“I Don’t Know What I’m Going to Do”

The words were spoken during our conversation in a supermarket checkout line about inflation. I asked the cashier what she thought after being on the front lines watching the explosion of food prices following the horror of the pandemic. It was fairly early in the morning for shopping, so we spoke before another person joined the line.

The cashier described the escalating price of food as “unbelievable.” She returned to work from retirement because she travels and inflation made it impossible for her to continue to travel without supplementing her pension. Inflation rose 6.3% in 2022 and 5% in 2023. The Pew Research Center reported that while wages have grown over 40 years, measured in 2018, the buying power of that money has hardly moved up during the same time. Bad news for anyone struggling to make ends meet to learn that the Consumer Price Index was down to 4.9% in April 2023, the tenth month of decreases in the level of inflation. Try to take that news to the bank for collateral on a fixed or limited income. It’s doublespeak how the mass media take a social and economic negative and turn it into a good. An individual living alone on a fixed income finds that making so-called ends meet is impossible. The effects of inflation on a fixed income are draconian. Add into the mix the cost of living, the skyrocketing cost of food, the costs of fuel and housing, and perhaps unforeseen medical costs or something as mundane as an auto repair bill. A pension or savings, if any, can be whittled down quickly. The cashier moved from the town where the supermarket is located to a small town in nearby northwestern Connecticut where she says rents are lower.

As we speak, we are only weeks away from a massive summer influx of tourists. Tourism from the greater New York metropolitan area is augmented by the relatively large number of people who have second homes here, added to by the Covid-19 pandemic. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where the supermarket is located, was the consummate idyllic New England small town when Smithsonian Magazine rated it as the best small town in the US in 2012. The large number of year-round tourists and second homeowners swelled after the article and housing costs and rentals are now sky high. A common complaint among many people here is that essential and other workers cannot afford to live in the area, a complaint that has turned to a kind of cliché since this is not exactly a society where the concept of my brother’s [sic] keeper means much anymore.

The cashier discusses the rumor that the other major supermarket in this town may close because the town’s selectboard has refused to give that market a liquor license. The supermarket where we speak has a large liquor section. Liquor stores aside, marijuana shops have proliferated in the area. The number of marijuana shops here reminds me of the number of bars and package stores in the town where I grew up in Rhode Island. We seem to be a society that needs substances to survive.

There are two other markets in Great Barrington that cater to those with more disposable income than most and are both smaller than the two large supermarkets.

I get a definite sense that the cashier will seriously consider voting for a Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election. I don’t know what a possible vote for a Republican candidate means, as this has become a nation of the few and the wealthy.

The force of provincialism is strong here. I’ve seen people considered as being of lesser value for the perception of being an outsider. Attempts to raise the issues of pesticides or threats to pollinators are met by some among the local farming community with harsh criticism at the yearly town meeting. I live in a town, Egremont, that borders Great Barrington and many of the issues are similar besides the smaller size of the town where I live and less commercial activity. I’ve found that being sidelined in the debate are sometimes the hallmarks at town meetings. A local homeowner, who protested against the yearly dousing of pond vegetation with herbicides at the town meeting, and distributed flyers at the last town meeting I attended five years ago, was sidelined. I think of the Four Freedoms illustration, Freedom of Speech by Norman Rockwell, who spent the last years of his life in nearby Stockbridge. In terms of dangerous chemicals, it seems as if the debate is frozen in time to the immediate post-World War II era when farmers were sold on the use of pesticides and herbicides, which is part of the petroleum industry.

Only miles from my home is the site of the last battle of Shays’ Rebellion in the town of Sheffield. The results of the rebellion on federal power and taxation are as current as today’s news. In Shays era, it was the cost of living and its impact on returning Revolutionary War veterans and money due them for their time in the military.

A few years ago, a developer bought a large parcel of land nearby formerly used privately for multiple campsites. No easy public access exists for local people to use the pond beside the former campsite. Access to a beautiful pond has been largely privatized.

The Berkshire Hills are a cultural Mecca for many and draw thousands of visitors, especially during the summer months, and I think of how the pushbacks to a relatively comfortable life I describe above counters that perception. Voting south of the deindustrialized city of Pittsfield is heavily in favor of Democrats. Out of just over 1,000 or so residents in the community where I live, only around 200 vote for Republicans. Bernie Sanders enjoyed early support here, as did the referendum to legalize marijuana. People will vote, but left or even liberal political action is almost, if not totally, absent. A few demonstrations take place with limited effect.

A Democratic Party supporter and campaign worker in Florida recently posted on Facebook an appeal to support Biden in 2024. He had previously posted about the importance of involvement in Democratic politics in Florida in answer to DeSantis’ right-wing juggernaut there. I countered that Democratic politics were a lost cause and the lesser of evils, which always results in policies with some level of evil. The arguments with the line of failed reasoning of “What are you going to do, vote for Republicans?” began. The arguments go on ad nauseam about Democrats and the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, the policies move farther and farther to the right. There has not been a liberal president in the US since Franklin Roosevelt. A candidate with left policies will never see the proverbial light of day.

“But their domestic policies are better than the Republicans,” is the next argument, if the insanity of electoral politics in the US can be called reasonable. All of their policies, from creating epic levels of inflation, to banking, or endless spending on wars, to cuts to the nonexistent social safety net, go on and on and on. The environment tanks. The excuses mount as Democratic policies stay on the right.

It’s later than those of goodwill think to walk away from this electoral baloney!

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).