Essay: “Chasing Dreams in Aisle 6”

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Last year, I was asked to contribute a “blog piece” for an anthology. Not really knowing what this request entailed, I instead offered an original personal essay on how the Cala Foods supermarket on Haight & Stanyan Streets served to combat insomnia. I also contributed a second piece, which stands more of a chance of making it in, given its brevity. But I have no idea which (if any) of the two pieces will appear in the anthology. But in the case of the first piece, because the editor had asked for something that had been previously published and because the Cala Foods supermarket in question, as the SFist has recently mourned , is closing (and more importantly, I am ethically in the clear, by dint of the “previously published” proviso), I thought I would offer the essay here for readers to understand how fantastic the store was. And yes, everything described here really happened. Incidentally, I ran into one of the elder clerks, a man who went to high school during the Eisenhower administration, on Sunday. Even on the streets, he still called me “sir,” recognizing me as a regular. And he assured me, after I had offered several concerned entreaties, that he had found work at another store. But I’m still feeling somewhat sad about this Haight Street pastime closing. The essay speaks for itself.]

Thursday. 3:12 AM. Cala Foods Supermarket.

I’m in Aisle 6 with a half-full shopping cart, watching a twentysomething couple pelt each other with twelve-packs of Charmin. The couple has fallen into a pleasant and infectious hysteria and they’ve made a fantastic mess of the aisle. I’m starting to giggle along with them. Packages of paper towels, napkins and toilet paper are littered across the lino. It’s a hell of a restocking job and I don’t envy the clerk who’ll have to clean up this mess in the morning.

The two have been going at each other for a while. At least fifteen minutes. The young woman appears to be winning the war, beating the young man over the head with a ferocity that reminds me of Mike Tyson taking out Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. But the young man has struck back from a crouched position, getting in a few blows to the side with a roll of Brawny.

Just as the young man is on the verge of a comeback, the two notice me. They stop and, like honorable soldiers pausing to parley, gently place their respective paper products onto the tile.

“Don’t mind me,” I say. “Carry on. As you were.”

Seconds later, they’re at it again. The young woman lets loose a war cry and delivers an admirable blow to the young man’s crotch with the improbably pugilistic Quilted Northern. The young man stops in his tracks with a moan, his arms forming a telltale vee to cover his sensitive spot. For a moment, I’m not certain if it’s genuine pain or mock surprise. But within a minute, he is unfazed and it’s clear that there will be no meeting in Yalta or Versailles.

I take my leave of these brave warriors and proceed to the checkout line. A disheveled clerk and a security guard stare up at a black-and-white surveillance monitor bolted to the wall, rapt by this surreal imagery. If anything, the fight looks even more ridiculous with time code.

“How long should we give ‘em?” asks the security guard.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe five minutes.”

The clerk scans my groceries. The beeps put me into a mild trance. I stare into the red laser of the scanner and I think I see God.

I look up at the hazy monitor and see the couple now throwing packages of napkins at each other. I’m a bit curious why these two haven’t yet tested the parabolic possibilities of Kleenex. The security guard, who has been studying the items I’m purchasing for potential clues to why I might be shopping at this hour, catches the monochromatic blur of a Scott 400-napkin pack now being employed as a projectile. This is the straw, so to speak, that turns him into a one-man United Nations.

“Hey, man,” says the security guard, “we gotta stop this.”

The clerk, spurned by the guard’s return to duty, grips the PA receiver by his register and addresses the store.

Put the napkins down and please conclude your purchase. Thank you for shopping Cala.

The couple look up, as if expecting an angel to descend from the flickering fluorescents. The young man catches on quick that the seraphs aren’t coming anytime soon, locks his left arm around the young woman’s neck, arches her over and surprises her with a kiss. I wonder for a moment if I’m dreaming, but it’s as true as taxes. It’s the spitting image of that famous VJ Day photograph where the sailor is kissing the nurse.

I pay for my groceries, head home, put everything away, collapse onto my extremely comfy futon and fall fast asleep – the best zees I’ve had in months.

* * *

One might ask why grocery shopping at three in the morning could offer a cure-all elixir for a problem that, according to the National Sleep Foundation, affects approximately 54% of the United States population. I contend that it’s because any supermarket daring enough to stay open 24 hours is going to attract some pretty interesting people. But there is something uncannily specific about Cala’s environment that permits all reason to surrender.

My insomnia started one evening in my late teens. I fell victim to a resounding alertness. In the dead of night, great bursts of ichor began flooding through my veins at inconvenient moments, cutting into my sleep time like a machete.

At first, the insomnia was a pleasant fringe benefit. I was then, as I am now, an inveterate procrastinator and any tool, particularly an innate one, helping me burn the midnight oil was very much appreciated. The downside of my insomnia was that I found myself inordinately tired, sometimes unable to focus on chalkboards and zoning out while listening to people. Some friends opined that I was suffering from ADD. They changed their minds when they saw that I was frighteningly chipper at 4:30 AM, ready to shoot the breeze as they were quite ready to drop from exhaustion.

I had heard rumors from trusted peers that it was possible to sleep six or even eight hours a night, that indeed such a nightly tally along these lines was normal. But despite my best efforts, I found myself sleeping three or four hours, and sometimes none at all, even when I forewent caffeine. There were often weeks of insomnia, unabated by sheep counting, alcohol, bad music designed to lull me to dreamland or sleazy fantasies involving Paulette Goddard.

I had spent years of my life like this. It didn’t matter if someone was there in bed with me or not. It didn’t matter if I was happy or sad. I’d sleep soundly for a few months and then, without any apparent stress or anxiety, the insomnia soldiers would bust out their snares and tympanis, forming an impenetrable phalanx just as I was about to hit stage one. The time had come to figure out why Morpheus and I couldn’t broker a détente. Seeing a sleep doctor was out of the question. There was a stubborn pride I clung to, suggesting that I was the master of my wake, captain of my slumber.

But I did know exactly what got me out of bed in the morning. It was information. As Orwellian as it may sound, interesting data, conveyed to me in a soothing voice, had an uncanny way of perking my ears up. And NPR, with its jovial approach to reporting tragedies, provided the true timbre my body needed to boogie out of bed.

The trick was to come up with a scheme that worked off of this concept in reverse. Perhaps if I presented myself with banal data, juxtaposing everyday actions against my rampant curiosity, I could wear myself down.

I knew that I wasn’t alone. The advantage of living in an urban environment like San Francisco is that there’s always somebody else who’s just as awake as you are. Others might be creeped out by some random dude shouting “Heyyyy, motherfucker!” at three in the morning. But I found these slurred cries from the street very comforting. These voices were soulmates of sorts, simply because they were just as awake as I was. If I couldn’t sleep and I heard people outside, I’d often get dressed and have conversations with inebriated twentysomethings. If they were too drunk to drive, I’d call them a cab. After all, the least one can do when suffering from insomnia is to give into Samaritan impulses.

It soon became apparent that these late-night peregrinations had some positive influence on my ability to sleep. Perhaps it was the bizarre transition of shifting from solitude to strangers in the early morning twilight. Perhaps it was the fact that nothing in the real world is as planned as we’d like to think it is and these random conversations appealed to my extemporaneous nature. Only one thing was certain: A sudden shift in locale or some unexpected socialization sure helped me sleep a little easier.

But I was after the all-encompassing cure. It was impossible to predict who might find their way close to my residence. So the trick was to go someplace where I would be sure to find strangers at an ungodly hour.

One might conclude that living in California would be prohibitive to such a goal, given that the bars shut down at 2 AM and other establishments, save diner dives and all-night gyms, quickly follow suit. But I was fortunate enough to be within walking distance of a 24-hour supermarket. And not just any 24-hour supermarket, but one that had survived the great chain wars of the 1960s.

The Cala Foods supermarket is the most colorless building at the end of Haight Street, which is somehow fitting in light of the area’s history. Before this boxy building was built, so the local legend goes, there existed a barn with horses. But sometime in the early 1960s, the barn caught fire and the resulting stench permeated through the neighborhood.

In the late 1960s, a supermarket chain named Littleman, now defunct, was facing stiff competition from Safeway. But that didn’t stop Littleman from building one last store at 690 Stanyan Street. Unfortunately, Littleman was no match for aggressive expansion and, in 1970, Cala bought out the remaining Littleman stores.

The store’s depth extends a half block between Stanyan and Shrader Streets. It is a pocked edifice resembling a WPA project, streaked with endless coats of cheap white paint and telltale urine stains, and bookended by two stone facades. Near the base of the roof are windows that have been painted over, suggesting a sunny motif that Littleman once provided for the store’s customers — no longer viable after the Haight-Ashbury crime wave in the late 1980s.

A mercury vapor light, intended to limn the bus stop at the southwest end of the store, casts a sallow glow upon the store’s southwestern corner, a natural congregation point for riffraff and occasional pamphleteers.

By nearly every architectural standard, this is a drab building. And it certainly isn’t a place for the Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s connoisseurs.

Yet there is an undeniable character to the place.

Since the store is modest in size when stacked against its more gargantuan counterparts in the burbs, one never feels overwhelmed. The store has only nine aisles. It is therefore quite easy to pinpoint one’s bearings. Aisle three is where I go to first. It’s the zero point and, not coincidentally, the frozen foods aisle. At the end of aisle three is a helpful clock ensnared within a yellow elliptical border, with dark green dots for markers and red hands that suggest a chronometer that doesn’t discriminate, a measuring device that, I suppose, might be counted on as a friend. I have never once seen it inaccurate.

Over the Cala speaker system, you’ll hear songs that most AM radio stations have left in the dust heap, perhaps because the store intrinsically understands that its shoppers require an unusual perspective. The tunes, which include Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself,” various tracks from that unfortunate period in Elton John’s career between 1976 and 1982, and Harry Chapin’s “The Shortest Story” (it seems to me a curious choice for a grocery store to play a song about an African baby who dies of malnutrition). And what is amazing is that these gloomy songs are interrupted by cheery prerecorded announcements. One recent announcement helpfully pointed out that it happens to be National Bread Month and that customers might wish to take advantage of some of the loaves on sale.

Unsurprisingly, this atmosphere has resulted in some strange reactions from the customers. Customers actually address the items they may or may not purchase. “I don’t want that!” screamed a woman at several cans of Hormel Chili. It is not uncommon to see people stare at shelves of products for minutes at a time. I asked one man what he hoped to obtain by this and he placed a finger to his lips and begged me to be quiet. Perhaps he knew something I didn’t.

Beyond this are the more extraordinary cases, which seem to occur on nearly every late-night visit. In the past month alone, I have witnessed a nineteen year old kid juggling three pints of Ben & Jerry’s, a fortysomething man purchase twelve Swanson TV dinners and nothing else (perhaps in homage to Steve McQueen), a man who sashayed in line and insisted that all other customers in the store join him in a line dance and, of course, the aforementioned paper product gladiators. These aberrations are allowed to play out without interference from the staff, probably because, this being San Francisco, they’ve pretty much seen it all.

Cala Foods has succeeded in creating a microcosm of rich ironies and baffling contradictions for anyone who would dare to enter its doors. It is a perplexing milieu that bombards the senses and, in some cases, challenges the boundaries of normal behavior.

The question here is whether an insomniac subjected to this unusual environment might find herself driven to sleep, simply because the environment’s exotic nature might run counter to the relative normalcy of the insomniac’s regular sleeping environment. Certainly my empirical evidence suggests that Cala provokes at least some of its customers to act in an extremely odd manner. I will let the appropriate experts sort out the question of whether these behavioral conditions are preexisting or the Cala environment works in some way to encourage this behavior.

Now I’m no neurologist. But I’d like to think my homeopathic remedy is a case of teaching the brain a few new tricks and throwing it for a loop. If the brain is neuroplastic, if it is resilient enough to develop what neurologist Charles Duffy has identified as the medial superior temporal area (the MST), a kind of biological global positioning system that tells the brain precisely where it is and how it got there, then I would hope that it would be flexible enough to understand that confusion is often a virtue.

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