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Winter  16  Marcovaldo at the supermarket

(Italo Calvino — Inverno  16  Marcovaldo al supermarket)

At six in the evening the city fell into the hands of consumers. All day the great business of the productive population was production; they produced consumer goods. At a particular hour, as if by the flicking of a switch, they stopped production and, ready steady go!, they all threw themselves into consumption. Every day an impetuous blossom scarcely had time to open behind the lighted shop windows, the red salami to dangle, the towers of porcelain plates to rise to the ceiling, the rolls of fabric to unfurl their drapes like peacocks’ tails, when, lo and behold, all at once the crowd of consumers broke in, to dismantle, to gnaw, to fondle, to pillage. An uninterrupted line snaked along every pavement and under every arcade, extended through the glass doors into the shops around all the counters, nudged ahead by each person’s elbows in each person’s ribs, like the regular throbbing of pistons. Consume!, and they handled the goods and put them back again and picked them up again and tore them from each other’s hands. Consume!, and they instructed the pasty-faced salesladies to display linen and yet more linen on the counter tops. Consume!, and the spools of coloured string spun like tops, the sheets of flowery paper flapped their wings with a squawk, folding the purchases into little packages and the little packages into bigger packages and the bigger packages into parcels, each tied up with its own bow. And away went the parcels, the bigger packages, the little packages, the shopping bags, the handbags, whirling around the cash desk in a traffic jam, hands searching in handbags looking for purses and fingers searching in purses looking for change, while down below, amid a forest of unknown legs and overcoat hems, children no longer held by the hand got lost and began to cry.

On one of these evenings Marcovaldo was taking the family for a walk. Being penniless, their enjoyment was to watch other people shopping; in the matter of money, the more goes round, the more those who have none hope, ‘Sooner or later a little bit of it will end up in my pockets.’ Instead, in Marcovaldo’s case, with his small wage and his numerous family, and with bills and debts to pay, the money drained away as soon as he got it. Notwithstanding, it was always a fine thing to look, particularly when taking a tour of the supermarket.

The supermarket was self-service. It had those trolleys, like iron baskets on wheels, and each customer pushed his trolley and filled it with every item of God’s plenty. Marcovaldo took a trolley at the entrance too, as did his wife and each of the four children with him. And so they made their way in procession with their trolleys before them, between banks of shelves crammed with mountains of things to eat, pointing out the salami and the cheeses and naming them, as if they recognised in the crowd the faces of friends, or at least of acquaintances.

‘Daddy, can we take this one?’ the children asked at every moment.

‘No, don’t touch, it’s forbidden,’ said Marcovaldo, remembering that at the end of this tour the checkout lady was waiting for them, to do the sums.

‘So why has that lady taken them over there?’ they insisted, seeing all those fine ladies who, having come in only to buy two carrots and a bunch of celery, hadn’t been able to resist when faced with a pyramid of cans, and bong! bong! bong!, with a gesture between distraction and resignation, dropped clanging into their trolley tins of peeled tomatoes, peaches in syrup, anchovies in oil.

Well, if your trolley is empty and the others are full, you can control yourself up to a certain point; then a kind of envy takes hold of you, a broken-heartedness, and you can’t resist any longer. So Marcovaldo, having advised his wife and children not to touch anything, performed a swift turn at a crossroads between the banks of shelves, disappeared from his family’s view, and, taking from a shelf a box of dates, put it in his trolley. He only wanted to experience the pleasure of carrying it around for ten minutes, to show off his acquisitions just like the others, and then to return it to the place from which he had taken it. Just this box, and also a red bottle of pepper sauce, and a little packet of coffee, and a blue pack of spaghetti. Marcovaldo was sure that, as long as he did it discreetly, he could at least for a quarter of an hour taste the joy of one who knows how to select an item, without even having to pay a penny for it. But what a disaster should the children see him! They’d begin to copy him straight away, and who knows what confusion would result!

Marcovaldo tried to cover his tracks, pursuing a zig-zag route between the departments, now following busy maidservants, now ladies dressed in furs. And as one or the other raised a hand to take a sweet-smelling yellow pumpkin or a box of triangular cheese portions, he did the same. The loudspeakers broadcast cheerful background tunes; the customers moved or halted, following the music’s rhythm, and at the appropriate moment extended an arm, took an item and put it in their chariot, all to the sound of the music.

Marcovaldo’s trolley was now crammed with merchandise; following his footsteps, he penetrated the less frequented aisles, where products with ever less decipherable names were enclosed in boxes with illustrations which didn’t make clear whether he was dealing with fertiliser for lettuce or lettuce seed or lettuce good and proper or poison for lettuce caterpillars or birdseed to attract the birds that eat the caterpillars or condiment for salad or for a dish of roast birds. Still, Marcovaldo helped himself to two or three boxes.

On he went between two high hedges of shelves. Suddenly the aisle ended and he was in a long, empty, deserted space with neon lights that made the tiles glisten. Marcovaldo stood there, alone with his cargo of stuff. At the end of that empty space there was the exit with the checkout.

His first instinct was to hurl himself forward, head down, pushing the trolley before him like an armoured car, and escape from the supermarket with his booty before the checkout lady could give the alarm. But at that moment there appeared from another aisle next to him a trolley even more heavily laden than his own, and the person pushing it was his wife Domitilla. And from another aisle another trolley appeared, and Filippetto was pushing it with all his might. This was a place where the aisles of many departments converged, and from each outlet there emerged one of Marcovaldo’s children, all pushing their trolleys freighted like commercial shipping. Everyone had had the same idea, and now meeting again they realised that they had assembled a collection of samples of everything the supermarket had to offer.

‘So are we rich, Daddy?’ asked Michelino. ‘Will we have enough to eat for a year?’

‘Back! Quick! Get away from the checkout!’ Marcovaldo cried, executing an about-turn and hiding with his rations behind the shelves; and he fled, bent double as if under enemy fire, retreating in order to lose himself in the supermarket’s departments. A rumble resounded at his shoulders; he turned and saw his whole family who, pushing their wagons like a train, were galloping at his heels.

‘The bill for this lot will come to a million!’

The supermarket was as large and intricate as a labyrinth; one could wander here for hours and hours. With so many provisions at their disposal, Marcovaldo and his family could have spent the entire winter there without leaving. But the loudspeakers had just interrupted the piped music, and they announced, ‘Your attention, please! The supermarket will close in fifteen minutes! You are requested to make your way speedily to the checkout!’

It was time to abandon the load: now or never. As the loudspeaker repeated itself, the crowd of customers was gripped by a furious rage, as if it were a question of the final minutes in the last supermarket in the whole world, a rage in which one couldn’t decide whether to take everything there or to leave it behind; in short, there was a headlong rush around the banks of shelves, and Marcovaldo, Domitilla and the children took advantage of it to return goods to the shelves or to slip them into other people’s trolleys. The restitution was done a little at random: the flypaper on the shelf with the ham, a spring cabbage amongst the cakes. They didn’t realise that one lady, instead of a trolley, was pushing a pram with a new-born baby on board; they tucked a fiasco of Barbera in there.

Having to deprive themselves of things without even having tasted them was suffering which brought tears to the eyes. And so, at the same moment that they let go of a tube of mayonnaise, a bunch of bananas presented itself to them, and they took it; or a roast chicken instead of a nylon scrubbing brush; under this system, the more their trolleys emptied, the more they refilled.

The family with their provisions ascended and descended the escalators, and everywhere, on every floor, they found themselves at compulsory exit ways where a checkout lady on sentry duty was aiming an adding-up machine which rattled like a machine gun at everyone making as if to leave. Marcovaldo and his family’s perambulations increasingly resembled those of caged animals, or of inmates in a brightly lit prison with coloured panels on the walls.

In one place, the panels of a wall had been taken down. A ladder had been left there, with hammers and carpenters’ and builders’ equipment. A firm was building an extension to the supermarket. Their day’s work done, the workers had gone, leaving everything just as it was. Marcovaldo, provisions to the fore, went through the hole in the wall. It was dark there; on he went. And the family, with their trolleys, came behind.

The rubber wheels of the trolleys bumped on uneven ground, as if the cobbles had been taken up, with sandy stretches, then onto a walkway of loose planks. Marcovaldo proceeded, balancing on one of the planks; the others followed him. Suddenly they saw, before, behind, above, below, a multitude of distant lights, and all around, a void.

They were on an edifice of scaffolding planks, at the height of seven-storey houses. The city opened before them in a luminous dazzle of windows and signs and electric sparks from tram antennae; higher up was the sky, studded with stars and red lights on the masts of radio stations. The scaffolding shook under the weight of all the merchandise suspended there. Michelino said, ‘I’m scared.’

From the darkness a shadow advanced. It was an enormous mouth, without teeth, which opened and extended on a long metal neck: a crane. It descended towards them, stopped at their height, its lower jaw resting on the edge of the scaffolding. Marcovaldo tipped up his trolley, spilled the goods into the iron jaws, and walked on. Domitilla did the same. The children copied the parents. The crane closed its jaws with all the supermarket’s booty inside, and with a creaking of its pulley withdrew its neck and moved away. Below, the rotating luminous multi-coloured written messages flamed into life, with their invitations to purchase the products for sale in the great supermarket.