I went with my friend the other day to Costco, stepped into the air-conditioned warehouse and immediately sighed with relief. Everything was so familiar: the plethora of bulk goods, the queues of old people lining up for samples, the lack of odors and the extra-wide aisles. It had been months since I had been in a Costco, since I had given up my membership when we moved across the country. But even though I was in a new year and in a new state, everything about this place was the same. It didn’t change, and this filled me with such a sense of security and nostalgia that I could have almost cried. I wandered around the aisles with my friend, idly checking prices and snapping up each free sample of a frozen pizza bagel or Habanero pepper jelly on artisanal crackers. I looked at the table full of best-seller books, the racks of sensible summer jackets and one-piece bathing suits, the patio furniture and fresh Alaskan crab. I had no need to buy any of it, of course, but it was a pleasure just to look. In Portland, I received a membership through my dad, but hardly ever used it. Bulk goods are wasted on the young, apparently, although I was addicted to the $1.50 polish dogs.
My friend made her few purchases, and we drove the 15 miles back to our apartment complex. It was only later that a thought started to nag at me. Why was wandering around Costco so pleasurable for me? What sort of nostalgia did it create? Why did it feel so restful, like a respite from my rather intense, wonderful life? It felt like a world to itself in there, the cool gray cement absorbing the anxieties of the day as the pleasant middle class bought enough to feed their own small armies for the month. There was a pervading sense of life being on the up and up, like there would always be room for impulse buys like craft beers, prefabricated tree houses, and hummus party platters.
None of this is inherently wrong, of course. But for me, it is increasingly becoming not the norm. At the grocery store within walking distance from my apartment, I routinely have panic attacks. Fights are a commonplace occurrence. Long lines are a given. Somebody is always out of food stamps, has to decide right then and there whether to take home the chips or the apples, then counts out their pennies to the cashier painstakingly slow. It is chaotic, it is necessary, it is not very fun.
And so, for a brief moment, I longingly thought of signing up for a membership at Costco. Even though it was far, even though I drive a car perhaps twice a week, even as I knew there was very little I was tempted to purchase there--I still wanted in. The cheap part of me struggled, however--the prices were reasonable, but not seemingly good enough to warrant why I should have to pay money to shop there. And then I realized: that is the whole point. Memberships exclude. That is why they were created--to give special privileges to only a few. Costco is an inherently exclusionary place, but I had never been able to see it before. Costco was created for people with disposable incomes, with cars, with the ability to cart and store large amounts of product. In my neighborhood, this is not the reality for most.
I am sobered by how much I am drawn to these warehouses of surplus and order, of the American dream being sold for a song. But the costs of exclusionary living, no matter how mundane they might appear, are very high. The danger of upward mobility is always about who is excluded, and how cleverly we disguise the inequalities our systems of commerce create. It is designed to justify me only wanting to be around people who shop like me, look like me, eat like me, and live like me. They have created a box around me, and I don't want to leave.
I am learning to ask myself different questions. To consider why I feel comfortable in some places, and not so much in others. To choose to ask myself: are my choices good for my neighbors? Does everyone have the same level of access that I do? Does this help my community in any real way? If the answers are a resounding no, then I am learning to be creative and look for other options. But the truth is that this doesn't come naturally.
The world is hard, outside of the store. Sometimes, I just want to stay inside forever.
I am going to be writing about downward mobility for a good long while on this blog. I am interested in stories of trailer parks, lonely hearts, obedient teenagers and quiet lives. Click here for the introductory post, and then think about submitting your own story.