Push It

© 2010 David Parker

I have this habit of taking a very simple task and turning it into a difficult one. Grocery shopping is one such task that ought to be easy: make a list, get what you need, pay, leave. The break down for me occurs when I have to make a decision about whether to grab a basket or a buggy. Whenever I get a basket, it’s always too big for me to carry because I get more than I need (like, oooh! I forgot I need a case of bottled water!). Whenever I get a buggy (as I did today), I wind up not getting as much and I tend to choose the buggy on days when the grocery store is its fullest. I never really noticed this habit of mine until David and I went to the store today and I grabbed a buggy (fool!).

We stopped in at the new Publix (the biggest thing that’s happened in this town this year). Their carts are really niiiiiiiiiiice (say it in your head with a long Southern drawl)–they glide rather than roll, they have a map of where stuff is in the store on the handle bar, and they don’t stick out too far. Anyways, we were maybe ten feet into the store (David pushing the cart), and he made some quip about how terribly domestic he felt. This occurred at the exact moment that the samples-woman yelled, “Sausage! It’s not just for breakfast anymore!” I’ve never paid much attention to it, but, because I had become so aware of David’s discomforts pushing the cart, I began to notice that there weren’t any men in the store pushing carts (with the exception of one elderly man who pushed for his also-elderly lady). Then, of course, we ended up with only three bags of groceries which could have been much more easily procured with two baskets.

I think the story of what-men-do and what-women-do has gotten rather tired, but it still strikes me as interesting when I see those narratives, predictable as they are, played out in front of me. This happens quite frequently as I reside in Alabama. It is even more interesting when these narratives are played out by me. These narratives are so much a piece of the fabric of our everyday lives that most of them go unnoticed by me (who is someone who notices a lot–especially when it comes to narratives and culture and self). Whenever one pops out at me in broad daylight, it’s startling. This sexed grocery-shopping experience startled me a bit in the moment, but was generally laughable.

Until I came home and learned something about the grocery cart’s story. Apparently, when the grocery cart was first invented, no one wanted to use them. Fashionable girls didn’t want to push them because, well, they were unfashionable. Men didn’t want to push them because it made them feel weak (and probably because, in the 1930’s, how many men were grocery shopping?). So Goldman (the guy who invented them) hired models of all ages and sexes to push them around the store pretending to shop. Once people began to use them, of course, they became indispensable and stores were redesigned to accommodate them, and, eventually, people would become so used to them that the idea that a grocery store could exist without the shopping cart would be absolutely unimaginable. The only thing more unimaginable than the nonexistence of grocery carts is perhaps the fact that people had to be taught how to use them. Because now we learn to grocery shop the way we learn how to be boys and girls, the way we learn to walk, the way we learn to speak: by watching everyone we know around us engaging in those behaviors. We especially watch models (like our parents and the cool kids in school).

Every year, I draw a picture of a goldfish on the board and I tell the class: The one thing that defines the fish is the thing that the fish is most unaware of. The answer is water. We don’t see the narratives, the beliefs, the cultural values that our lives are stitched by and for and with. And because we don’t see them, we don’t question them. The only thing that draws a fish’s attention to the water is the absence of it. Throw a fish out of water and it’s all Put me back in that other stuff! We’re the same way. We’re all swimming around in cultural narratives–we’re learning from and teaching countless cultural narratives as we make our way through the world. What’s crazy is that everybody always thinks they’re so above it all–so above sexism and racism and every kind of ism–especially people from very progressive places (like, not-the-South). And every time I catch my paradigm shifting (as in, Woah–a world without shopping carts has existed) it’s mind-blowing really. Because we’re all subject to one paradigm or another (or, for those of you who are trying to escape the Western preference for binaries, another). Even you.