Bruce Bentzman's Suburban Soliloquy # 20


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 modern life.

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 undone.

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.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the twentieth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.