Last week, it was peanuts. Unsalted, roasted in the shell, to be exact.
But lately, it’s always something, some commonplace commodity that suddenly cannot be found at the store. Strawberries. Peppers. Ground turkey. And Lord, don’t even get me started on Ore-Ida Golden fries.
I used to enjoy grocery shopping. Weird, but true. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I once wrote a column rhapsodizing how foraging at the local warehouse store satisfied some primitive masculine need to hunt and gather.
But in this era of supply-chain disruption, shopping feels less like an act of manly provision than an exercise in national mortification. Once upon a time, to be an American was to feel impervious to forces of supply and demand. Oh, you might occasionally have to pay more, but if you wanted a thing, by God, you could have it. There was always enough. Indeed, having enough — and then some — was a sacred national entitlement.
Until it wasn’t.
Those who waited hours in line for gasoline during the energy crisis of the 1970s may recall that close behind the annoyance one felt, there was also a sense of disbelief, even betrayal, as if some fundamental law of the universe had been violated.
Out of gas? How could we be out of gas? This is America. We’re never out of anything.
Substitute Ore-Ida Golden fries for unleaded, and this moment feels much the same.
There’s a scene in Robin Williams’ 1984 film, “Moscow on the Hudson,” where a group of Soviet performers visiting New York are allowed by their KGB handlers half an hour to shop at Bloomingdale’s. These citizens of dull, gray Moscow surge into the shiny temple of American capitalism — Clinique! Jordache! Calvin Klein! — like children set loose in Santa’s workshop, swarming over a rack of blue jeans the way hungry teenagers do pizza. Not even the KGB man is immune. “My God,” he breathes happily, “what decadence!”
That scene opened in me a primal, patriotic pride. It seemed to validate every lesson I had ever learned about the exceptionalism of my country. America was a land of plenty and, therefore, a land of good.
But things are — as the movie itself soon makes clear — more complicated than that.
America remains a land of plenty, of course, but the present shortages are a poke in the eye to any sense of sacred national entitlement. It turns out this ability to have whatever, whenever, is fragile enough to be undone by idling trucks or an unruly virus.
Maybe it’s not the worst thing to be reminded of that every now and again. As is often observed, Americans use far more than their share of Earth’s resources. We are home to less than 5 percent of its population, but use 24 percent of its energy, with similarly outsized impacts on food, water and the environment.
Meantime, ocean levels are rising, the planet faces hundred-year floods and thousand-year droughts and, as is so often the case, the poor bear the brunt first and worst. If being unable to find one’s preferred brand of French fries is frustrating, what is the word for being unable to find clean drinking water? And how long before that question, already relevant in other parts of the globe, finds its way home?
Maybe we should ask the good folks in Flint. Or Jackson. One suspects their responses would provide pungent commentary on the idea that being a land of plenty makes us a land of good.
If we are good, it is not by dint of what we have, but what we do with it.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.