In the World of the Grocery Store with John Updike

When I was in high school there was an A & P grocery store a few miles from the house. It occupied the last space in a small strip mall that held a dry cleaners, a Walgreens, a shoe repair store, and other businesses I have mostly forgotten. Across the main road from A & P there was a Chevron that had the most overpriced gasoline in Atlanta. And a few yards south on Northside Drive from the Chevron was a Steak ‘n Shake, where I developed an early and enduring appreciation for chocolate shakes. The Chevron is still there, somehow still selling petrol for a quarter more per gallon than other dealers. And the Steak ‘n Shake is still there, selling delicious shakes. But the A & P is long gone, replaced by a Publix. Paper bags are gone, too, replaced by plastic or canvas bags with Kermit-green lettering.

“A & P” is a short story by John Updike. I read a lot of John Updike. He remains for me one of America’s great literary fiction writers. Many readers know of his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom books like Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest, or perhaps The Witches of Eastwick. They are wonderful reads. But Updike’s short stories are gems, too. “A & P” is probably his most well-known short story.

“A & P” is about young lust, about changing cultural mores, and about misconceptions we have of one another. What the boy Sammy (the main character) thinks about is girls, but what the girls think about is, well, not necessarily boys, at least not Sammy. The result is a story about upended expectations. What Sammy wanted was the girls, at least attention from the girls, and to be seen as brave, as a hero. Instead, he ends up merely unemployed, alone, and confused at the end. So much for your bravery, Sammy.

Sammy is a teenaged stock boy at an A & P in the 1950s, and the main character. He is bored with his job. He barely camouflages his disdain for his coworkers. He is restless. He longs for adventure. And in walk three girls “in nothing but bathing suits.”[1] What follows is how Sammy and the other males working at the A & P in the 1950s respond to seeing the girls and their bared skin. Sammy is nineteen. Not surprisingly, girls dominate his thoughts and fantasies. Here are his thoughts of the prettiest one of the three girls as he watches her:

She had on a kind of dirty-pink—beige maybe, I don’t know—bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down. They were off her shoulders looped loose around the cool tops of her arms, and I guess as a result the suit had slipped a little on her, so all around the top of the cloth there was this shining rim. If it hadn’t been there you wouldn’t have known there could have been anything whiter than those shoulders. With the straps pushed off, there was nothing between the top of the suit and the top of her head except just her, this clean bare plane of the top of her chest down from the shoulder bones like a dented sheet of metal tilted in the light. I mean, it was more than pretty.[2]

Lengel, Sammy’s boss and the A & P’s manager, representing the old moral norms, redresses the girls for their skimpy attire. “We want you decently dressed when you come in here.” The prettiest girl’s response? “We are decent.”[3] There you have it. Sammy exemplifies the younger generation’s view of women. Is it okay, now, to “objectify” women? If girls dress scantily, are boys and men to blame for looking? Do the girls in the story bear no responsibilities? Those seem to be some of this issues “A & P” raises. Lengel, the older man, the manager of the A & P, wants to remain with the standards and mores he has heretofore known. Girls and women are to dress and comport themselves as ladies; otherwise, the culture is degraded. But Sammy, illustrative of youth’s pushing the boundaries, seems to appreciate the girls’ boldness. Plus, let’s be honest, Sammy simply likes seeing the girls in their bathing suits.

The girls don’t take kindly to Lengel’s efforts at reproof and admonition. And Sammy, angry at Lengel and simultaneously desiring to appear brave and sympathetic to the girls’ worldview, makes an impetuous decision: he quits his job as the girls exit the store. He feels he has been brave. He’ll show that he’s sympathetic to the new ways, the new norms, where girls can dress scantily in the local grocery store and should not be criticized by the stodgy Lengels of the world. So Sammy has been heroic, right? Listen to the end:

I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the second slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in.[4]

Sammy had great expectations—that he’d be seen as a hero, that he’d be lauded for taking a stand, and that the prettiest girl would be waiting for him in the A & P parking lot. But none of that was to be. He is simply unemployed, humiliated, and standing in the grocery parking lot realizing he knows nothing about girls. “A & P” in my old neighborhood is long gone, replaced by neon lights of another chain store. The trees that lined parts of West Paces Ferry there are gone, too, ground down for more concrete jungle. The shoe repair store is now a Starbucks where boys sport ‘man buns’ and wear skinny jeans. And the girls have their hair dyed purple and aquamarine and wear boys’ plaid shirts. Things have changed. Sammy, like you, I would have looked at the pretty girls but I don’t think I would have quit my job. Sometimes the Lengels of the world may’ve learned a thing or two. Maybe Lengel was not so dumb after all.

[1] Updike, John. The Early Stories: 1953-1975. [New York: Ballantine Books, 2003], 596.

[2] Ibid., 597.

[3] Ibid., 600.

[4] Ibid., 601

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