Standing in the Express Lane for Change

By Karen Paul-Stern
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 19, 2008

I work across the street from a small grocery store in the city. In it I can see the reflections of the neighborhood's shifts and hear its sighs. It rumbles with the upsweep of those who have lived for many years in these long-neglected U Street buildings, and the encroaching thriving class that is renovating and restoring, turning the neighborhood into a vibrant, beautiful place once again. There is music in the streets; restaurants overflow on any weeknight; in lovely clothing stores, wonderful merchants assist you personally.

The outside of the little market is institutional. The new immigrant owners have repainted the yellow walls, but they are still an unfortunate color. The store retains its ironic original name, Best DC Supermarket, defying you to move past your first impression. Black iron gates bar the windows, as if someone still expects flying rocks, riot noises that have echoed on this turbulent block for 40 years.

But I enter and am struck first by the enormous wine selection on the right, capped by a new zinfandel with a price tag of $44 a bottle. Perhaps it might be interesting to shop here after all. I spy at least 10 different dark chocolate bars arranged by the register, each outdoing the next with its cacao content and artfully designed black packaging swirled with reds and blues and yellows, promising elixir, if only I will part with $4.25 for the pure pleasure of owning a piece of food art.

Beyond the chocolate, four aisles of food products battle for prominence. Pretzels (only fat whole wheat organic pretzels, no pretzel rods or Rold Gold skinny sticks) sit atop the wire racks that also hold veggie sticks and salt-free popcorn instead of potato chips. Down a few shelves, less prominently placed, is beef jerky. And even more deeply hidden are the inexpensive cat food, the generic white bread and Cheez Whiz. Back up the refrigerated aisle I find prosciutto at $11.99 a package, and imported brie, a wedge for $10.50. Put together, they would make quite a lunch, especially topped off with an Asian pear for $2.99.

The other day, when I was waiting to pay for my purchases (Ghirardelli chocolate bar, New York Times and artisan sourdough -- $10.45 for a loaf of bread, a piece of chocolate and a newspaper), there was a woman in front of me. She was counting her food stamps to pay for her processed cheese and freeze-dried beef. She was wearing old shorts and a stained T-shirt, and she was missing at least one tooth. Her movements were slow, painstaking, as she finished with the WIC booklet and moved in for the penny count. She seemed comfortable, a customer who has been shopping in this odd, dusty market for a long time, but I wondered how she felt about having to scavenge for her particular grocery selection, which is disappearing as quickly as arctic sea ice in this changing climate.

This is the only market in the neighborhood, unless you count the Whole Foods on P Street, where a typical tomato costs $3 and "white" bread is shipped from Vermont and there is no Cheez Whiz, only imported French Camembert spread. Standing next to the woman in the stained T-shirt in the dingy market on U Street in the changing neighborhood with my overpriced purchases, I considered whether I was the part of the solution or part of the problem.

For those of us who grew up middle-class in the 1970s, middle-class really meant middle-class. No trips to Europe for spring break, no fancy electronic equipment. There was a solid line you did not cross. You had two weeks' vacation with your family in the car every summer, traveling to such exotic locations as Amish country in Pennsylvania, or Cape May at the tip of New Jersey, where you played Skee-Ball for the first time at an arcade. Summer homes were cabanas in Far Rockaway, N.Y., where you could change your bathing suit in privacy instead of behind a towel your mother held up at the beach.

Today, the ability to purchase a daily latte for the cost of a full week's subway fare back then blurs the class line. We can afford it -- we can afford the widescreen TV, several phones, iPods, destination weddings and fancy hosiery that costs more than the hourly minimum wage and will run before the end of the day. Residents of that strange country called the middle class today own many of the same accouterments that once would have been the sole purview of the upper class; they just have a harder time paying their Visa bills at the end of the month.

This has never been a class-blind country, no matter what we learned in grade school about the Pilgrims. We may not sanction discrimination based on economic fortune, but we long have relied on physical cues to decode class distinctions. The Founding Fathers of means wore wigs; success could be measured in part by body mass and uncallused hands; and until recently, a Rolex watch was a definitive indicator of wealth and status.

But today, it is increasingly complicated to analyze the American economic food chain. Everyone except the very poorest among us can don the trappings of wealth, or at least of moderate success. While the chasm seems bridged, it's artificial; even though we may be wearing the same designer clothing as someone shopping at Neiman Marcus, our poor credit ratings, home repossessions and bankruptcy filings belie the image of our success.

I am reluctant to patronize the stratified grocery store on U Street because I don't like the feeling that I am supplanting longtime denizens of this historic but troubled section of the city. I am slightly embarrassed that my upscale desires are displacing simpler, less expensive choices. Yet I am lured in by the market's wares; it is like going on a scavenger hunt each time I enter, with more and more lovely products lining the shelves, targeting me and my upper-class-wannabe tastes.

So I continue to stop in for lunch treats and odds and ends, and in some sort of cosmic irony I almost always encounter someone paying with food stamps at the cash register. And I think about affordable housing allotments and compassionate neighborhood development and all the socially just things that I believe in and support, and I try to assuage my guilt with a dazzling dark chocolate bar.

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