By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, November 28, 1942.
“I’ve got the week-end shopping to do,” announced Jimmie Frise. “Want to come along?”
“Wait till I phone,” I said, “and see if I can do our family shopping, too.”
And I phoned and got a list of a few things the house required together with due warnings not to go and buy up a lot of silly things we didn’t need.
“You’d think,” I said to Jim, “women would be glad of a change.”
“Aw,” smiled Jim, “the Saturday shopping trip is the most delightful fixture of the housewife’s life. The market place is one of the oldest of human institutions. And in the modern city, where the market place is spread along miles and miles of shopping streets, it is still perhaps the greatest human institution.”
“In days gone by,” I offered, “it was in the market place that public opinion was formed. Nowadays, to form public opinion, you have to organize service clubs, like Rotary and Kiwanis, the Board of Trade and other business organizations.”
“And the trade unions, don’t forget,” added Jim, “and the churches. In the olden days, when the market place was the centre of the community, all they did in church was worship God.”
“I have the idea,” I submitted, “that as the market place gave way to rows and rows of shops, and men stopped coming to market and let their wives do all the shopping, public opinion began to lose its power.”
“Nonsense,” scoffed Jim. “There was never so much public opinion as there is now.”
“Nor was it ever more confused and formless,” I retorted. “In the time of King Charles, the yokels in the market places had more opinion that mattered than we have within half a mile in all directions from King and Yonge streets. They had so much that the king lost his head.”
“Puh,” said Jim, “you can always dramatize history. It was just a gang of Nazis that executed King Charles. That was the only time Britain ever had a dictatorship.”
“They had market places in the days of the Roman Empire,” I recounted, “and in those market places, a little bunch of agitators called Christians told their story and took possession of the whole earth. They had market places all across the ages that followed and there resulted the slow and patient destruction, by an ever maturing public opinion, of tyrants and masters and cruel government. In the palaces, the rulers gave forth their edicts. But the palaces fell to dust and the market places stayed on. In the monasteries and colleges and churches, the thinkers spoke and wrote with the sublime power of logic and intelligence. But what they spoke and wrote seemed silly in 50 years, even to their own successors, and the market places stayed on and flourished. For in the market places, the mass of mankind met and talked, free of all party or sect, because in the market place, there is no room for party or sect.”
To Form Public Opinion
“But they could go home with their vegetables in their arms,” pointed out Jim, “but with their prejudices and convictions still in their minds.”
“No, sir,” I stated, “in the market place you go to buy or sell. And to buy well or sell well, you can’t take into account your own personal opinions nor those of the man you deal with. A service club or a lodge or a union or a church, you join it to signify the opinions you already hold. It is a place in which not to change your opinions. But in the market place, new, strange and often disturbing opinions are to be met with. You are exposed to the ever-present danger of the germ of a new idea in the market place.”
“You’re just one of those,” accused Jimmie, “who try to see something noble and spiritual in sordid business.”
“Far from it,” I responded. “It is the way in which sordid modern business has robbed us of the market place that disturbs me. For it is the way modern business has cut all men off from one another so that most business is done without men ever meeting one another and sharing each other’s minds that has got us all adrift in a vast sea of trouble.”
“The world has got too big,” said Jim, “for market places. The market place we are heading for now, down on Bloor St., is 15 miles long and 60 feet wide.”
“And in no half mile of it,” I declared, “is public opinion the same. Sometimes, Jim, I feel awfully suspicious of Nature in connection with this war. I wonder sometimes if it isn’t Nature that flings us headlong at each other’s throats every once in a while. Because we are too numerous. She is always trying to cut us down in numbers, so that we can get together more easily. In the rest of the animal kingdom, whenever rabbits or pigeons or anything else grow too numerous, a plague gets loose among them and they are practically wiped out – all except the strongest and toughest. As rabbits grow more susceptible to plague, the more numerous they are, so do men grow more susceptible to war, the more numerous they are. Because they can’t get together in market places and form their opinions. They have no opinions. Then along comes a small gang with a powerful opinion – like the plague germ in rabbits -and away we all go into a dreadful war.”
“There might be something in it,” said Jimmie, as we neared the corner and could see ahead the principal shopping district of our neighborhood. “And I can’t think of any cure for it, unless it was made the civic duty of all men to go shopping with their wives.”
“That is an important idea, Jim,” I exclaimed. “The civic duty of all men to go shopping with their wives. And while the wives are shopping around the shelves, the men could gather in little neighborly groups and chat together. ….”
“The way it is now,” said Jim, “the weekend is given over to men to golf or go fishing. The one period of the week when men might get together, as neighbors, and exchange a few ideas is given over to escaping from their neighbors, and to the companionship of those they have chosen to be with.”
“Yet there seems to be quite a lot of men, Jim,” I said, as we reached the corner and looked over the throng of Saturday afternoon shoppers milling along. “Why, there are hundreds of men out with their wives.”
“I should say, then,” pronounced Jim, “that these men we see are full of civic virtue. These are our better fellow citizens.”
Men Who Go Shopping
And despite the fact that a little rain had started to fall, cold November rain, we stood on the corner, watching the crowds of shoppers hurrying past, with our eyes especially on the men, to see what manner of men they were.
There were plenty of middle-aged men and not a few men in their 30s. And here and there some quite young house husbands. 30 and under.
“There is one thing about the men in this shopping scene,” said Jim, a little doubtfully, “they do look a little hen-pecked. Don’t you think?”
“Well, not hen-pecked, exactly,” I submitted. “They just look like guys who can’t think of anything better to do.”
“Now that one there,” muttered Jim, as a young, rosy faced man in spectacles and with light red hair, passed by with arms full of parcels, “looks as if he were fond of his stomach. I can understand him coming shopping.”
“And that cadaverous bird,” I pointed out. “He looks as if he wouldn’t trust his wife with the money. Maybe he just comes along to pay the bill.”
“And that one,” checked Jim, as a thin, neat little man trotted anxiously past in the wake of his large, commanding wife, “is obviously just brought along to carry the parcels.”.
“Our theory,” I submitted, “is not upset in the least by these examples. It is the men who don’t want to come shopping who should be obliged by law to come to market.”
And upon this reflection, and the rain starting to come down in earnest, Jimmie and I stepped into the stream of shoppers and hustled along to the big store where Jimmie prefers, if not to buy all his supplies, at least to look over the vast array of provender and get some ideas as to what to buy from the smaller merchants whom he has known for years and who give you the feeling of having bought something rather than having popped something out of a slot.
“I’ll get my tea here,” said Jimmie, putting Rusty on the leash and picking up a basket from the basket rack. “I’ve got the tea coupons, I hope.”
And to our astonishment, he had the tea coupons sure enough, and we went and got the one precious pound of tea for Jim’s numerous family. And then we started exploring, after tying Rusty up in the vestibule. One thing about these big modern groceries is that there seems to be no end to their expansion. The next thing they will be selling is phonograph records and 49 cent novels; and then the drug business will really have to step out.
I had a basket, and we moved happily along the high banks of merchandise, I getting a new shoe brush, a bottle of ginger marmalade and a new kind of light rope clothes line I had never seen before that would come in very handy next summer for putting new bow lines on the rowboat and canoes, up at the cottage.
Jim collected oranges, two cauliflower, ketchup, a small bag of flour, a carton of salt, a peck of potatoes and so forth; and then we came to the canned goods. We love the canned goods. Not only their immense array and variety but the human comedy that goes on in their presence. It is delightful to edge slowly along past the high cliffs of brightly clad cans, noting all the endless variety of the things that can be bought already cooked, from vegetables to filet mignons, from carrots to pig’s tails; fish, flesh, fruit, of every description. But one of the best things about the canned goods section is a lady buying a can of anything. Jimmie and I have spent hours observing the ladies. They stand wrapt before a huge pile of one sort of canned goods. There are 50 cans, all the same, all containing the same thing, all the same size, the same brand, all the same price. Nothing, not even a fly speck, distinguishes one can from the other.
The Wrong Basket
But it is more than a lady can stand. Not easily does a lady give in to the triumph of modern business.
There she stands, baffled and troubled. She stares intently at the trim stack of, let us say, canned tomatoes; all the same brand, same size, alike as modern scientific perfection can make them. She picks one off the top and examines it. Then she puts it back and takes down its neighbor. This she sets back, carefully, on the pile, and removing two other cans to one side, selects one perilously from the second row.
She nearly takes this one. She almost gets it into her basket but her eye unwillingly strays back to the stack and she pauses. Fascinated, she stares again, returns the can she has selected to its place and, with still greater risk of upsetting the whole stack, takes one from the third row. This she studies intently and thoughtfully for a moment, then steps back and stands gazing with wide-awake intelligence at the whole stack.
Abruptly, she steps forward, sets the can she has in her hand resolutely back on the shelf and takes one, any one, from the top of the stack. This, with an air of great resolution, she drops into the basket; and with an air of tremendous accomplishment, she moves along to the next stack.
“It never fails,” breathed Jimmie, rejoicing.
“Maybe there is something about the solder, or the way the can is closed,” I suggested.
“No, no! They all do it,” gloated Jim.
And he reached down to pick up his basket so that we could proceed with our own affairs.
“Hey,” he said. “Where’s my basket?”
“That’s yours,” I assured him.
“No it isn’t,” declared Jim. “I didn’t buy any bread. And hey… where’s my TEA!!”
He was looking in the basket. There was no doubt of it. His precious pound of tea was gone.
“Why, somebody has picked up my basket by mistake,” he said, raising his voice in the hope of attracting the attention of the guilty party. Everybody around examined their baskets. But Jim’s was not among them.
“Let’s get to the turnstile, quick,” I advised. For I too like tea.
At the turnstile, we explained to all the young ladies what had happened, and inquired if anybody had found a pound of tea they didn’t belong to. But nothing of the sort had been reported.
Again we examined Jim’s basket. In in among other things, was a bag of sugar, about six pounds.
“Well,” said the head girl, “whoever has lost that sugar would probably be as anxious to get it back as you are the tea.”
So Jim took one aisle and I another and we cruised up and down, looking at every body’s basket, without any luck.
“Look here,” said Jim, very worried, “that was our two week’s ration of tea. Can I get any more, by explaining….?”
“Maybe if you wrote the Tea Controller,” suggested the girl.
“Was That My Sugar?”
So Jim took back all the stuff in the basket, and set each item back where it belonged, except the sugar, which he kept as hostage. And then refilled his basket with the oranges, ketchup, potatoes, cauliflower, etc. that he required. And very crestfallen, stood before the tea counter for a while, hoping somebody would restore his tea. And also before the sugar counter, hoping that the loser of the sugar would come with his complaint.
“Men,” said Jimmie, as we wended our way hopelessly back to the turnstile, “should never be allowed to go shopping. They are too sloppy. They pick up the wrong basket.”
“How do you know it was a man?” I inquired.
“No woman would pick up the wrong basket.” said Jim.
Our parcels were bagged up, all except the sugar, which Jim gave me to carry as he wished to lay no claim to it.
“Take your time,” he pleaded, “Don’t let’s be in a hurry. Let’s even hang around in front for a few minutes…”
As we came through the door, a lady from behind gave an impatient shove, and to my horror, the bag of sugar, balanced conspicuously on the top of my load, fell off and burst with a most horrible squash fair in a puddle on the rainy sidewalk.
“Was that my sugar?” cried the lady angrily.
She had a square package in her hand.
“Is that my tea?” inquired Jimmie, taking it.
I was trying to scoop what sugar was still dry into my hat, and at the same time chasing Rusty away from the widening pool of sweetness.
Everybody was sympathetic about the sugar, but the lady accused us of having picked up her basket; and we retorted by fetching witnesses to prove our basket had been picked up first, because we had gone all over the place trying to set the mistake right; whereas the lady had to admit that she had only discovered her mistake when she came to the counter a moment before.
So Jim got his tea. And the lady accepted as a compromise the three pounds I had salvaged in my hat, plus a pound each from Jimmie and me, which we would faithfully deliver to her house in a few minutes, from our own domestic supply.
“For after all,” said Jimmie eloquently, clutching his pound of tea firmly, “aren’t all in this war together?”
Editor’s Note: Receiving rationed goods during the war would require you to hand in ration coupon before receiving the product (it would be behind a counter that someone would have to get for you). This would explain why Jim was distressed while he was still shopping when he lost his tea, as the coupon was already spent, and why he could hold the sugar “hostage”.
“Wrapt” is an archaic spelling of “rapt”.