Ever since visiting Florida in 1974, I have loved Publix supermarkets. While staying with an aunt and uncle in Sarasota, the highlight of each day was biking with my cousin through the South Gate Ridge neighborhood to the Publix on Bee Ridge Road. In those days that section of town was relatively empty; Siesta Key was a sandy, green expanse great for bike riding. A young lady about our age worked there; I purposely got into her line because she had a flip hairdo that I couldn’t help staring at– it was so radically non-Brooklyn!
Not only did it feature fabulous hair– Publix was also large and clean and bright, somewhat different from the supermarkets in my home neighborhood. The A&P wasn’t too bad, though I remember it being old and crowded but smelling of Eight O’Clock Coffee which you could grind at a special machine. A smaller market, Met Foods, was so cramped that two women meeting face on with shopping carts had to decide WHO was going to retreat backwards, like two Fiats on a narrow Roman Via. There was a Pantry Pride you had to drive to, and Mom and Dad used to love dancing to favorite songs that would come over the Muzak system. She tells me that one time he put on a set of oven mitts while dancing; it must have been a formal affair. And one of the cashiers used to cash in coupons for us, even if we hadn’t necessarily purchased the particular products… what a racket!
When not doing weekly shopping at those three places, everybody patronized the local specialty shops– the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker– but the supermarkets were definitely places where you went to save money, and the Sarasota Publix was like a glimpse into a Stepford future. (Ira Levin’s book had been published in 1972.)
The Publix supermarkets near where I live today are larger, grander, and quite an experience; you can actually spend days shopping up and down each aisle, and I often do– tranquilly, with my organized list and a highlighter so that I don’t have to God forbid backtrack. I hate backtracking! When you buy sliced cold cuts at the Deli counter, they always give you samples, and there are always nice ladies in hair nets pushing samples of things at you, liked rolled slices of bacon daubed with peanut butter. They’ve done that for years; my old friend Gordon and I, in the days when you could smoke anywhere, used to traipse through Publix with cigarettes in one hand, cups of coffee in the other, and tiny paper plates of tasty samples stacked on the shopping cart’s kiddy seat. You could really count that as a meal each day!
While Publix is my dependable mainstay, days lived currently in the midst of this distressing economic downturn have necessitated visits to a newer, less costly supermarket: Aldi, based in Germany, is short for ALbrecht DIscount, begun by brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht. It’s small, and decidedly no frills. Goods generally change on a daily basis and are stacked warehouse-style in their shipping containers.
Remember the supermarket Joan Crawford patronized in Autumn Leaves ? There’s a scene where she turns dramatically toward the camera, dark glasses disguising black eyes that her husband is responsible for (he threw a typewriter at her and smacked her around, but she still loves him). Aldi has that feeling– not of marital mayhem, but it comes across as somebody’s Hollywood idea for a supermarket: there’s something very “soundstage” about it.
Joan in Autumn Leaves, leading a pack of housewives on a rampage after discovering that the supermarket is fresh out of Febreeze.
You can really find some good deals at Aldi, though they aren’t name brands. Close looks at the labels will reveal telling information: Product of Bulvakia. Made In the Far Eastern Republic of Bubostan Under His Majesty’s Authority. Import of Slavavagochya. But I’ve never been disappointed, and I’ve saved a lot of money. And everyone is just as nice as they are in Publix. Plus, you have to snap a quarter into a lock device to release a shopping cart, which goads you toward reclaiming your two bits when heading home– unlike the Publix parking lots, where I constantly see healthy Winter Park Yuppies leaving carts all over the place because they are too lazy to return them.
While many of my shopping needs and desires are satisfied by Publix, with whom I have had a beautiful relationship for 37 years, often I sneak down the street and pay a visit to Aldi. Sometimes I’ll run into someone I know, and we’ll look away guiltily, each of us silently vowing to keep one another’s secrets. It’s not like I’m cheating, exactly… it’s just that sometimes you gotta just take a walk around the block, you know? And if the shampoo special comes in a bilious green color, well… those are the risks you take. And besides, it all washes handily down the drain in the end.