Chapter Fourteen: Food and Philosophy
Gloria and her mother got out of the car at SaveMart and picked up a shopping cart. Gloria's face still felt a bit hot and stuffy after crying, but although she was embarrassed about losing her poise in front of her mother, she was glad that her mother understood her mood.
"Now you understand a little more why I broke down the other day when I was doing bills," Philli had said. "At least you had the sense to stay away from the vodka."
Besides occasionally picking up bread or fruit at the grocery store, Gloria had little experience with shopping for the household. She'd sobbed to her mother that she didn't even know which prices were good on most items, and the prospect of yet another learning experience in the morning was making her feel like a moron.
"We'll go after supper," she had told Gloria. "Ben is perfectly capable of feeding Will when he gets home."
"But Will has the money," Gloria had wailed.
"We have the money," her mother had countered. "We'll put some of Will's cash back in the account if we have to."
"But you worked all day!"
Philli had curled her lip. "Work? All I did all day was watch how other people clean and take notes on addresses. It was a hell of a lot easier than stocking day at the drug store. Come on, it will be more fun than you think. I can't remember you going to the grocery store with me since you were fourteen."
"Then we can have Vodka Sevens when we get back," Gloria had croaked, swabbing her eyes.
Philli had laughed. "If that's what you really want, you can help yourself. I'd rather have a glass of wine, myself."
They began their shopping foray in the produce department. "We need potatoes," Gloria noted.
Philli grimaced. "Start with the bad news, is that it? I've bought red potatoes or white potatoes for years, already scrubbed and ready to cut up, didn't even have to peel them. But the fact is, the bag potatoes are a lot cheaper most of the time -- they just have to be scrubbed for baking or peeled. You pay for convenience." She hoisted a ten-pound bag into the cart. "This ought to keep all right in the garage, the weather's getting cooler. If you don't keep them cool enough, they either rot or sprout from the eyes like crazy, and we don't have the time on our hands to be cleaning the eyes off."
The walked along the bins of produce. "Lettuce," Philli lectured, "is a luxury item. It has no nutritional value, unless you have problems with chronic constipation. People eat iceberg lettuce as a way of excusing themselves for wanting salad dressing."
She stopped in front of the section of cruciferous vegetables. "So is kohlrabi," she said, sighing. "At least it's a luxury item that's good for you. But it's basically cabbage in a different shape, so if you're short of cash, stick to cabbage -- but don't buy it here, it's a lot cheaper at the roadside stands."
"How do you know which to buy here or at the fruit stand?" Gloria asked.
"It's just experience, honey. Tomatoes, cukes, squash, cabbage -- stuff that goes over fairly quickly is almost always cheaper at the roadside places. But stuff that can store for a long time, those are often cheaper at the supermarkets because they can buy in bulk and don't have to unload it as fast. Here's a good example: here they're selling 'heirloom tomatoes' for $3.99 a pound. At the roadside place over off Carpenter, where we get them, they're sold for a dollar a pound."
"So it's worth it to drive over there and get them -- if you get two pounds, you've already saved the cost of a gallon or two of gas." Gloria said.
"Right," her mother agreed. "I don't remember -- what's on the menu this week?"
"I was trying to live out of the freezers for as long as we can. We've got a lot of chicken, a lot of pork -- and there must be three packages of ribs out in the freezer in the garage."
"Oh, yeah, they had them on sale for ninety-nine cents a pound back in May and I packed them in."
"I found a super-easy recipe for ribs on line, so I thought we'd do ribs tomorrow (since I can't seem to connect with a job) with macaroni salad and some kind of fruit?" Gloria offered, still feeling less headstrong and more timid than she had in a while.
Philli shook her head. "Macaroni salad is deli stuff. If we're tightening our belts, the whole deli area is off limits."
"No, I can make it myself. I already Googled a recipe; it's easy, and we have all the ingredients except for white onion, which we are out of. It sounds good, at least in theory. But we'll need more eggs."
"Eggs. A friend of mine says that Kikkert Poultry has a storefront where she's getting huge eggs for cheap. It's not too far from the produce stand on Carpenter. She buys eggs five dozen at a time."
"But aren't eggs bad for you, like high cholesterol and stuff?"
"Gloria, cholesterol is among the least of our worries for a while. We don't have to live on eggs, but we can save some money on them. Bread. Let's get the bread."
The meat counter was the next course in education. "Anything under two dollars a pound is a bargain," Philli said. "I didn't really worry about bargains for a long time, but I guess we have to now."
Gloria was looking at chicken. Whole chickens were ninety-nine cents per pound, while cuts of chicken ranged to three dollars a pound. "I can't believe I never noticed this before," she said, feeling incredibly stupid again.
"That's because we've been affluent and I've been lazy, Glory. Don't beat yourself up over it."
"So anyway, the menu for the week," Gloria said, yanking herself back to meal planning. "Spareribs and macaroni salad for tomorrow, with cantaloupe as a fruit, Wednesday fish sandwiches and spinach salad, Thursday chicken with mashed potatoes, Friday spaghetti, I guess. We have all of that in the house or in this cart."
"Sounds good," her mother shrugged. "I'm hungry again already."
They went aisle to aisle in the store. Store brands were far cheaper than 'name' brands; in-store sales were things to look out for, but they had to compare prices against the store brands, which often undersold even the brand name sales. Flour, lunchmeat, milk, bread -- in each case the store brands were much less expensive than the food advertised on television.
As a last pass, they walked down the detergent aisle. "Here's where we could get really screwed," Philli said. "We can wash clothes with cheap detergent and they stink like they were barely washed, or we buy the good stuff and smell clean. Will and I can make do with the cheap stuff, but I won't do that to Ben while he's in school, or you while you're looking for a job. Get the good stuff -- but don't get it here. Paper products, detergent, cleaning supplies, get those at one of the big superstores like Walmart or Target."
As they loaded their bags into the trunk of the car, Gloria shuddered a little. The entire frozen foods section was off limits for them if they were looking to reduce grocery costs. No more frozen corn, frozen broccoli. No more freezer pizzas and snacks. No more ice cream. No more nicely sectioned boneless, skinless cuts of chicken.
The upside to the shopping trip had been the education. I've been living luxuriously and never knew it, Gloria thought. I thought I was everyday people and now I find that I was a person of privilege. Lucky me. Now I know more than I did before.
She was hard on herself, quite unnecessarily. Most of the people in her locale thought themselves normal and average, when they were, in reality, incredibly wasteful and pampered. The average person in West Virginia, for example, would have looked upon the residents of the Central Valley of California and seen wealth beyond imagination, waste beyond reason. Those Central Californians, by and large, had forgotten that food was sustenance and not mere pleasure. They had forgotten that housing was supposed to be for the purpose of shelter, and not for status. They had forgotten that people are people, and that the surplus of the affluent cuts into the availability of the necessities of the poor. It was how they grew up; the viewpoint that says, "You must strive to match the advertising model; you can eat all you want at the pasta buffet; your automobile tells all your neighbors about the wealth of your character." No one in Gloria's cohort was being told that such statements implied by all advertising and sales were utter lies. Comfort was the rule of the world she lived in, and hardship was a mythical situation reserved for migrant workers and meth-heads. Real people, with real lives and happy families never had to experience hardship -- in point of fact, those "real people" and "happy families" had no idea that hardship existed.
Delectable interest rates had lured many to buy above their means; the promise of houses the size of small estates had led many to believe they were part of the new nobility, with space to spare and no member of the family ever having to share a room if they didn't want to. It was an absurd idea, but for so, so many, it was irresistible. "Pay so little now," the lending institutions promised, "and later on, when you're making SO much more money (as you most certainly will in a few years, in this booming economy) the ballooning payments will be as nothing." Nevertheless, it was all a figment of someone's imagination, a construct that had no basis in the reality of dollars and sense.
And that was exactly the crumbling castle of illusion that Gloria was seeing tumble down. It was a shakedown of her world, a holdup in a dark alley in which she and her family found themselves by surprise, hardly knowing how they got there. They were in shock, finding themselves tossed by the whitewater of circumstance down a rocky streambed studded with bills and mismanagement.
Thousands of people, washed up bruised and battered on the shores of that tide, just stopped paying their mortgages, moved in with relatives, lost everything, wept, crammed themselves in small apartments. The banks were left holding the loans that they had made for overpriced properties to people who could not afford them. "Screw you, Bank," people said, and limped off, losing their investments, and indeed the Bank was screwed, for the properties could not be sold for what the mortgages were worth. Bank after bank, loan company after loan company folded; lending money is always a gamble, even though advertising and marketing say it is a sure thing for a profit to be made.
Lulled by the false promises of ever increasing prosperity, enticed by the prospect of buying a property and selling it a few years down the road for a two hundred percent profit, greedy people, desperate people, gullible people had thrown their money into the real estate market -- and had been surprised that what they had been told by marketers and advertisers and money lenders had been completely foolish and false.
They had no strategies to deal with it, beyond walking away and hoping no one would hold them accountable for their heinous mistakes. Their children they would tell it was the government's fault, and the oil barons.' No one, in the public sector, in the private business sector, or in the personal sector would ever think of whispering that greed was the root of the evil, that preferring profit over integrity and honesty could possibly be the cause of the horrible effects.
Gloria's family was a little bit different. Was it some philosophical layering that Philli had infused into the group? Gloria could not ever remember her father saying anything about having sense about finances, except for his insistence that the boys dress for success. It must have been Philli. But Gloria could not remember an occasion when her mother had lectured them on fiscal responsibility or monetary prudence. But some unremembered incantations must have been said, for there was no hesitation in any of them about trying to find employment.
Like a strange creature called to animation by its mad scientists, the sense of working to stay alive had been called into existence by their father's death and their financial ruin. It was up to them to make their Frankenstein idea work.