July 4, 2008

Price Check on Moral Compass, Aisle 8

We have this fancy supermarket near us that opened the year we moved. The owners/investors went all out to make it a total lifestyle shopping experience appealing to the 1st World Envy harbored in the hearts of the upper echelons of JF society. It has sloping glass architecture on the façade, a wine cellar, elegant bakery and butcher, and a fancy little café in the front where they hold tastings and cooking demonstrations. The café even has – get this – a grand piano. Although I’ve never seen it played. I like to tease C that his next big show will be in the grocery store.

But actually it’s not even called a “Supermercado.” It’s an “Emporio.”

I frequent it mostly because it’s on my walk home from the city center, although I still prefer the feira livres and our organic delivery service for anything other than the staples.

Lately I’ve had some rather odd experiences in this uppity little air-conditioned shopping anomaly. Stopping in for milk and bread the other night and overlooking some garlic bulbs I saw a butcher dressed all in white, down to his white galoshes and full-length vinyl apron, walk over to the bulk food and reach his bare hand into the walnuts and walk away eating a handful. Now a couple things here.

First … Ewwwwww!

Okay, I know for a fact that the butchers by law wear surgical style gloves when handling the meat and I’ve even watched them in this very store abide by this, wrestling with an ox-tail for my mother-in-laws famous stew. But still…. He works with raw meat! I’m definitely never buying bulk again. I’m still having nightmares about a creeping pestilence of salmonella and ecoli weaving its furry tendrils through the walnut bin!

Second … He was stealing! And picked the most expensive nut in the country to filch. For some reason walnuts are just absurdly priced. R$28 a kilo (That’s nearly $9 dollars a pound by today’s (horrid, depressing) dollar exchange.)

Third… He saw me watching. Our eyes met. Mine, round in surprise and his in a narrowed, menacing “don’t you say anything whitey” glare. (But on second thought it might have been a “you are in no position to judge me, you blue-eyed, Emporio shopping, full-cart pushing girlie.”)

When I was able to pick my chin up off the garlic stand and find C, I told him what happened. We debated our way through all of the above points as we waited in the checkout line. Should we say something, should we not? The guy would probably loose his job. He might go to jail. But it’s unsanitary. A public health risk. But he saw me catching him in the act so maybe he’s scared now and won’t do it again. We decided that we would ask the checkout clerk if the manager were easy to find. If he was we would say something, if he wasn’t, then forget it. Leave it up to the fates sort of… Well, the manager was in the schmancy café overseeing a wine and cheese tasting. We were in our gym clothes, sweaty and disheveled and just couldn’t bring ourselves to shuffle in amongst his well-heeled guests and embarrass him with our tattle tailing. So we left without saying anything. A little relieved.

Then two nights ago we were in the same Emporio at the same stupidly crowded after-work hour in our same smelly, sweaty gym clothes. In the milk and butter aisle I noticed a guy shopping alone, pushing a full cart, waiting in the line for the bakery. There was something about him that caught my eye. I thought maybe I knew him, or maybe he looked like someone I knew. He was short and small framed, and lost in his oversized gray hooded sweatshirt and baggy, khaki pants rolled at the cuffs. He looked worried. I felt a sort of sympathy for him and imagined he was a busy, overworked, tired family man and here he was in the evening rush hour, doing the shopping, pitching in on the woman’s work, taking care of his loved ones.

Later, fighting my way upstream like a spawning salmon through the gazillion carts and shoppers, I saw him again. We were in the last aisle by the rice and pastas and he pushed his cart between a large structural pillar and a wall of dried beans. I was right behind him checking lentil prices when I saw him look around quick and shove something down his pants. He had his back to me so I couldn’t see what it was, but for some reason I imagined it was a large cut of cellophane wrapped beef.

Now my first thought was, I should get the manager. I should say something. If I go quick they’ll catch him at the door. This was immediately followed by no, why would I do that, it has nothing to do with you. He’ll go to jail.

I made my way up to the checkout where C was waiting and right next to us in the line was the shoplifter’s abandoned cart. I told C what I had seen and pointed out the cart. He said, “you know that’s funny, I noticed him too in the bakery line and though that something seemed wrong, or out of place.” We then spent the next 10 minutes in line, marveling at the lengths he went to in covering up his theft.

The cart was full. Carefully chosen, plastic bags of green beans and carrots, potatoes and onions. Coffee, bread, cereal, rice, infant formula, lunchmeats. All I could think about was what must have been going through his mind as he placed all of this food in the cart. Watching everyone else do the same, but knowing that he couldn’t afford to buy his. Did he fantasized as he put the cans of tuna and spaghetti sauce in the cart that he would arrive home laden with the weight of this bounty. When he squeezed each orange and looked over each apple for bruises did he feel for a moment like he was one of “us,” on our way home from our white-collar jobs or expensive gyms with money in our pockets, taking our groceries back to our neatly organized homes and lives.

Stealing is no joke in Brazil. He took a big risk. If he had been caught it certainly would have meant jail time. I hope he made it home. I hope he showed up with a big piece of tenderloin and his wife and kids cried in happiness and stuffed their bellies.

When you live surrounded by poverty your ideas of right and wrong are modified, and the rules governing your role as an upright citizen have to be reviewed. I’m becoming more and more adjusted to these mental checks and balances living as a privileged person in a developing country but sometimes I still feel like there are two me’s. The American born and bred that leaps up and says “oh no! can’t let that happen!” And the revisionist me, the Brazilian me. The one rethinking the whys and consequences. This isn’t just some idealized theoretical liberalism, but a very immediate, in your face reality check.

I just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. He’s always been one of my favorite authors. I've read everything he's ever written. I love him even more now. It’s a very simply story. A father and son walking down a road, trying to get through each day in an obliterated world. It isn’t about the actual apocalyptic event that propels the story or about the characters. It’s just about survival. What acts are committed in the name of survival. When all bets are off, when you don’t know if your next breath will be your last, what kind of person will you be. Do you become a bad guy or a good guy. What is it in us that holds a moral compass in the constantly shifting boundaries between life and death.

We don’t live (as of yet, although I fear it may one day come to it) under the starkness of such circumstances. But we do give weight to our small daily, self-centered decisions as if the stakes really were that high. For most of us, the lucky ones, the chosen ones, the Emporio shoppers, it isn’t about a real life and death struggle, about survival in its true sense. It’s more about psychological survival, the ascendancy and dominance of our egos. It certainly was my ego that wanted to run off and tell. Me! I can’t let this go. Must act! Must be involved!

Would the shoplifter’s family have starved without his theft? Maybe for one night, but maybe things would get better. They certainly wouldn’t be better off with him in jail. Would the butcher’s life be destroyed if he lost his job. Maybe. He might have a hard time getting employment again. He might turn to drugs or stealing. In this tenuous world, I am reminded that I don't want to be the one deciding or even influencing their fate. What they did might have been technically wrong. But wrong isn’t always black and white. And if the model citizen me had jumped out and scrambled off to get the manager, I can’t say that I would have been more hero than villain. Could it be that the most responsible acts of civic duty, our most ethically sound and morally virtuous decisions are sometimes found in looking the other way?

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