When SNAKESKIN's editor e-mailed me to say that the
August issue was to have "Modern Life" as
its special theme, I was taken aback. What,
after all, have I been writing about for the last
nineteen months, every month? I am not the indigenous
inhabitant of a rock hard village high up the
Peruvian Andes, nor am I the Chinese subsistence
farmer knee-deep in a floodplain. They are
strong, courageous, determined people who work hard
to survive and support their families and
villages. I am one of the undeserving whom
Chance has placed among modern conveniences.
Random fate has me living in a middle-class suburbia,
Levittown, Pennsylvania. This life has been the
subject of my essays. Mr Levitt, the builder of
these homes, saw to it that each house had a stove,
oven, refrigerator, clothes washer, dryer, and
dishwasher. Some of the better houses, like
mine, came with central air-conditioning and a small
electric motor embedded into the kitchen countertop
for blender and mixer attachments. I live the
So what than serves best to be the epitome of this
modern life? I was pondering this one afternoon
when I stopped, as usual, at the local
Genuardi's. As is the current fashion with
supermarkets, Genuardi's has several counters that
prepare precooked meals. These can either be taken
home and reheated, or consumed on the premises.
I regularly stop at Genuardi's to have my major meal
of the day, before continuing on to work. (To
avoid commuting during rush hour, and also to avoid
having to rise early from bed, I have managed to have
myself scheduled to the swing shift at AT&T, my
employer. I don't have to be at my desk until
four o'clock in the afternoon.)
The Genuardi's that I visit occupies the end of a
strip mall which rises in a façade of red bricks
along the edge of a lake-like parking lot, from which
sprout grassy islands mounted with lampposts.
The electric glass doors slide open as soon as they
detect me. On a recent visit, a sign at the door
greeted me with the news that Genuardi's has
fifty-four organically grown foodstuffs from which to
chose. I became the exploring naturalist.
I discovered and studied several of the more exotic
beauties, kiwi fruits from New Zealand and papaya
from Belize. That day I settled on sushi for my
meal. The sushi at Genuardi's is prepared by
two friendly gentlemen from Burma. They stand
behind a counter packing raw fish on to balls of
rice, then packaging them to go. It was while I
was eating my sushi at a table by the supermarket's
window that it occurred to me: this was the epitome
of modern life, squeezing in a meal at a supermarket
on my way to work.
Row after row of every imaginable food, in multiple
varieties and brands, give me more choices than was
ever available to even royalty until recently. I
could fill dozens of pages just listing all that is
available, from the comically hairy coconuts, to the
sad sight of lobsters tumbling over one another,
their claws banded shut. The modern suburbanite
has available a
cornucopia of food products from everywhere in the
world, and for every wallet. The strapped
shopper can buy their tin of pre-ground coffee.
Those with fancier urges can find Ghirardelli
Chocolate Raspberry whole bean coffee. And
those with money can procure genuine Jamaica Blue
Mountain at $44.43 a pound. There is yet within
the supermarket a Bucks County Coffee Stand where one
can sit and enjoy a cup of coffee, cappuccino, or a
café latte. There I recently sat, drinking a
Vienna roast while composing parts of this essay.
I will describe just the breads available at
Genuardi's. Man does not live by bread alone,
but bread alone in this modern life is no simple
decision. At Genuardi's the several dozen varieties
of bread, or alternative brands for the same kind of
bread, are stacked on seven shelves that run along a
fifty-two foot aisle. This doesn't include the
refrigerated breads, the frozen doughs, nor am I
considering that the supermarket sells all the
ingredients to make bread from scratch, will even
sell you a bread-making machine. All of this,
and Genuardi's has under the same roof their own
bakery. The bakery will supply me with fresh
raisin pecan bread, potato dill bread, kalamata olive
bread, asiago cheese bread, parmigiana pesto bread,
semolina, even French style baguettes.
Eating is the opposite of dying. Each species
seems to be awake only long enough to procure and
engulf the food it needs to survive. Except for
the time needed to build shelter or procreate, the
rest of a species's time is spent sleeping.
Sleeping seems to me to be nature's way of keeping us
out of trouble when we are no longer feeding.
The longer it takes to acquire enough food, the less
time that species spends sleeping. We humans
have raced ahead of nature. We have found ways
of procuring and engulfing food so effectively, we
have extraordinary amounts of spare time before we
need to sleep. It is creating and utilizing
this spare time which is the manifestation of modern
life. During that time we can elaborate our
shelters, our costumes, our recipes, our sexual
activities. Some of us just eat more. The
glory of this modern age is how well we middle-class
suburbanites eat, eating being foremost and
fundamentally what life is about.
Modern life gobbles up more than just food. The
other day, I drove around the back of Genuardi's for
no good reason except to see what the back of this
strip mall looked like. Typical of such places,
this is not the area the general public is expected
to see. There is no façade, no windows, only
painted cinderblock walls with steel doors.
Behind the shops run the thick power lines and
telephone wires, metal cabinets painted green, marked
high-voltage and padlocked, garbage dumpsters,
loading docks, and employees grabbing a quick
smoke. Beyond the countryside yet persisted,
but even as I watched, the countryside was being
At the far end of a field I witnessed a treetop being
violently shaken, like a pompom. The tree was
then lifted, and next it dropped out of sight.
It was every bit the scene from a monster movie, the
moment before the giant makes its appearance.
The giant pompom girl did appear. It was a
yellow crawler tractor and at the end of its boom a
huge claw. I was aghast. The great claw
clutched the trunk of a tree that took decades to
grow. What appeared to be a circular saw blade,
situated horizontally, severed the base of the tree
in seconds. The claw lifted the entire tree,
like a mere baton, and laid it down on a growing pile
of leafy timber.
A week later and I ventured once again behind the
strip mall to see how far the situation
developed. The land had been denuded.
Heavy vehicles had devoured all the trees. The
beastly creatures were still at work, all of them
yellow, endeavouring to level the ground.
Caterpillar back-hoe, scraper, and bulldozer, a
Komatsu hydraulic shovel, and a Volvo dump truck,
moving and shifting with the untiring energy of
ants. They crawled about stiffly, but quickly,
their hydraulic booms stretching and folding like the
exoskeletal limbs of insects. You could not see
the operators, dwarfed by their equipment and hidden
in cabs with tinted glass, the neural centers for
these ravenous brutes. This is the real
price of our success as a species, we grow unchecked,
consuming the natural landscape like locusts.
Being architectural cannibals, we even consume our
past, as represented by historical buildings, to
build newer ones. I watched from the car, while
eating my sandwich and listening to a CD.