The Supermarket Through Poetry and Virus

Requiring food makes the supermarket one of the most important locations for the proper functioning of society. That is why, throughout the quarantine period for the suppression of the spread of COVID-19, the supermarkets, grocery stores and corner stores continued to operate. And that is why the opening of Zelný Trh, Brno’s centuries-old vegetable market, was such a beautifully symbolic event.

People need vegetables, fruit, bread, canned goods, toilet paper, hygiene products, and alcohol. Not necessarily in that order. And, people got it all, mostly, despite being stuck at home.

Nevertheless, the supermarket may never be the same again.

* * *

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier. . . .

— Expert from “A Supermarket in California”, Allen Ginsberg


Allen Ginsberg, a member of the Beat generation of poets, used the purchase of foodstuffs to juxtapose 1950s America and that of his 19th-century poetic idol, Walt Whitman. No longer did meat come from butchers and vegetables come from local farmers; instead, shopping for staples had moved toward family outings and marketing and excess and choice.

Whitman, who was one of the most influential poets of American history, died in 1892. Ginsberg published “A Supermarket in California” in 1956, 64 years after Whitman’s death.

Now, another 64 years later, in 2020, the supermarket was thrust into the center of life as one of the few places that people were able to be other than their own homes.

* * *

Contemporary grocery shopping had largely been a peaceful chore (except during Christmastime). The variety was expansive. The international options were growing.  And the meal possibilities were endless with some ingredients and a YouTube video.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way things worked.

  • Cleanliness. The first step of many trips to the store was finding the least disgusting shopping cart. The coronavirus prompted stores to scrub them down. Will that continue into the new normal?
  • Crowds. The whole point of the quarantine period was to avoid social contact. Yet, on a recent morning, a Lidl in South Brno was jammed as soon as the doors opened. It was an hour before it was to be reserved for seniors and it was mayhem. Will the rhythms and timing of shopping return to what it had been?
  • Social distancing. This could be the Phrase of the Year. It conjures up the symbolic image of self- and societal-protection. It was hard to maintain two meters when the aisles are chock full of shoppers. Stores put down markers for where people should stand in the checkout lines. It worked, kind of. Will this be the impetus for Czech people to not breathe down each other’s necks, especially the seniors, who were conditioned long ago to actively protect against people cutting in line?
  • Toilet paper. The immediate fear that many had was a lack of toilet paper. Psychologically, the idea of running out of TP was, apparently, too much to bear. It is not clear that this was an actual crisis, but many hoarded it nevertheless. Did anyone have trouble with toilet paper? Or have to resort to tissues?
  • Social interaction. The nurse who works with our paediatrician happened to be in our checkout line one day. The two-meter separation and the din of the crowd made for awkward conversation and slight embarrassment for the bottles of whiskey and the many bags of Roasted Cashews & Peanuts (Honey & Salt). (There were a lot of vegetables and healthy stuff, too!)
  • Plexiglass barriers. Supermarkets quickly installed protection for their cashiers. It looked like the safety glass that fast food restaurants have in the rough parts of the Queens and Brooklyn. Now it is being employed in a bedroom community in South Brno to stop a bug instead of a bullet.
  • Card versus Cash. Using paper money and coins was forbidden during the coronavirus pandemic. Debit cards have long made cash unnecessary. And, fortunately, Tesco had already empowered shoppers with self-checkout stations and Globus already had personal barcode scanners. Will the next step be that cash and cashiers will become obsolete?
  • Delivery companies. Will the supermarket even survive? Rohlík, the delivery company, was in operation before the pandemic and it doubled in size to accommodate for the additional requests. Days-long waits were cut to hours. Tesco, which had advertised its home delivery in local maternity wards at least five years ago, was caught flat-footed by the onslaught of orders. They had a weeks-long backlog in mid-March.
  • Supply chain. Overall, distribution became more complicated as the demand for groceries skyrocketed over the past month and a half (and the restaurant sector of the economy nosedived). Not everything was available in the stores. For the short-term, we may have fewer choices and higher prices. That may mean we will have to adjust how we shop and stock our pantries.

* * *

Sixty-four years after Whitman’s death, Ginsberg wrote a poem about shopping. Sixty-four years later, the coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks and gave us time to think. What will happen in 2084, in another 64 years?

Only time will tell.

Although, it may be best to stock up on toilet paper now.


Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.


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