I am in mourning. For my supermarket. Don’t roll your eyes. Your local grocery store is a pretty important life support, right? So when I heard that the Food Emporium on the corner was closing, I went into a depression. Not quite like the one I’d have felt if a friend had died, but close. We’ve been together for almost 30 years, the Food Emporium and I. Longer than most of my friendships.
Sure, I’d begun to take the store for granted, like an old friend, never dreaming there would come a day when it wasn’t there. We’ve gone through changes, just as in any long-term relationship. The store hours went back and forth between 15 and 24 hours. I went back and forth between daily visits and once or twice a week, defecting now and then for the fancy market up the street. And admittedly, we weren’t always on the best of terms. I groused about long checkout lines and surly clerks who spent too much time chatting up their coworkers or—my pet peeve—noshing on finger food while ringing up my purchases. The management was haphazard, with dizzying turnover. And it was impossible to get anywhere near the bottle-and-can recycling bins, with so many people circling the containers like planes. But all was forgotten when I heard that the parent company, A&P, had gone bankrupt and sold off its markets, including my Food Emporium.
It’s not the only sea change in my neighborhood. Local shops are closing one by one, and even big box stores like the Gap are being forced out by landlords looking to cash in on the Manhattan real estate boom. The greed is such that building owners would rather leave a storefront empty for years on end than give a lease to a shopkeeper at less than a stratospheric rent. Every time I see another darkened window or abandoned storefront—dead zones in the local landscape—I sigh a little. But nothing reduced me to tears or sent me (momentarily) into seclusion until the demise of the Food Emporium.
Change is inevitable, of course. I know that. “All is flux,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said. “You can never step in the same river twice.” And the Buddha was the grandmaster of impermanence. “Decay is inherent in all composite things,” he taught. Change is a fundamental aspect of our dissatisfaction with life.
“A happy feeling, a happy condition in life, is not permanent, not everlasting,” Walpola Rahula reminds us in his classic handbook, What the Buddha Taught. “It changes sooner or later. When it changes, it produces pain, suffering, unhappiness.” The suffering of change, it’s called.
I can accept the inevitability of change when it comes to the Big Stuff: we will get sick, we will age, we will die. Nothing lasts forever; all things of this world arise—and cease—as a result of causes and conditions. But I hate it when what’s changing is something that makes daily life easy or pleasant or consistent. I can really get my knickers in a twist when the deli stops making the pasta salad I like, or the phone company discontinues the plan I’ve always used. When my favorite brand of lemonade disappeared from the Food Emporium shelves, I sensed something bad coming, months before the dreaded announcement.
Nostalgia is a coy mistress. There’s no accounting for when it will turn up or break your heart. As a grocery purveyor, the Food Emporium, founded in 1919, is a relative newcomer; its parent, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, dates back to 1859. Once the largest and most innovative grocery chain in the country, A&P was eventually eclipsed by a changing retail climate and more up-to-date stores. Nothing is #1 forever, as Roger Federer is finding out.
But I persist in thinking that the big changes in life are less searing than the loss of my grocery store. I can see the store closing. I can’t see my inevitable death as clearly, so I live in denial of it while prattling on about the fragility of life. The fact is, of course, that I could drop dead tonight, as could anyone I love. And how much more devastating the loss of my loved ones than the loss of a Food Emporium.
Still, every change in my environment looms large as a stark reminder of decay, of loss, and of that ultimate loss I say I’m not afraid of but, in reality, go to great lengths to avoid. “Every day a little death, in the parlor, in the bed,” sings an embittered wife in A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s musical elegizing inevitable aging and loss. The song is referring to marriage, but we know it’s really a commentary on the fading of life.
However much I treat the reality of old age, sickness, and death as an intellectual exercise, deep down, I know it’s not. So if I can accept that mourning the demise of a grocery store is simply a case of emotional displacement, perhaps I can face up to transition and embrace the new grocery store. The fly in the ointment may be the fact that the new store is a branch of Key Foods, a supermarket chain found primarily in low-income areas that’s notorious for wilting produce and days-old bread. But if I can get by that—the Food Emporium manager insisted that our new market would be an upscale offshoot of Key Foods—maybe I can make peace with change at large. Change is good, we’re told. A fresh breeze blown through life keeps us on our toes, fully alive until we die. Who knows? I might even like Key Foods better than the old Food Emporium, like the classmate you hated until one day you woke up to her charms and she became your best friend.
And if not? Well, there’s always Fresh Direct.
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