“Reader, isn’t buying or fantasy-buying an important part of your and my emotional life?”
This is not my question, it’s Randall Jarrell’s, posed in his essay “A Sad Heart At the Supermarket.” Written in l962, on the cusp of the counter-cultural revolution, Jarrell’s question was both relevant, in terms of the glossy ads in Life and Look, and it was controversial and challenging. But it reads today as a bit irrelevant (current glossy ads notwithstanding), as well as simplistic and self-evident. While buying has not decreased in popularity, its character in the Good Guys-Bad Guys spectrum is more complex (Jarrell’s question was an indictment). Buying has gone through several phases and has come out conflicted. Buying is getting your furniture at yard sales and clothing yourself at the Goodwill. And it’s identifying with Jerry Seinfeld posing with a smirk for a credit card ad with all his “stuff” (tennis rackets, cereal boxes). And it’s building an 8,000-square-foot home for a family of four, the yard accessorized with $800 bird baths from Smith and Hawken. A typical American consumer, nowadays, might embody aspects of all the above.
I like to shop at Target. I like the anonymity, even though about everyone I know goes there. If we see each other in the aisles we have the briefest of exchanges, if any at all. We are there to cruise the stuff, to go on auto-pilot, to only half inhabit ourselves.
“Things are in the saddle,” Jarrell quotes from Emerson in his essay, “and ride mankind.” Not at Target. The things are on the shelf, and I’m here, wheeling my cart around half-focused; the things and I don’t have a whole lot to do with each other. Prices are comparatively low at places like this and the stock is large. Wheel around long enough and you stop coveting. That’s step one. Keep pushing that cart and, as likely as not, you’ll go home with nothing. Is your heart sad? Not quite. You’ve just taken a break from yourself, that’s all—your heart was put on hold.
I don’t know what this means for the future of mankind. All I know is that buying has become complicated. The ethical question, these days, is not so much where you buy, or even what you buy, but, rather, where what you buy is made and by whom and what your consumption means for the maker. Or maybe where you buy does matter—witness the predictions that (how many?) local businesses will fold at the opening of the Home Depot.
By the way, wasn’t there some controversy at the advent of the People’s Market (the ostensible subject of this piece) concerning its proximity to the Farmer’s Market? The People’s Market deals in objects, things to have and use—handmade things, made by local craftspeople. The Farmer’s Market deals in comestibles, baked or grown, again by locals. Except for some dried flower arrangements, these things are intended to be eaten. So they will not be around long. They are not to be possessed, they are to provide sustenance.
Sustenance or frippery—was that the debate? (The People’s Market includes the kinds of nonessential items you see at most art fairs—woven wallets, little wooden hand mirrors, feather earrings.) But doesn’t our purchase of this “frippery,” if that’s what it is, provide the vendor with sustenance?
I remember the things I’ve purchased at art fairs and people’s markets more than the things I’ve bought at Target. In college, I bought a silver and turquoise ring that was emblematic of many things in my life at the time. Someone stole it when I left it in the soap dish in the shower in the dorm. I still think about it.
I covet things at art fairs and people’s markets more than things at Target. When I buy things at Target, I just sort of snack, whereas at art fairs and people’s markets I really consume. Never shall I and this ring (or this foot warmer or this multi-colored candle or this little inlaid box) meet again. That’s how you feel. So you write the check.
As you can see, I haven’t sorted out consumption. Jarrell quotes “the poet” (Shakespeare?) as saying, “Man wants but little here below/Nor wants that little long.” “What a lie!” Jarrell says. “Man wants almost unlimited quantities of almost everything, and he wants it till the day he dies.”
I would agree with that, mostly. I’m not sure about the “unlimited” part. (Costco membership poses a problem—where to put all those dozens of stuff?) But I understand the “want.” I also understand the part about “till the day he dies.” It inspires one toward the lyrics of the famed and short-lived Janis Joplin. As you navigate through the aisles of Target or past the tables at the People’s Market, scanning the wares with your peripheral vision, feigning indifference, deep within your heart aren’t you singing? I am, sort of. (“Sort of singing”—that’s the contemporary version of the jubilations of Emerson and Whitman.) With Janis, I’m singing—“Get it while you can!”
The People’s Market and The Farmer’s Market both begin in downtown Missoula this Saturday, May 13. You’ll find the People’s Market on Pine Street between Higgins and Pattee from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Farmer’s Market takes place from 9 a.m. to noon on Alder and Railroad streets.