Grocery Shopping in the Burbs: Acme’s Walk of Shame

If you run into anyone you know, be prepared to explain why you're not at Wegmans.

Nobody would ever take a reusable Acme bag into Wegmans. No one would want to represent Acme, the lowest rung chain of grocery-store chains, its utilitarian store with one 12 x 12 refrigerator case of prepared foods, its awful, awful kelly green bag. Acme is the store you run into for trash bags, furtively, hoping no one will see you. Never mind that if someone you know sees you that means he/she is also at Acme—it’s still a humiliation. If you do bump into someone that’s what you say: “I just ran in here for trash bags.” And you prove this point by holding up the box of trash bags, show the other hand empty, so glad now that you did not take a cart when you parked and thought about how you do need a case of water and are probably low on cat food. But, you did not take one of their forest green carts with real-estate advertisements affixed to the end; you did not, thank God.

And so the person you’ve bumped into holds up the rearview mirror glue that he has purchased, thereby still beating you in cool because, after all, he probably doesn’t even produce garbage, and you need a box of 36 ForceFlex.

Wegmans bags come in so many styles: photo-illustrated produce—tomatoes, grapes, peaches and blueberries, blown up and layered so that you only see color—and black bags with a white iconic sketch of a wine bottle and a wine glass. Now that’s class. At Wegmans, there are two sizes of carts, too, because we need choice, damn it, and the abbreviated carts have a fresh-flower holder (who doesn’t buy fresh flowers on an average trip to the grocery store?). Neither cart style has realtor ads on them.

About 30 of Acme’s 12 x 12 refrigerator cases of prepared food could fit in the more than one aisle that Wegmans has dedicated to prepared foods. In fact, my South Jersey Acme’s prepared food station could fit in the same space as the Wegmans olive bar, where, every time I see the crowd around it, I think, “Recession? What recession?”

Something happens at Wegmans, and I don’t know enough about marketing to know if it’s the colors, the lighting or what, but both possibility and affordability start to change for me when I enter the store. At Acme, I would laugh at the ridiculousness of $8.99-a-pound eggplant rolatini from the deli case. At Wegmans, when I see row after row of beautifully displayed chicken breasts, in more than a dozen sauces, $12.99 a pound starts to make sense, and I have to force myself to remember that I still would have to cook it, that this comes with no sides or salad, that someone will have to do the dishes, and that I could go out to dinner for five dollars more.

But sometimes that logic doesn’t win, and I bump into someone I know, and in my shiny cart there is a $2.50 stick of Wegmans Irish butter with chive and garlic because I had a sample of the clams they had made with this butter, and even though I’ve never made clams at home, right now, I feel like I just might. In my cart there is also something wrapped in white butcher paper, something delicious, something prepared so that all I have to do is cook it (and make side dishes and salad and clean up afterward). I say hello to the person I know, parking my cart a bit to the side so that we can chat a minute, instead of ducking and running as I do at Acme. As I sniff at the fresh-cut flowers in my fresh-cut-flower holder, I ask how my acquaintance is doing. I even ask him how his children are doing, because I am relaxed and happy here at Wegmans, my beautiful bags neatly folded and awaiting their purchases, and we have bumped into each other in the tea section of the store, which is relaxing even if you’re not drinking tea, and those clams cooked in Irish butter were lovely. (The last sample I was given at Acme was a chunk of cereal bar.)

The Acme is so … raw, so obvious in its fulfillment of a bodily function. Think Mickey Rourke’s deli scene in The Wrestler. I kid you not: That scene was shot in a New Jersey Acme, and the other folks you see are not extras—even those who order from Mickey—they are Acme customers. Or do you know John Updike’s much anthologized short story A & P? I believe that the A & P’s all became Acme’s, and that Sammy and Lengel and Stoksie are still working there, and I know for sure the floor is still “checkerboard green-and-cream tile.”

Both Acme’s and Wegmans bags are machine-washable and fold up for easy storage. Both cost 99 cents. Both make you look like a good citizen, even as you continue to gather plastic bags almost everywhere else you go. But, the bags—always the bags, isn’t it?—really say so much more.