I was in a Ralphs at 3 AM the other day, nothing unusual, just looking for a loaf of bread and some eggs to make an impromptu breakfast sandwich. The check-out man, who was very friendly in the way that some night-shift workers are friendly, informed me that because of “an incident,” Ralphs would now be closing from 2 AM until 6 AM.
“Why?” I asked, horrified. “Why? No! Is Von’s open?”
“Nothing near here,” he said, scanning my cigarettes. “Nope, nothing. Enjoy it while you can.”
At that point it was too late to enjoy Ralphs any more than I already had, because I was all packed up with eggs and I don’t know that they encourage you to go back in once you’ve checked out. Had I enjoyed my trip? Oh, yes, I had. I don’t enjoy many things as much as I enjoy shopping in the middle of the night, particularly at grocery stores. When I moved to Studio City five years ago, I walked (ill-advised!) to the Ralphs on the corner every evening, almost exclusively between the hours of 3 and 5:30 AM. Sometimes I was driven by insomniac energy, sometimes I was drunk and starving, a few times I was buying nefarious things to do nefarious deeds with. I don’t have to tell you what I bought; the privacy of grocery shopping is well-respected. We all buy toilet paper and condoms and tampons and laxatives, at some point, and we know that exposing our items to a clerk is shameful enough. When I sneak peeks at other people’s groceries, I feel my karma slip past my knees and into my shoes; I try to withhold judgment because my bag o’ donuts and bacon and Clearasil and cat treats tells its own little sad story. Find me a person in line at a grocery store between the hours of 3 and 5:30 AM who is not buying something which reveals an almost too-personal bit of information about them; add to this the context of shopping for things in the middle of the night, which implies that you’re either in dire straits and must buy Angeleno magazine — you were driven from your bed by this need — or perhaps that you work all day and you’re now about to sit down to dinner, which is, it looks like, leeks and a lazy man’s quesadilla, and then you’ll watch everything you’ve Tivo’d and take some of that Omega 3 you just bought because you’re so worried that your job is killing your brain, the phone never rings, you’re sleeping when the rest of the world is awake, etc etc.
It’s a vivid experience: outside we have darkened streets, sprinkler noises, the one door that’s blocked by a shopping cart and the rows of empty parking spaces with a guard leaning against a dumpster smoking. Inside, it could be the middle of the day. The Vitamin Water display lights up as you walk by, as do the dual 25’ of glass-doored freezers with their pizzas and (always) disappointing taquitos. They light up to say “hello, we see you.” It’s whimsical and stupid and I love this feature. There is, bizarrely, “freshly-baked” bread. Without the pesky impositions of mealtimes, of the pretense that everyone is on some sort of universal cycle, you could assemble a meal of literally anything. Having already entered a retail hub pre-dawn after a night spent either a) pacing in your apartment, crazy for some reason, picking up the Tylenol PM and then putting it down and trying to do something you’re desperately classifying as “work” or b) drinking and then finding that you have drunk either an insufficient or overly-sufficient amount of alcohol to sleep, realizing that you are starving — what you buy is immune to prejudice. It’s like telling a heroin addict to take more B vitamins: you’ve been up for 30 hours, who will manage to care if you stuff a cheese danish with potato chips and then, unable to finish the monster, use it as an ashtray?
How can I live in a world without a 24-hour grocery store? I think of a desperate time, college, in a desperate place, the east side of Providence: everything closed at 2, minus the shady but terrific pizza place whose clam cakes I still pine for, and I was almost always awake and needing some place to put my body that was not my cozy apartment. I think of what I did then, unable to escape myself and my surroundings with the distraction of rows and rows of wafer-style ice cream cones and Pantone-like gum arrangements: I paced, I wheeled around in my desk chair, I screamed at the cat for sinking his fangs into my toes, I IMed with literally any person or bot until everyone went to sleep and I was stranded on the moon landscape of my own sleeplessness. What I would have given for the ability to trade my shekels for a Tiger’s Milk Bar! Instead I haunted the window with the radiator, wall-eyed, waiting for the gas station window attendant to arrive at 4:45.
I ate powdered milk. I considered the Pilgrims. Did I even know how lucky I was when, later, diploma’d, I dragged my body in a tank top and pajamas to buy more gin in the dark? When, after leaving the bar on my birthday, we roamed the produce section and bought a houseplant, a mug with a German Shepherd’s face on it and ten bags of limes, did I wonder what it would be like if had found the doors locked? Lime-barren, without flora, having nowhere to put my Earl Grey, sobbing on my apartment floor and thinking about all of the lonely chunks of nighttime where I would wonder, or feel as if I knew, that I were the last person awake?
And that even when everyone woke up, in just a few hours, I would have nothing to show for my time spent industriously cogent when everyone else was asleep, and that it would almost be as though those hours had been snatched away from me. Ralphs can’t close from 2 to 6 AM. Those are the hours when we most need proof of being alive.