This was partly in jest — DeLillo’s novel takes supermarkets so seriously it’s comical — but he really was onto something. We talked about the concepts implied in greeting cards and tomato brand names (“Santa Sweets” is particularly baffling). We listened to the buzzing fluorescent lights. We wondered what aliens from another land would make of our civilization if they had only this supermarket to go on.
They’ll never find out, because this supermarket – my supermarket – is closing on Saturday. Georgetown Day School bought the land two years ago and now plans to redevelop the site into a mixture of school, retail and residential space; Safeway officials say the store is underperforming anyway.
I am seeing in its last days just how full of psychic data that Safeway is. One person runs into a friend in the toilet paper aisle. Another watches a neighbor sweating all over the onions on a post-run shopping outing every week. Another sees My-T-Fine Pudding, remembers a childhood in New York and tells her impatient daughter stories to distract her from the supermarket’s ennui. Somewhere in there a community finds its home. No one notices.
Tied up in the material the store sells are snippets of the lives supermarkets sustain, including mine. Thousands of neighbors, many of whom I knew and more of whom I didn’t, have walked these aisles and wondered why they could never find the sauerkraut or the beer (my Safeway did not sell beer; the sauerkraut was just hard to find). They went at the end of a long day and then had to wait 25 minutes in the checkout line. Maybe someone consoled himself by buying a tub of ice cream. Transactions and acquisitions are the profile of our days: Safeway had them.
I’ve been to that Safeway more than any other store. It’s across the street from where I went to school and, later, taught; for many years, I lived a few blocks away. For those who work or live nearby, it was a staple of life, good for a quick lunch, a last-minute purchase for an event or a venture out when you just needed to go somewhere else. Safeway had everything—rows and rows of consumable products. All that choice provided a refuge from the limitations of life outside the fluorescent lighting. You could buy an energy drink you’d never drink or a lousy novel you’d never read, and you’d feel good. And yet somehow the Safeway often managed not to have what you needed.
Its quirks became communal jokes: Sometimes mystery panhandlers with tambourines parked themselves outside the doors for weeks on end. Everyone loved the affable cashier Ted, who had an unplaceable, inconsistent and possibly fake accent and who was always so much cheerier than his colleagues. Sometimes kids dared to go to the deli and found odd items that were not chicken in their chicken. I spent five years of my life going to that Safeway three or four times a week. But, mostly, I, like the store’s other neighbors, didn’t think much of it.
Clearly our supermarkets—and in Washington, it is often our Safeways — play a significant role in ordinary life. They’re fixtures; otherwise, we wouldn’t give them nicknames. There’s the Social Safeway, the Soviet Safeway, the Sandinista Safeway: These places are communal markers, because just about everyone has to go some time or other. This one was sometimes called the Secret Safeway (or the Super-Secret Safeway, to distinguish it from another defunct “secret” store in Dupont), because it isn’t visible from Wisconsin Avenue.
I hadn’t thought much about Safeway until I heard about its demise and realized all the things that happen in a supermarket. When I was in middle school, my class visited the high school for a morning, and between classes some freshmen took us across the street to the store. This was the most exciting thing in the world; Safeway meant freedom and the infinite privileges of grown-ups. Later, at that Safeway, I learned how to use spare change to buy candy, so it felt like I wasn’t spending any money. Over the years, as I walked through those aisles or waited in line—activities we all do without thinking—I gossiped with friends, consulted with teachers, cried on the phone to my mother, imagined futures.
The Secret Safeway was suffused with this psychic data.
In the few weeks since Safeway announced its closure, neighbors have lamented the loss of convenience but also of the chance neighborhood run-ins the Safeway often hosted. I paid my final visit at night earlier this week and found an eerily empty store. The produce was gone, and most of the aisles were empty and had been roped off. No psychic data; just very bright lights. The remaining undesirable products were shoved onto a few shelves near the front of the store, all marked heavily with signs offering discounts. It felt apocalyptic. If aliens came and saw that empty Safeway, they’d know nothing about us.