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Lost in the Supermarket

Last week I went on a premature trip back home. Or, rather, back East, to Rochester, New York. It was for a sad reason, a funeral, but it was a great trip.

Since landing in Nome on August 22nd, my only trip out of the Bering Strait Region was a day-long jaunt to Kotzebue earlier in May. A lower-48 analog might be spending the better part of a year in Minnesota, leaving only to explore Madison, WI by foot for a few hours.

So walking around the glitter and gleam of restaurants and bauble shops in the Anchorage airport felt akin to Benjamin’s Parisian arcades: a swirling fugue of commerce and color. It was the first I’d been in a bookstore in nine months, to say nothing of the Chili’s™.

After red-eying from Seattle to Chicago I couldn’t tell if I was agape from lacking sleep or because I’d been dropped into an aquarium full of rare and fashionable fish. There were different-looking humans all around. It was a frenzy of cosmopolitan delight. People in spiffy outfits (“How impractical,” I caught myself sneering), exposed tattoos, a feast of faces and hairstyles—it was just an abundance of variety brusquely walking past and towards and around and all about, everywhere.

Waiting for my ride at the airport in Rochester I stared at glossy magazine covers, repulsed and mesmerized by news of Kimye’s wedding, wondering if suddenly I’m older than the flesh-bearing starlets inspiring uninspiring entertainment headlines. When I finally stepped outside into the upper-60s air my skin woke up, bombarded by humid warmth that felt like a hug. I sat happily on a bench in the shadows, enjoying a temperate re-acclamation.

In two-point-five decades of family visits, Rochester has never made much of an impression on me. But this time it was like being in a foreign country where I’d learned the language and customs from a Lonely Planet guide aboard the plane. I even had a chauffer who knew exactly where to go (my dad).

After a shower, some joyfully loquacious catching up, and a salad fortified with pork-chop pieces, I was taken to the most mind-blowing place in the entirety of this familiar new country: the supermarket. The bounties of late-capitalism have typically struck me as excessive, but usually just at junky dollar stores and places stocked with poorly made things it’s hard to find a need for.

But at that particular East Avenue Wegman’s on May 21st, what knocked my SmartWool™ socks off was the boundless variety available. How many rows and rows of different salad dressings to choose from, how many pre-made sushi rolls to be selected, how many affordable produce to peruse for freshness.

“How did they get it all here? And where will it all go?” I murmured ponderously next to a rack of éclairs.

It took me several moments of intense consideration to decide on grapefruit flavored seltzer, among the infinitude of offerings—a measure of how wizened and impotent my faculty for consumer choice-making has become.

And I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing, or that the particular brain-zones dedicated to navigating the supermarket are the ones deserving cultivation. The (at it’s best) food-model in Nome of supplementing local fish and game—heavily—with groceries flown in by airplanes at exorbitant monetary and ecological cost is hardly a perfect antidote for supermarket excess. But at least there are less seltzer-related decisions to make.

Anyway, these were some of the fun, unexpected thoughts I had during my three days out of Alaska. There were moments of vexed, astounded banality, like re-realizing highway driving means staring at nothing for long, dangerous (“all those other cars”) stretches of time. Moments of exuberance playing with little-but-now-bigger cousins. Moments of mirth whenever my beloved, cherished, cherubic brother Attilio Samson opened his mouth. And sad but thankful funereal moments/hours.

Beloved, cherished, cherubic brother Attilio Samson.

Beloved, cherished, cherubic brother Attilio Samson.

And, at the end of it all, I landed back in Nome on Memorial Day weekend, delighted and furious to discover it was lightly snowing.