Almost everyone who knows me knows how much I love the writing of David Foster Wallace. He was (and is) pretty much my favourite human being, and when he committed suicide in 2008 I was pretty devastated. This is a fiction piece I wrote in the wake of his death. It’s more than a bit embarrassing to mention my writing in the same space as his (because he was, after all, a certified genius), but I kind of felt compelled to write this thing, and I’m sharing it now in the hope that maybe it will motivate someone to read his work. It was largely inspired by a commencement address he gave in 2005, a snippet of which is quoted below.
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”… It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Address, 2005
The grocery store is a great equalizer. We all need to eat, no matter how important, how recognizable, or how busy we are, and sometimes that will mean going to the grocery store, whether we like it or not. And I don’t like it. Ever.
Maybe it won’t be so bad this time, I tell myself, as I embark upon my least favourite weekly task. I hate grocery shopping. I hate the press of humanity all fluorescently-lit in its comfortable Saturday running-errand clothes, and I hate that same humanity pressing its dirty fingers on my potential fruits and vegetables. I acknowledge how nasty and cranky this sounds, while asserting that I am neither of these things in the bulk of my daily life, no matter what anyone might say. I maintain that , despite the fact that the accusation “You are just not a nice person” has been hurled at me fairly recently, my point is not diminished. I maintain also that that accusation is simply not true. The words may continue to revolve around my brain, spoken in her voice, but that does not mean that I have to believe them. What I believe is that I am a largely magnanimous person who just doesn’t like grocery shopping, and, in an effort to empathize with my fellow shoppers (because, contrary to a certain opinion, I can) I tell myself that everyone feels the same way I do; surely no one loves publicly undertaking what is really quite an intimate enterprise, and everyone is irritated by the process of manoeuvring a grocery cart that is too long and too wide down and around aisles filled with other oversized carts, propelled all too often by oversized people.
But I’m not really convinced that others hate this shopping as much as I do. As I pass through the automated sliding doors of SuperMegaJumboSaveOnCo-opMart I see people engaged in conversation, exchanging what are typically known as ‘pleasantries.’ The weather, the local hockey team. Chatting, like they’d been looking forward to this outing all week and had been anticipating running into Garth and Shelley in the cereal aisle – so updates about that faulty solenoid could be shared, perhaps, or thoughts about Binky getting kicked off So You Think You Can Embarrass Yourself. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good banter or quip-trade with a witty opponent, but for me food-shopping is a strictly ‘get-in/get-out’ procedure, with no conversation attached. The best I could possibly muster if I did run into someone familiar would be something akin to “Oh wow, you buy food, too?” I don’t know what these people are spending so much time talking about, and why they persist in doing it right in front of the pickles I like.
Pickles obtained (politely, I thought, although it did involve overhearing that Buster’s operation will cost over $1200), I proceed. As I navigate the aisles I actively seek to avoid eye-contact with my fellow shoppers. If I am not diligent in this regard I will invariably find myself staring directly at a stranger without realizing it, which inevitably results in odd looks directed my way before I can vehemently assert that I was “just looking at the cheese”! The secret, I’ve found, is to force my eyes to glaze at the precise moment when visual contact is made, or, alternatively, to squint in an intense, serious, and inward-directed fashion that implies I am doing complex cost-comparing mathematics in my head, or that I simply cannot believe that that can possibly be the price of such a small can of tomatoes.
There is suddenly a small child in my path. Once more – because I am a nice person – may I assert that I do not dislike these creatures. Children are quite often entertaining, humorous, creative and insightful, and, when we have been subjected to each other, children and I have been known to get along just fine. This child, though, however potentially creative and insightful he may be, is annoying. He makes his appearance by careening down the aisle making ray-gun noises while glued to his PSP (or DS, or whatever combination of capital letters kids are pestering their parents for these days), and before I can steer my grocery cart to wherever he is not going to be in the next ten seconds, he has bashed right into it, pushing the loaded cart back into my stomach and its wheel over my foot. Which hurts. I push the cart off my foot and towards the shelves of precariously-balanced soup cans, making things fall off and land in dented aluminum heaps all around me. People turn and look, but the instigator of this chaos is absorbed in Space Invadors Extreme or something, and runs away without even looking up. And it is this complete obliviousness to the consequences of his actions that sets me off. Because this is the problem, you see: as much as I may appreciate the exuberance and energy of young people, they remain un- or semi-formed – and when taken out in public in this state they invariably bump up against people, literally and figuratively. It is bad enough that my food-gathering involves potentially bumping into humans of the more-completed variety, but children plus strangers plus public places filled with displays of small and perishable items is the proverbial recipe for disaster.
I wonder about gathering up the soup cans, but suddenly a barely adolescent stock-boy appears and says he will “take it from here.” I’m sure he thinks I caused this catastrophe, because in his eyes I must fall under the blanket category of ‘old person,’ and therefore I am clumsy and cannot be trusted to manoeuvre a grocery cart with any degree of accuracy. He probably expects I am incontinent as well. This humiliation fires me up, and I fume off in search of the child that has brought my grocery-store-loathing to a head.
I catch sight of him again in the produce aisle. As I approach, laser-eyed, he is seconds away from collapsing a pyramid of apples with his game-playing elbow. I grab some cascading Granny Smiths with one hand and his arm with the other. He looks up at me, startled but with no hint of recognition on his face, and suddenly I have no idea what to do or say. “Pay attention?” “Be aware?” “Be better?” These commands will be meaningless to him without context, and will just sound like I am asking him to stop being a little boy. I settle on “Watch out!” and shake his arm for emphasis. Then a harried-looking woman rushes over, obviously the mother. She starts screaming at me in Spanish and snatches her son away from this crazy person who is about to abduct him. I look around furtively, as I realize I am the centre of attention again, involved in the second disruptive event to take place in this store in the last twenty minutes. People stare, again. The woman shouts, louder and louder. The boy starts crying. I want nothing more than to just turn my cart around and slink away, but I decide I should try to take the high road here and so I mumble some sort of an apology, which I’m not sure anyone understands.
I am backing away slowly when some sort of manager appears and begins asking typical voice-of-authority-type questions like what the problem is here, etc. The woman directs her vitriol at him instead of me, and, although during her tirade she points at me repeatedly while shielding her boy from my evil clutches, I’m not sure the manager fully understands what has just transpired. He turns to glare at me, slightly panicked and looking for someone (anyone) to blame, so that this will all go away and he can get back to the cigarette he left half-finished in the break room. I say I was just leaving, and proceed to do just that. Iceberg lettuce is not nearly as important as getting the hell out of there right now.
The trip through the check-out line takes forever, as I imagine I have already been branded by the entire store as a pedophile, child abductor or, if I am lucky, a mere vandal. Once again I try not to make eye contact, and silently nurse my anger towards precarious food displays, parents of recalcitrant children, and the sheer presence of humanity in general. I do not feel like a nice person at the moment, and grocery shopping is to blame.
I take my bad mood out of the store with me along with my cart full of tightly-packed reusable bags. There is some kind of commotion in the parking lot not far from where my car is parked, and as I approach I see that I am not yet finished with my friends from the produce aisle. I try not to look their way as I pack my own groceries into the trunk, but I hear that the boy is crying again and so I sneak a peek. He is soaking wet and shivering, holding one of those 20-or-so-litre jugs of water that go into home coolers. It is empty, and there is water running in a steady stream over the loaded cart and away down the pavement. His mother is half-crying herself and spouting angry Spanish at him, something that sounds like “Esta es al agua! Esta es al agua!” They both look pathetic, and their groceries are obviously ruined. I stand there with my full, dry, trunk-load of food and suddenly begin to feel self-centred and stupid and like an even bigger hypocrite than I have already proven I can be. I realize I know nothing about the life of this woman and her son. Perhaps he has some kind of unusual allergy that makes it impossible for him to drink the water in their home, and his single mother has saved her waitressing tips to buy this big jug of water, that will last the entire month if they are careful and only use it for drinking and cooking. Or maybe the woman has a rare skin condition and must use only distilled water to bathe in, lest she break out in horrible hives that itch and swell. Or possibly I have just made unfair judgements about them and their lifestyle based upon my own prejudices, but regardless, I sense that the water is somehow important to them, and also I sense that I have been acting selfish and childish and that I should stop it right now.
I approach them, and the woman recognizes me. She grabs her wet son and pushes him behind her protectively as she turns to me with fire in her eyes. I don’t know how much English she knows, but I gesture to the soaked cart and the empty jug and try to indicate that I would like to help, to do something about her predicament, and to make up for the confusion earlier. She looks wary, and I can’t say I blame her. I pull out my wallet and press money into her hand, again trying to impress upon her that my motives are pure, that I just want her to take the money and replace her ruined groceries, and thereby replace my own dignity. Mustering all the memories of high school Spanish that I can, I manage to say “Todos necesitamos el agua,” which seems to appease her, and she accepts the money, although she is still regarding me apprehensively. I take the water jug from the boy, and push my empty cart into his mother’s hands. And then I head back to my car, feeling legitimately like a nice person, with more to fill me than just groceries.
- This Is Water by David Foster Wallace (allisonchan.wordpress.com)