The marketplace is a human institution as old as civilization itself; it is also a vastly democratic place. Even in ancient times, in the most stratified of societies, you would find both master and slave, beggar and soldier and farmer and craftsman, all drawn together in the public square by the common human need to exchange goods or buy food. Hunger and interdependency make strange bedfellows in such places, and while internet delivery services and increasingly curated lifestyles insulate Americans from the bustle and stench of the ancient marketplace, there are some notable holdouts.
Case in point: my local supermarket, the shabbiest member of a ubiquitous West coast franchise. My family calls it “Vons-on-the-Avenue” (like Stratford-on-Avon, but without Shakespeare or any quaint architecture). It is situated at the intersection of an industrial park, the local barrio, a gentrified suburban development, and the tourist-saturated beachside downtown. Like the confluence of salt and fresh water at a river delta, humanity here mingles indiscriminately, united in its need for food and toilet paper. Standing in line to buy a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread, you might rub elbows with an oil-field worker grimy from his day’s labor, a So-Cal trophy wife dripping with jewelry and entitled toddlers, a meth addict, a nervous accountant loosening his tie as he smiles wanly at the shrewd, middle-aged grocery clerk, and an aging hippie who reeks of (now legalized) pot and general amiability.
Better yet are the Parking Lot People: those who, like the lepers in the Gospels, seem to always lurk on the margins of society, never actually entering the store but perpetually occupying the asphalt-coated precinct outside. On the way to the doors a customer will inevitably be accosted by two jaded security guards, a band of migrant beggars, an ex-convict hawking the local paper as part of his rehabilitation program, a gaggle of seagulls, and occasionally someone totally unexpected. I was in the parking lot of Vons-on-the-Avenue when I witnessed my first bona fide stabbing (like that scene in Hamlet, but without the ruffed collars). And it was in the parking lot of Vons-on-the-Avenue that I once encountered the Lord. Sort of.
“Do you believe in God?” he rasped, approaching at a shambling gate, faded clothing in tatters.
“Yes,” I replied, automatically. This comes of being catechized at a tender age. I also tightened my grip on my daughter’s hand and picked up my pace a trifle.
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” he persisted, following us to the car.
“Yes,” I answered, warily, reaching into my purse for the standard two-dollar act of charity. I thought I could see the obvious rhetorical gambit coming, and he clearly needed a meal. Or another drink. My daughter was safely in the car. I turned, ready to make the requisite pay-off for my freedom, when the script changed.
“I AM THE RESURECTION AND THE LIFE,” he thundered, arms flung wide. “HE THAT BELIEVETH IN ME THOUGH HE WERE DEAD YET SHALL HE LIVE!”
Yes, in King James’ impeccable English. (Like at the Globe Theater, but without the theater.) “I AM THE GOOD SHEPHERD! I KNOW MY SHEEP AND MY SHEEP KNOW ME!”
I gave him five bucks and whizzed out of there, post-haste, his manic figure looming in my rear-view mirror.
“I AM THE ALPHA AND THE OMEGA!” he declaimed just as I turned the corner into the street leading back to the suburbs, where people’s minds are less porous and God incarnate stays put, safely out of public discourse and certainly not wandering the parking lot in search of a handout.
Now, you may suppose that such an unsavory meeting would deter me from further visits to Vons-on-the -Avenue. But contrary to all expectation, it enhanced the fascination. I found myself magnetically drawn to the parking lot, to the marketplace where humanity flows together in its stinking, sweating, whining, begging, scheming, stabbing! – and sometimes outright insane glory. And I have often wondered why. I have tried to argue myself out of going, playing both sides of the debate in my own mind (like a soliloquy, but without the iambic pentameter) – to no avail. Whence this compulsion to go down the Avenue and look this uncomfortable spectacle right in the ugly face?
Is it a perverse blend of gratitude and self-congratulation? “There but for the grace of God go I…”
Or is it a flimsy bravado? “I will not be defined by my fear…”
Or is it a sort of virtue signaling? A ridiculous belief that the two-dollar reflexive payment to a bum (whose threat level hovers just below the instinctive threshold) might actually count as loving one’s neighbor?
Or is it something else? Is it a craving for some hard truths that our comfortable existence, bracketed by suburban convenience and digital stupor, denies to us? The fact, for instance, that artisan-crafted shoes and Netflix subscription aside, we all stink beneath the surface? That humanity is one thing – one great mob of Parking Lot People loitering just outside God’s kingdom, characterized by these two indelible marks: we are hungry, and we are broken?
I think that might be it. We are very, very hungry. And we are very, very broken. And we need One who will give us more than the obligatory handout. Remember how He would speak to the beggars and the cripples while the disciples cringed back in well-mannered repugnance? There might be hope in that, for all of us. It’s worth thinking about.
In the meantime, I need to go buy some bread and milk. I’ll see you down on the Avenue.