe their drinking to their misfortunes, rather than their misfortunes to their drinking; but it does sometimes happen that a person begins to drink heavily only after a tragedy that is not of his own devising. And again, even if this man was partly or largely responsible for his own condition, was it not pitiable?

Of course, one can easily jump to mistaken conclusions. Many years ago I was in a supermarket when I saw advancing towards me the professor in the department in which I occasionally taught. He was a peculiar man, the kind who could put you ill-at-ease from a hundred yards. He turned shaking hands into a very ill-performed pas de deux. You would hold out your hand to him to shake, and he would not reciprocate. No sooner had you returned your hand to your side, however, that he would shoot out his arm with his hand to shake. You were lucky if this happened only once; it turned shaking hands into an embarrassing drama that caused one to blush.

On this occasion, I had also gone to the checkout with only two items: a punnet of raspberries and a bottle of vodka. I know what I should have concluded had I been him: that I was an alcoholic who flavoured his vodka with raspberries. But he would have been mistaken: I am, in fact, a moderate drinker, which is to say that I know many people who drink far more.

Still, even a short visit to the supermarket can raise profound questions of human existence. How far, and to what extent, are people the masters of their fate? Totally? Not at all? Somewhere in between the two—in which case, how does one apportion the ratio between misfortune and self-infliction? Is self-infliction a reason to withdraw sympathy from people, and can we regulate our feelings simply by philosophical considerations? What are the economic reasons why a square metre of property should cost half a year’s wages (I blame the combination of low interest rates and money creation), and is there a better, more compassionate way of ordering affairs? Or must one put up with the present dispensation faute de mieux, bearing in mind that change is so often for the worse?

2 thoughts on “Human Tragedy in Aisle Five

  • Brian Boru says:

    Pardon me Anthony if I don’t attempt to answer the questions you pose although they are thought provoking.
    Instead let me pose a proposition that we can have far more influence for good over the fate of others by our actions towards them instead of trying to master our own fates. Your anecdote about the man at the checkout may be an example. You probably made him feel respected and maybe he only needed two drinks that night instead of his usual three or four to get to that feeling of contentment that he craved.
    Let me also pose another example. If both he and you had spurned the automatic checkout you would have encouraged the supermarket management to be just a little bit more appreciative of the need to have cashiers employed at their checkouts. You and others doing this might even save a cashier’s job or two. I am no stranger to computers, I have been using them from the days, before floppy disks, when we had a tape recorder for data storage. However, I don’t use the automatic checkout.
    I think it goes beyond the simple employment point though. It is also about the civility and social interaction which our current internet age is lacking. I was fortunate to have lived in a country area for many years and shopping in our local town was a joy of pleasant social interaction.

  • davidmj101 says:

    A great essay Anthony, I really enjoyed it. Thanks. Having had, like you, both successes and failures in my life, and ended up in my present condition as reasonably well-to-do, contented and fulfilled, I think about the issues you raise almost all the time.
    Why is it that we end up where we do?
    … and all the other quesions you pose.
    At the tender age of ‘nearing 75’ my answer to your questions is:- ‘I don’t know’.

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