The Strawberry Lottery
Last week, in the local Safeway supermarket, I saw a young man carefully studying boxes of pre-packaged strawberries. With his right hand, he picked up many boxes, one by one, and studied the visible parts of each individual strawberry. I wondered if he was counting the number of good-looking strawberries in each box and would eventually choose the one that contained the most beauty. I wondered if he could see into the souls of strawberries and decide which of them was most likely to sanctify him.
Of course, I very much doubt that he was engaged in the kind of religious rite that I was imagining. He did indeed look far more like a mad monk than a produce inspector but I was still just telling myself a story.
While watching him, I realized that I’d never paid much attention to the strawberries that I bought in supermarkets. I’d just randomly grab one box, pay for it, and bring it home. Those strawberries were usually good enough, sometimes terrible, and occasionally great. I suppose there are people who can accurately judge strawberries before they buy them. I’m not one of those people. Instead, I live my fruit and vegetable life by chance. I think most of us live by chance. We all play the strawberry lottery.
You might be wondering how much time I spent watching that young man. I can’t put a clock on it. I’m a writer so I automatically pay more attention to the words and actions of strangers than I probably should.
That’s why I always laugh when writers claim they are “decolonizing” storytelling. Who are they kidding? Writers are the most persistent and ubiquitous colonizers of all. We appropriate other people’s experiences. We appropriate conversations that we’ve eavesdropped. We turn real people into clay figures that we manipulate. And any of you who are friends and family (and enemies) of writers know how much we mine your life for the good stuff. Writers plunder natural resources.
And I don’t know why anybody gets romantically involved with a writer. O, damn, O, damn, the intimacies that we parade around the town square!
So, yes, that young man in the supermarket was obviously an eccentric and I wanted to appropriate his eccentricity. I wondered if I should give his strawberry forensic skills to one of my fictional characters.
In his left hand, the young man held a shopping basket filled with other fruits, vegetables, and one long baguette. There was no junk food. I was jealous of his culinary discipline. Rarely do I leave a grocery store without at least one bag of tortilla chips.
Then I rejoiced a bit as the young man choose a box of strawberries and placed it on top of the other food in his basket. I imagined the strawberries were rejoicing, as well, because each of them had the sole spiritual mission of being chosen by a wise omnivore. Yes, the strawberries were self-sacrificing pilgrims. That was the ending I’d given to my supermarket narrative.
I’d just begun to wonder if I’d find other narratives in Safeway when that young man strolled out of the store without paying. He exited as smoothly as a handsome art thief leaving a crowded museum with a painting hidden beneath his suit coat.
“Whoa,” I said, looked around, and saw a supermarket employee also looking surprised.
“Did he just steal that food?” he asked me.
“Yes, he did,” I said. “He shoplifted a baguette.”
I laughed. There are countless times in our lives when we utter sentences that we’ve never previously said and will likely never say again.
He shoplifted a baguette. He shoplifted a baguette.
“What do you guys do about shoplifters?” I asked the employee.
“Nothing,” he said. “For our safety.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ain’t no strawberry worth a punch in the face.”
Then the employee walked away. And I remembered how I’ve sometimes publicly vowed that I’d never negatively judge a person for shoplifting food, especially if there were hungry children involved.
That was all theoretical, of course. So, in that real supermarket, I asked myself how I felt about that shoplifter, understanding that I’d stumbled into a test of my values.
On an economic level, I know that supermarkets operate on very thin profit margins. Shoplifting gravely affects those profit margins and causes businesses to raise their prices. So shoplifting hurts us, the paying consumers.
On a moral level, shoplifting is a crime but only a misdemeanor when it’s below a certain dollar value. But, if we give tacit and implicit permission for one misdemeanor, does that mean we give permission to all small crimes—to the totality of small crimes? We seem to be operating that way in the United States, officially and unofficially, and it only seems to be demoralizing most of us.
On another level, that young man had stolen that which would feed him and an unknown number of people who might depend on him. Were there hungry children waiting at home for him? He looked too young to be a father. So perhaps he was stealing for his siblings. I imagined a scenario where he and his brothers and sisters had been orphaned and he was solely responsible for their care.
Or was that young man just a kleptomaniac? Do kleptomaniacs steal nutritious food?
I realized that I would’ve more harshly judged him if he’d stolen sweet cereal, bags of candy, and cases of soda pop. Two years earlier, I’d watched a young woman steal a big screen TV from a Target store. The employees did nothing as she wheeled it out the automatic door in a shopping cart. I had the urge to chase after her and take back that TV. But I didn’t want to endanger her and I certainly didn’t want to put myself in danger. And I didn’t owe any particular loyalty to Target. So I just paid for my stuff and wondered if that was the woman’s first crime or if it would be her only crime.
I suppose there are people who’d justify her theft of the television in the same way that I might justify the theft of food.
And then, still standing in Safeway, I remembered all the times that I’d gone hungry during my reservation childhood. We’d never starved but there were times when we weren’t sure when the next meal would be. We lived with food insecurity.
I don’t think our parents ever shoplifted food. I never shoplifted food. Does that mean we were better people? No, it just means that we were never hungry enough. Or maybe it just means that we weren’t willing to commit even a small crime.
A Native American friend once remarked it was kinda amazing that we Native Americans haven’t become terrorists. Centuries of oppression and deprivation but we haven’t attacked any settlements in at least 130 years.
It’s not amazing, I said to him. To believe in terrorism, you have to believe in the apocalypse. To commit terrorism, you have to plan on indiscriminately killing civilians. That’s not who we are, I said to my friend. That’s not in our theologies.
And, yet, even inside those religions that do justify violence, there is also the call to feed the poor. Talk about dichotomy! As I stood in that supermarket, I was also standing in a kind of church—a temple of abundant food, a kind of abundance that has rarely existed in human history.
So are we not called to share our abundance?
In Safeway, that young man was a criminal who should be easily forgiven. But should he, if caught, also be punished? Can we call it justice when we punish a poor man for stealing bread? I’d guess that some people reading this essay will believe there are easy answers. But, as Socrates wrote, all I know is that I do not know anything.
So, as a foolish and colonial storyteller, I shrugged my shoulders and continued shopping.
I didn’t buy any strawberries.