Another Random Story About a Supermarket in California

I heard Ginsberg's poem, "A Supermarket in California" a few days ago, and suddenly remembered a certain junior college class I took.

Because I never graduated high school, I went to junior college for a semester, with the intention of transferring to a four year college- which I eventually did. My first class at junior college was U.S. Government, taught by perhaps the worst teacher ever. I think it's safe to say that he never once mentioned U.S. Government in any way, but rather used the class as a podium to tell stories about his bizarre life. Let's call him "Jim." I can't remember his name.

The best and most bizarre story Jim told begins at a supermarket in California:

Jim was shopping one night at 1 AM at a Safeway in San Francisco, and came across a homeless man chanting in front of a pile of canned goods. The man was chanting over and over again for a place to live and food to eat. The man eventually got kicked out of the Safeway for loitering.

Some days later, Jim went to a pagan ceremony, where a chalice was passed around. Each person in a circle of people would take a small sip, and pass it on to the next person. Well, Jim wasn’t paying very good attention to what was going on, and instead of taking a sip, he drank the whole cup. This posed a problem for Jim’s mental well-being, because the chalice turned out to be full of some sort of LSD punch. He basically took ten or so hits of LSD at once, which is WAY WAY WAY TOO MUCH.

So, what followed for Jim was a month of hell, from which he never fully recovered. Jim remembers a lot of that month, most of which he spent discovering that the Universe is governed by interlocking numbers. Of course. He was very into numerology.

At some point, Jim believed that he could escape this horrible trip by going on an actual trip, so he drove a car to Oregon. While he was in Oregon, he bought a giant, plastic baseball bat at a Walmart there, for reasons he no longer remembers. Then he threw the bat in the back of the car and forgot about it.

Driving back home, crossing back into California, he was stopped by the police. Looking for any reason to arrest this freak (my interpretation of the story here) they confiscated the giant plastic baseball bat, claiming that it was illegal in the state of California. Jim said,

“How can it be illegal? I bought it at Walmart!”

Nevertheless, they arrested him and put him in jail.

Upon entering the jail cell, he recognized his cell mate as the same homeless guy he had met in front of the stack of cans at a supermarket in San Francisco. His chanting had apparently worked: He now had a place to live and food to eat.

And that's the story.

What eventually happened in the U.S. Government class was that Jim completely disappeared halfway through the semester, and we all got A's in the class.

And here is the poem by Allen Ginsberg, which triggered my memory of this lovely story and has nothing whatever to do with it but still is a fantastically good poem:

A Supermarket in California
Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
Berkeley, 1955


  1. Very groovy poem, and very interesting story about Jim. You really do meet some fascinating people!!

  2. I have a Safeway story-Forgive me if you've heard it...
    Back in our young SF days,David and I thought it would be funny to put some snails from our garden in a jar, make a nice lable for the jar and put it with the gourmet foods. Well, so we did and ran out of the store laughing hysterically. That's it!

  3. Oh my God, I wonder who ate those snails. They were probably thinking, "This is the freshest escargot I have ever eaten."

    I have always loved that poem. That one, and the one by T.S. Eliot that ends, "not with a bang but a whimper." I do not remember the name of it. I am, generally speaking, not a poetry person. But I love a few wonderful poems.

  4. I hadn't heard that story. That's really funny. I wonder if all of these things happened in the same supermarket? Ginsberg was inspired for the poem, you put the snails on the shelf, Jim met the guy chanting for a place to live, all in the same Safeway store. Perhaps it's a vortex of the bizarre and creative.

    I think that, if I were shopping and found some live snails in a jar, I would buy it if it were under, say, $3.00, just to show people because I know no one would believe me if I told them!

  5. The Safeway on California Street in SF is one of the most bizarre places in the world. It's open all night. It's the only business within a mile that has a parking lot. The clientel comes from Nob Hill, Polk St and the Tenderloin - quite a mix!