Low, low prices

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. 

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10 thoughts on “Low, low prices

  1. Y says:

    “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.”

    This is the challenge in downward mobility, to go out of our insulated comfort zones and face the realities of others with responsible compassion. Good for you for encouraging others in this effort by setting examples with your own actions and courageously sharing them with your words.

    Thank you.

  2. Amy says:

    This reminds me so much of the feeling I got when I lived in rural Vietnam and went shopping in the air-conditioned, brightly-lit western grocery store rather than at the open air market. It absolutely smacked of privilege to shop there, and I knew it — but it was also a respite from culture shock, just like locking my door and watching American dvds on my laptop was – a chance to escape the culture shock and go back to the world I was used to.

    • yes, totally. Totally! It is so weird to live where I live and sometimes forget that I DO live in a western society . . . I like it but it can be super disorienting. (PS, I hope you are planning on contributing something to this series . . .)

  3. erraffety says:

    I appreciate you reflecting so theologically and honestly on the truth that lies behind both comfort and uneasiness. Community has been the theme of this year for me, and so considering one’s choices in light of what types of communities they exclude or include is a powerful reflection. Thank you.

  4. Matt says:

    Hey DL. This is Matt, your old band mate from a small town in Oregon. I love your thoughts and vulnerability and introspective thoughts but I am perplexed at the simplification of the dilemma. I would love to actually talk (on the phone when you have a chance because this is such a poor way to understand another person) but it seems to me that the lack of hope for change for the people you live with and around it the cause of the tension you feel. You know me and my family. I make $1100 a month and feed a family of 4, twice I have been (and currently) forced to move in to a shared living arrangement because I lack the funds to provide my own housing, my Costco membership is given to me and I only have a couple of shelves to store our food. But I have hope that I can work hard and save and change my situation. That I can accomplish, live and give more then I have now is a source of earthly hope. My situation is a constant distraction to me; I must first feed and care for my family before I can help those around me.

    You added the concession that the things in Costco are not in an of themselves wrong. I really appreciated that because a membership to Costco that I pay for is a small but accomplishable goal on the way to changing the situation around me. How can I lend hope and help to the people and situations that surround me if I do not have hope that they will change for myself? I gain understanding by my current lot in life but give hope for change by moving through.

    Maybe I have missed the point of downward mobility. If it is more than understanding and appreciating joy with less then I would love to know how I can draw more out of this time in my life.
    Again I would love to talk because I can see as I reread my post it can be misread/ understood.
    I want my life to resonate and radiate with the hope I have both now and in life to come; to obtain the reward of hard work. All work here on earth is, according to Ecclesiastes, is vanity and yet it, and it’s rewards are given to us as a gift. As long as my earned accomplishments are not my source of hope or fulfillment then I look forward to the peace that my own place affords, be it an apartment or membership to a club. If I can obtain separation from subsistence existence without separation from those that share my lot and show a way to do the same I feel like I have given value, hope.

    • it would be good to chat! i am terrible at the phone, but i will be back in Portland for a couple of weeks in August and we should definitely get together.

      One quick thought I have is that Krispin and I are coming from a place where our hope for our neighbors stems in their spiritual liberation, which is not always tied up with economic situations. Our primary concern is for ALL of us to be free from oppression, enslavement, and addiction (which only comes from Jesus). Some elements of poverty do crush people in these ways, and we do have hope that people can be redeemed from that. But we don’t believe that having the ability to better one’s life (according to American standards) is our primary goal. Maybe because there is a difference between poverty and abject poverty, and most of our neighbors fit into the first category. This is tricky stuff to write about, as people of privilege who are approaching it from the place of even having the ability to “opt out” of things like a Costco membership, so bear with me here. But we believe the world simply cannot sustain the life of excess that most middle-class Americans live. It comes at too high a cost for our neighbors around the world.

      Perhaps if you go back and read the introductory post you can see that this isn’t just about poverty, either. It is about choosing to be a servant, which takes different forms for different people. I admire you and your family for the choices you make, and your dreams for the future.

      • Matt says:

        Would love to hang out when you are in PDX! Thank you also for the reminder to reread the post. Hope we get to see you!

  5. Erich says:

    D.L. – I am so thankful that I have stumbled upon your writings. You are able to illustrate through your life experiences what so many of us feel and often fail to articulate (or lack the outlet or venue perhaps to do so). What you’re saying matters in such a huge way. Your train of thought along with your concrete action in the neighborhood you’ve chosen to make your home in, will embolden so many to question the American Dreamism that we’ve grown up in and that we’ve so easily fused (somehow) with the Gospel.

    That nostalgia, safety, and insulation feel so good is something I so easily relate to. And tasting a bit of that from time-to-time is a pleasant respite… but now, with what we know, and with no day promised (along with the promise of eternity) – could there ever be a justifiable reason to pursue those creature comforts or do so as ends in themselves? as our destination? Everything in our culture tells us to but we must lovingly revolt, yes!

    Anyway, please keep writing and speaking and living out your calling. Blessings upon you and your family.

    Erich

  6. […] other day i almost bought a living social deal for a costco membership, until my husband gently reminded my of my scruples. this is the problem with public journaling blogging. people remind you of grand-sounding things […]

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