My mother and my grandmother were both excited. They were planning an excursion to the supermarket, and were eager that I join them. When little, I might have grown similarly enthused at the prospect of slipping in a chocolate bar into the mass of vegetables and other wholesome foods, or riding the cart down the aisles at top speed, bent over the hand bar double. But these days such trips fail to get my heart pounding. I can buy a chocolate bar whenever I like, and after New York taxi cabs, gliding along on shopping carts has lost its thrill.
“You have to come,” my mother said. “It’s amazing.”
Fine. I packed an overnight bag and we left. Turned out we were not only heading to the supermarket, but were driving past about seven of them to reach our shopping venue of choice. Twenty minutes on the highway when we could have reached the closest one in five.
“What the eff, yo?” I asked my grandmother.
“Vale a pena,” she assured me, “E tao lindo e incrivel!”
And she was right. The new Whole Foods down by Sunset was mind blowing. Sure, I walked in tough and blase, daring it to impress me, but I was soon humbled. It wasn’t a supermarket, it was a shrine to food, to comestibles, to libations and color, to shape and form. If ancient priests were around, worshiping Zeus and whatnot, they’d shop there for their sacrificial foodstuffs.
My awe was not instantaneous. While the rapacious AC was welcome, my first gaze over the labyrinth of aisles revealed your typical fare; sloped ranks of vegetables, distant glass banks behind which anonymous food was contained, a fish area close by, a display promoting royal queen bee jelly xmax stuff to rub onto your skin, hair, eyes and tonsils. But then a weight lifting dude passed, the kind to make Kaitlyn drool, all spandex and tonsured hair, and on his mug was a rapturous smile, and I knew then that something was up.
Mum and Vovo drifted off, exclaiming to each other excitedly over things they suddenly wanted to buy. I walked over to the fish display area, and saw that the glass counter was easily half a mile long. Within, perfectly arranged, was everything edible the seven seas and fourteen oceans had to offer. Tiger prawns the size of my forearms, lobster tails thicker than my torso, a salmon steak large enough to crush a horse. All of it fresh: endless mounds of shrimp, whitebait, phalanxes of halibut, tuna steaks, octopus arms, squid, cuttlefish, a rusting swathe of the Titanic, everything. In perfect order, gleaming, scaled, multi-hued, iridescent, delectable, perfect.
Shaken, I backed off, and stumbled into the meat section, and there I lost my soul. If the fish area had been large, this part was vast, and suddenly I felt like Neo in the first Matrix when he declares his desire for guns and a trillion of them suddenly rush towards him, an infinite number of aisles roaring into place. Purple hearts of filet mignon, every cut and slice of cow, pork, sheep, rabbit, chicken, french hen, chaffinch, pine marten, water buffalo, armadillo, sphinx and chupacabra. Laid out, steaming as if culled from carcasses hidden from view mere seconds before, enough meat on which to feast the Beast of War, enough flesh on which to sate a Brasilian dinner party at a rodizio styled restaurant.
But there was more. Meat that was breadcrumbed, basted, soaked, flavored, shishkibabbed, loafed, minced, spiced, spliced, intertwined, throttled and gravied. Battalions of burgers and legions of sausages. You could simply swoop in, point and pick, go home, cook and dine, and never have to prepare a thing.
Shaking, pale faced, I stumbled on, deeper into the supermarket. I lost track of time before the Japanese island, numbly handling the boutique sake bottles, watching the sushi chef’s prepare their fare. I stood entranced before the cyclopean cabinets of cookies and muffins, my mirrored reflection staring back at me from the pristine cabinet back. The cheese display was a riot, a still life that would kill any artist’s attempt to capture it, rapturous and decadent and odiferous and deadly. The were bricks of chocolate. There was a land in which prepared meals were served, from meatloaf to pasta dishes, from sandwiches to roasted chicken, a thousand deli dishes, each begging to be eaten, savored, delectated, bought and taken home or to the park or the swimming pool or outer space, where you would pull them out of a bag and shrug casually, nonchalantly as your friends whistled and howled in admiration.
There was no end. Borges would have creamed his pants, Kafka would have been struck deaf and dumb, Proust would have bought a wrist watch and declared himself defeated. The further into the aisles I crept the more they opened up before me. As Emerson said when describing the first Whole Foods when it opened in Concord, MA:
Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that beyond every aisle another can be seen; that there is no end to nature’s bounty, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.
My mother found me crouched before the Salt & Vinegar section, chewing on my fingers, murmuring and speaking in a different tongue. I am much recovered now, but am put in mind of the ending of Lovecraft’s The Rats in the Walls:
My searchlight expired, but still I ran. I heard voices, and yowls, and echoes, but above all there gently rose that impious, insidious scurrying; gently rising, rising, as a stiff bloated corpse gently rises above an oily river that flows under the endless onyx bridges to a black, putrid sea.
Something bumped into me — something soft and plump. It must have been the rats; the viscous, gelatinous, ravenous army that feast on the dead and the living … Why shouldn’t rats eat a de la Poer as a de la Poer eats forbidden things? … The war ate my boy, damn them all … and the Yanks ate Carfax with flames and burnt Grandsire Delapore and the secret … No, no, I tell you, I am not that daemon swineherd in the twilit grotto! It was not Edward Norrys’ fat face on that flabby fungous thing! Who says I am a de la Poer? He lived, but my boy died! … Shall a Norrys hold the land of a de la Poer? … It’s voodoo, I tell you … that spotted snake … Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! … ‘Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust … wolde ye swynke me thilke wys?… Magna Mater! Magna Mater!… Atys… Dia ad aghaidh’s ad aodaun… agus bas dunarch ort! Dhonas ‘s dholas ort, agus leat-sa!… Ungl unl… rrlh … chchch…
This is what they say I said when they found me in the blackness after three hours; found me crouching in the blackness over the plump, half-eaten body of Capt. Norrys, with my own cat leaping and tearing at my throat.
I now understand the peculiar madness that can consume a visitor of the Whole Foods, that can cause them to lose hold of their thread of humanity. Some sights were not meant for the casual viewer, and I am not hardened as my mother and grandmother are, am not prepared for such assaults upon my reason and mind. I may return, but shall be prepared when next I do. And if I do go, I shall go armed with camera, notebook and pen, a cellphone perhaps with which to call for help, and a determination to not succumb once more. Whole Foods! I salute you, and shall yet take your measure!