Schizophrenic Supermarkets: My Afternoon in the Milky Way

One of the joys of being self-employed is leaving work a little early so that chores can be run, including grocery shopping before the rush hour madness that sees clogged aisles and long waits in the checkout lines. I enjoy shopping in the stores and seldom if ever buy more than a few items at a time so that I can quickly move through the "express lanes" limiting customers to 15 or 20 items. Occasionally, these "fast lanes" prove anything but. Today was a good example, and incidents at two different supermarkets brought out the beast in me and even instilled a bit of political schizophrenia.

I shop at a family-owned chain called H.E.B., the initials of the founder, Howard E. Butt. (Yes, they're the butt of a lot of jokes, including one I heard from a friend in the store closest to me on Alameda Street, a guy who said that the son of the founder just had a baby and christened the lad Harry.) The first store I went to was in a poorer part of town, on Koztoryz Street (named after one of our many Czech immigrants). I picked up a small tub of yogurt-based butter substitute, a tub of whipped cream cheese (for my bagels and lox) and a couple of plumb tomatoes for dinner. At the express lane there were three or four people ahead of me and one of them, just checking out, had a shopping cart with several items as well as two babies, one standing up (just) and the other in a car carrier. I doubt there was a year's difference between the children, and I noted the mom was using a food stamp debit card.

There was some hassle involving a couple of cans of Similac. It seemed to be an overcharge and the customer and checker dickered about it for ten minutes. (There goes the "express.")  Then a supervisor was called over and the dickering went on another five minutes. Finally, the matter seemed settled and the checker was helping with another customer; but then the woman with the babies came back and made an inquiry about two cans of Similac. It seems that she had paid for them but they did not wind up in her basket. I went berserk, or almost, sliding my items across the conveyor belt and saying, "That's it. Outta here," and briskly exited the store. Then I drove to another H.E.B. about a mile away, one closer to my home. I had planned on going there anyway since the Koztoryz store did not have shaved, peppered salmon. No matter how often these stores tell you they have "one stop shopping," it is rarely the case.

Once inside store #2, I got two roma tomatoes and headed off to the dairy aisle. I did not get very far. A short woman who appeared to me to be abusing substances rushed up and said, "Can you give me five dollars to buy formula for my child?" I flashed on the Luis Bunuel movie, La Voie Lactee (The Milky Way), if only  because I made a connection between the customer in H.E.B. #1 and her Similar problems and the panhandler in H.E.B. #2 asking for baby formula money and the title of the film seemed to sum up my afternoon experience. (All good non-believers owe it to themselves to see the Bunuel picture, incidentally, which pokes fun at Christians and especially clerics.) It seemed to me that I had found myself lost in the Milky Way. Already p.o.'d by the checkout incident in H.E.B. #1, here I was accosted by a lunatic woman begging milk money in H.E.B. #2.

Now, I don't know about you, but I do not hand out money to panhandlers. Period. A mischievous friend once told me of an incident that illustrates our shared obdurate attitude toward begging. In this day and age, most beggars do not want money for the reasons they tell  you. On the street, I have been approached numerous times by fellows who claim their car is out of gas and they need a few dollars so they can get to this or that town an hour's drive away, "so I can visit my sick father/mother/aunt/cousin/whatever." The friend said he likes to call their bluff, at least when they claim they want money for food.  He says to them, "Oh, hey, my car is right over there. Let's go to a restaurant and I will buy you dinner."  Invariably, the panhandler backs off, saying, "Naw, that's OK, thanks anyway" or some such lame parting words, a dead giveaway that they want money for liquor or drugs.

As for the Similac woman in #1, I almost caught myself thinking maybe the conservatives have something after all. This woman is on welfare with a food card, yet she has two infants in her cart whose apparent ages suggest she is a baby factory, serially plopping down open mouths and feeding them at my expense. Then I remembered that the same assholes who want to wipe out the food stamp program simultaneously go to great lengths to make abortion more difficult (and in some cases impossible) to obtain. It is a common complaint on Facebook and Twitter that the Tea Potty types force women to have babies, then tell them they're on their own. I regained my least until I got to H.E.B. #2, then went a bit berserk again, rushing over to the customer counter to complain, "Are you aware there's a woman over by the vegetables begging for money?!" They said they would do something about it. It's bad enough when these people beg on the streets, but coming inside a retail business, now that takes real gall.


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Nice article. It shows the various types you can run into. LOL  When I lived in Texas, Brown was putting a lot of these super markets in, and my town got one. I see he's doing well because you have two H.E.B.'s pretty close together.

Thanks for the comment, but it is Butt, Howard E. Butt, the founder, the son and heir being H. E. Butt, Jr.  He decided to operate the stores, while his brother became a Baptist preacher.  In fact, the pater familias was a "hard shell" Baptist: no alcohol, no dancing, &c. When the son put wine and beer in the supermarkets, the elderly employees in management were heard to utter a huge sigh and complain, "the boss is rolling in his grave." Junior lives in Austin, our nutty equivalent to San Francisco, and is rumored to be gay. He is a brilliant entrepreneur who launched various house brands, such as Hill Country Fare, the reference being to a romantic part of Texas northwest of San Antonio and southwest of Austin, settled by the German immigrants, hence its unofficial capital, Frederickburg.  Junior also allowed lotto machines in the stores.  And there are not two here but eight or more (I quit counting). Trying to compete with Walmart Supercenters, they opened one of their one-stop superstores called H.E.B. Plus. HEB is one of the most successful tightly-held corporations in America.

Now, I left something important out of the story. Important because without it, a reader might think, what is this old fart carping about now. What a grouch!  He needs an enema or something. Nope. I meant to at least imply that the same people who want to force women to have babies they do not want and who will be a drag on our economic resources, &c., are the religious fundamentalists, the evangelicals, as are a majority of Tea Potty types, one must suppose, given their positions on many social issues. The woman in the first store buying SImilac with my tax dollars should be put in the same position as Chinese women: free college education for the one child if you stick to one only.  I don't know that I wouldn't go further and cut off food stamps and all other aid if they have more than one. I say that because the dropout rate, particularly among Hispanics here, is shockingly high. They tend not to go to college, so the threat of depriving them of the one free college education probably would not do a bit of good.  They tend to become minimum wage earners in car detailing and other "Manuel" labor situations.

And please don't call me racist. I am a realist. There's a difference. It's just that a bee was put in my bonnet while talking to a friend who works in the courthouse here. I had assumed he was a liberal but he said a disparaging word about welfare recipients, and had the Similac incident not happened, I would have gone on thinking he was an insensitive clod (but liking him despite that: Sir Frank Crisp, a former owner of George Harrison's lavish estate in the London subs, said it best: "Scan not a friend with microscopic glass./You know his faults, now let his foibles pass."  But I am beginning to think there just might be something to the conservative complaint that giving things to freeloaders encourages freeloading.

Thanks for the correction. I was thinking Howard E. Brown and was wrong. HEB just came into Tomball, Tx. area before I left there.

Not wishing to be confused with the all the mad hatters at the tea party, there is some merit to your statement that giving to freeloaders encourages freeloading. As a Court appointed defense attorney, I see this every day. Unlike Texas, here in southernmost Illinois, it's mostly the poor white trash driving in their rusted uninsured pickup trucks with a suspended license, blaring Travis Twitt on the radio, with a half filled bottle of soured baby formula and tin foil with meth residue on the seat, along with a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker.  Or, to put it more succinctly, my client base.

And, I too get frustrated at the thought of taking my tax dollars to pay me for representing people who don't help pay my salary. Every time I start to get pissed off about it, I keep thinking of the massive amount of  welfare the mad hatters are lining up to give to the mega-corporations, who in turn, want to screw everyone else.  Yes, I think Social Security Disability payments need to be re-examined for the many who are out and out bilking the system. I also think Wal-Mart, GE, and Exxon need to have boot put up their ass and get off the public dole.

As to express lanes in the grocery store and the best time to shop, I once made the sad mistake of going to the local grocery store on senior citizen double coupon day. Given the clientele in attendance, I spent the time dodging 'courtesy scooters' who would have gladly run over blind children to get to the Metamucil. It would have been safer getting my victuals at the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach.

As usual, Pat, brilliantly put.  I had not thought of that argument, but it applies as well to the hotly debated efforts to increase the minimum wage to as much as $10 -- I argue, $15.  If a person is trying to live at or near the poverty level, they are foregoing some purchases in order to survive; hopefully, they learn that there's a big difference between wants and needs.  If the MW were increased, they would have more money, which is NOT to say discretionary money: they would be forced to spend, not save. Spending inures to the benefit of all, as the proverbial rising tide and all boats. The corporations forced to pay employees more will reap the rewards of their largesse, if you can call it that. Everyone profits. I know the argument about higher employment taxes and passing the cost on to consumer, but I think all of us should be willing to pay a few cents more for our Quarter Pounder knowing that some of the price will be going to improve the lot of the employees.

At the express lane there were three or four people ahead of me and one of them, just checking out, had a shopping cart with several items as well as two babies, one standing up (just) and the other in a car carrier. I doubt there was a year's difference between the children, and I noted the mom was using a food stamp debit card.

You don't know anything really about her situation, though. 

Yes, I've heard there are organized groups that make a good deal of money panhandling.  They have people stationed here and there.  Also plenty of people who make their living by panhandling, and they tell the best story they can to get money. 

A lot of those people are also quite genuinely in harsh circumstances, or perhaps very messed up in some way. 

I got to know one street person a bit.  He would stand at a place on the sidewalk.  He wasn't panhandling, although he accepted money when people offered it to him.  I would stop by now and then on my bike and chat with him. 

He told me he had a place to sleep and food to eat. 

But he wore the same jeans literally for years.  I saw them slowly fall apart.  They were in OK shape when I started talking with him.  Then a year later they had developed holes in the knees.  This was in upstate NY where it can be 5F on a cold winter day. 

Slowly the cracks in the knees spread, until his pants below the knee were only held on by a little fabric at the back. 

I came across him one time when he was desperate, saying things like "oh, what can I do?"  But then a few weeks later he was back to "everything's OK". 

I wanted to help him.  I offered to take him someplace and buy new clothes for him.  But he said he was extremely picky about what he would wear; he couldn't go on a bus because buses made him feel sick.  He said he had a lot of allergies.  I bought him thermal underwear for Christmas once - but he didn't want them, even though he was out with his bare skin exposed to the winter cold.  So I returned the long-johns to the store. 

He said a lot of people had tried to help him, and it didn't work.  He said he didn't drink or take drugs, and he was always sober when he was on the street, so I believe it. 

Probably he could have gotten clothes the same way he got food, a place to live.  He did get medical care. 

Some of these people on the street are there because they have some kind of emotional problem, and it's not that there isn't help available - they are somehow too proud or too self-destructive to use the help.  This guy seemed to be slowly slipping away, as if it was OK to let go of everything. 

And, after awhile I didn't see him any more.  I don't know if he's dead or alive. 

These people are individuals, they are in poverty or in rags for their own particular reasons. 

"These people are individuals, they are in poverty or in rags for their own particular reasons."

Yes and no. The kind we tend to meet here seek money for reasons other than poverty, or else their poverty is a symptom of their habitual use of substances, mostly alcohol. There are others who are mentally challenged if not downright insane, and that is a problem with the system since it costs too much to house them in institutions for that purpose. If you work in the criminal justice system as I do, you regularly encounter street people who get into trouble because they go off their meds. Theirs is a revolving door. They commit a petty crime and are found incompetent and stay that way for a couple of months while the state hospital treats them with the very meds they quit taking when on the street. Then they are sent to prison until they serve their time, and when released the whole cycle starts again. I know Pat has experienced this.

However, I DO agree with you that I do not know the situation of the Similac woman. I only know she was holding up an express lane, and that is as much the fault of the supermarket if not more so, but then the retailer is only paying the checkout person minimum wage.  (They're lucky, since I am fairly sure HEB, unlike big box stores, or some of them, has health care for their workers.) For all I know, the SImilac woman is a single mom who struggles to feed her babies, who would go hungry without the food stamp card. She did not upset me half so much as the woman in store #2, who was just begging for herself so far as I could tell. Funny, I was in the same store today and while I was placing my items on the conveyor belt another woman came up and asked if I was a " look like a professor."  I started to tell her "My mother told me not to talk to strangers," but I just said, "No, I am not a professor."  She stood by watching others approach the lines. I am sorry, but I think these people are predators.




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