I’m kind of a freak in several ways. One of the things that makes me an oddball is I find grocery shopping to be a relaxing way of killing an hour.

There was almost a cool reassurance about those immaculately ordered aisles and the bounty of capitalism laid out before you. It was a signal that regardless of what was happening in the nation or the world, that there was always a sense of normalcy at the supermarket. Life went on, in abundance.

That feeing died today for me.

Now I don’t live or work in Canada and I don’t get to roam the aisles at Sobeys or Dominion so I don’t know what the average Canadian is dealing with in terms of prices.

Here though, I’m thinking the shock that I and fellow grocery shoppers are experiencing comes from someplace deep in our national psyche — the end of an assumption of entitlement to cheap food and the good life.

As Elton John once sang, in America "even the poor get fat." Yes, a lot of that has been because cheap food is high in fat, starch and calories.

But it was still cheap food.

Because of my family’s financial situation, I have been driven to do the lion’s share of our shopping at Wal-Mart. I am not proud of this, but, at this point, I have little choice or justification to go to the higher priced stores.

I have noticed the prices creeping up over the last few months. But today, in almost every category of the market, I noticed sharp and sickening jumps in the prices.

On top of that, the once orderly aisles and displays are now in a shocking state of disarray and shortage. Several key foodstuffs appear to be in very short supply.

The experience seemed almost post-apocalyptic.

But what really stood out the most about tonight’s shopping trip were the looks on people’s faces as they blanched at the prices of coffee, pasta, hot dogs and beans.

For so many of us, the simple and cheap foods have become the staples of existence. Now they are becoming more expensive than any of us ever dreamed.

Something very fundamental has gone wrong with my country. The land of opportunity is giving way to the land of desperation. With each several hundred thousands of jobs lost a month piling up, more people losing their homes, and prices on everything skyrocketing, even at Wal-Mart, it’s getting too expensive to live.

But if I didn’t realize that by looking at the prices, I could see it written on the faces of my fellow foragers.

What I see in their faces is the look of a people being slowly driven to their knees. It’s the face of a people in total shock that the long preached unthinkable is now happening before their eyes, here in the rust belt area of flyover country.

If anyone outside of this country wanted to see America get its comeuppance, come shopping with me.

I see shoppers pick up items almost matter-of-factly, as if by habit, look at the prices and then solemnly return them to the racks. Unlike the rest of the developed world, many of these people face the choice between food and medicine. The safety net here is becoming paper thin.

I witness this and then return home and see CNN blathering about Michelle Obama’s cover on Vogue. This is news, I suppose, tailored to that huge upper-middle class audience that apparently still exists. The people I see at Wal-Mart, unofficially, do not exist. If Woodie Guthrie were alive today (and not in jail) perhaps he would write a ballad for them.

Whether President Barack Obama can pull a rabbit out of the hat to save the hinterlands of America from going into that good night of despair, I do not know. I wish him well, but my gut tells me this is just the beginning.

The key question that I have been wondering ever since night began falling
in America is this:

Will we be able to come together as a people and rediscover our common humanity or will we, in a rage born of the lost American Dream, hew ourselves to pieces?

I look at these faces and wonder.

Keith Gottschalk

Keith Gottschalk

U.S. Keith Gottschalk has written for daily newspapers in Iowa, Illinois and Ohio. He also had a recent stint as a radio talk show host in Illinois. As a result of living in the high ground...