I Spent 19 Hours Inside a London Chain Supermarket
You don't know true loneliness until you drink two cans of cider alone in an ASDA's garden furniture department.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
London's 24-hour supermarkets witness everything. The drunks, the City boys, the families, the men getting weirdly aggressive when a member of staff tells them razors are out of stock. In a bid to learn everything there is to know about the nature of our capital—as well as the strange world of the all-night supermarket—I decided to stay in one for 20 hours, specifically the ASDA in Clapham.
When my alarm wakes me up at 3:15 AM on the day, I'm absolutely raging. The taxi I had to get because I'm traveling halfway across London at 3:15 AM arrives ten minutes early and my iPhone starts quacking, which only angers me more. I forgo a shower and leave. I take my dictaphone in a bid to feel like Agent Cooper talking to Diane, as well as a phone, a massive bottle of water, and notepad.
I gaze out the taxi window with the kind of hazy head you had when your parents woke you up in the middle of the night to go on a budget flight. But this man wasn't my dad and I wasn't going to Gran Canaria to argue with my sister about who'd get the top bunk.
Here's what happened:
4:20 AM: I arrive and decide to strategically split the ASDA into realms. I'll explore one realm per hour to ensure I stay curious, because there's only so long you can stare at a Muller Corner without losing your entire sense of self-worth. No matter what happens, I tell myself, do not get greedy. Do not take it all at once.
4:41 AM: Sophie Ellis Bextor's "Music Gets the Best of Me" is playing as I peruse the fruit. It really does get the best of me, Sophie, I think, because music journalism pays very poorly. I wonder what's happened to her. Does she still play V Festival? Does she have a bargain bin get-fit DVD? No doubt I'll find out once I make it to the entertainment realm.
4:49 AM: Fruit is dull. I leave fruit and enter meat.
4:50 AM: It's absolutely freezing. I do not want to stay in here long.
5:12 AM: I stare at a huge pack of tiny withered wings. It's only £2.85 [$4.28]. I'm fairly certain the red tips are something to do with the bleed time being too short and the neck not being cut properly. It's probably because it's five in the morning but I get a lump in my throat and stare at their webbed edges for ten minutes, stifling tears.
5:48 AM: I really need to pee. Why aren't there any signs for the toilet in my immediate line of sight? ASDA's been a thing since 1949; why haven't they worked out a more intuitive navigational system yet? I realize I've never been this concerned with signage.
6:15 AM: A young guy restocking the meat section grins and says good morning. Everyone is restocking. He and the other workers all seem truly happy, despite the fact they're working alone, without really getting to chat to anyone. Which is actually maybe why they all seem so happy.
6:29 AM: I have to find the toilet. My lower abdomen is bulging under my tracksuit waistband.
6:32 AM: The toilets are locked. This is no good. The security guard looks me up and down suspiciously. I realisz he's been watching me wander around the meat section for two hours on the cameras. He asks what I'm looking for. The toilet, I say. The disabled one is open, he replies.
6:38 AM: I'm in the disabled toilet. I get the feeling that something unspeakable has happened in here.
6:43 AM: Two hours in. After peeing I walk towards the entrance to get some air. The security guard is waiting for me with a woman. This is bad. He asks to check my backpack. His face is hard. There's nothing in my bag besides my dictaphone, water, a notebook and a battered box of Tampax. His eyes narrow. "I'm writing a novel set in an ASDA," I shrug. "I've come to soak in the atmosphere." He suddenly seems pleased. If I need anything else, I should just ask him, he says.
6:47 AM: I pace around the car park, taking in the grounds. Two hours down and I'm not bored at all. I'm stimulated, in fact.
7:24 AM: ASDA FM is a very effective piece of consumer engineering. It plays all day long, vaguely familiar pop songs spattered with ads for products in-store. "Everything's great," it's saying. "You're safe here. Keep humming along to that bit in that Hozier song and nobody can hurt you. Buy some Kenco. It's on offer."
7:47 AM: A very large man holding a packet of Weetos tells someone on the phone: "I'll fucking take her out again, then." I really hope he means for dinner.
7:59 AM: I'm aborting the whole keep-to-one-realm-an-hour idea because I'm inquisitive and greedy and don't want to throw away another 50 minutes staring at parked cars when I could be learning about everything else ASDA has to offer. I'm going up the elevator.
8:02 AM: I'm greeted by a cut-out of Robin Williams and feel sad. I look across at the other Night at the Museum cutouts. It's one of my most hated movie franchises of all time. I see Rebel Wilson dressed in a policeman's costume—presumably in some kind of comedy sidekick cop role—and frown involuntarily.
8:16 AM: I enter the realm of clothing.
8:28 AM: George actually has some decent clothes, you know. They need better PR.
8:40 AM: Why the fuck do girls' clothes all have butterflies on them? Butterflies are gross. They're just tarted-up moths. They feast on feces and rotting corpses. Dwell on that the next time you buy your niece a PJ top with a diamanté butterfly on it.
8:41 AM: I decide to count all the items of clothing with butterflies on them. I get to 20-something and lose count because the tops all look the same. It's between 40 and 50.
9:16 AM: A five-year-old cries: "Mom, no! They're minging shorts!" I laugh. The mom scowls at me. I apologize.
9:32 AM: A bunch of moms start squabbling over who had the last age 9-10 green primary school dress first. Apparently it was just on a rail, so a mom took it. But another mom—the initial mom—had put it there. It was her rail.
"That's mine, I'll thank you very much," initial mom said in manner which I felt to be very unnecessary and fairly abrasive. "Alright. I didn't know..." second mom retorted, sassily. A third mom became riled by the rudeness of the first mom and a three-way argument erupted. I am desperate to stick my beak in too but decided against it. I bid second mom a silent good luck and move on.
10:19 AM: I come back to those primary school dresses and try a few on. They look great, to be honest. I wonder if it's creepy to buy one.
10:31 AM: "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder comes on. I decide to start doing my kegels to the beat. Hello, summer!
10:34 AM: May as well maximize productivity so continue kegels through Michael Jackson's "Beat It." I reach 350 and tire.
10:51 AM: It's much easier to do this during waking hours without feeling like a criminal. No one cares. If nothing else, so far I've learnt that if you want to spend a whole day hanging out in an ASDA, you can. I mean, trust me, you don't want to. But, you know, could.
11:14 AM: Feeling pretty flirty now, I decide to see what George offers in the way of sexy underwear.
11:16 AM: More fucking butterflies. Seriously, product designers: the number of women who actually like them is about 0.05 percent of whatever figure you've been throwing around. That ugly butterfly print stationery in Paperchase will always be on the sales table. ALWAYS.
11:21 AM: I rank least sexy underwear. They all have something placed on the crotch. In descending order: Betty Boop "You had me at hello" crotch, Spongebob Squarepants crotch, You + Me Bear "Tatty Teddy" crotch.
11:39 AM: I go to the candle aisle and spend half an hour smelling every scented candle and taking notes until I feel really light-headed.
12:20 PM: According to the cards on offer, between the ages of eight and nine is when little girls are developed enough to make the move from glitter and flowers to obsessing over One Direction. They've picked a photo of the band looking like the sort of cheeky blokes you bring round your mum's who spend ten minutes in the kitchen, winking, and joking about her age, before taking you upstairs.
12:31 PM: "Party in the USA" is playing. I throw my hands up in the knowledge that I'm going to be OK. Because I'm not even a bit bored yet. I could do this all day.
12:42 PM: I flip through the posters and stop at the Vamps. I feel I've heard that name before but can't be sure. Honestly, who are they? I text a friend who I'm pretty certain will know. "I'm convinced they've never released any music," he replies. "They are just a press shot."
12:45 PM: A mom comes up behind me and says, "You're the second person since I've been stood here to photograph that poster. Who are they?" I don't know, I tell her. I really don't.
12:53 PM: I stare at the 1D poster. Christ, Zayn really was magnificent.
1:12 PM: I look at the engraved pen my mom gave me the Christmas after I said I wanted to write for a living. I wonder what she'd think of her A* student now, crouched over Horrible History books, writing Zayn a haiku.
1:26 PM: None of ASDA's books engage me. Except maybe Tom Jones' one, his smiley, craggly face peering out from the darkness. "The life, the legend, the voice—laid bare," it promises. I realize there's not a lot I want to learn about Tom Jones that I don't already know, so I leave him there to gaze out at the opposite row of shelves, alone, until someone takes him home and leaves him on a table next to the loo, unread, for the next 30 years.
1:48 PM: I find the iPads. They aren't connected to the internet. I take out my iPhone for a quick treat. It's already on 65 percent battery. I put it back in my pocket.
1:51 PM: Absolutely raging about my iPhone battery. The amount of times I plug that thing in during the day it may as well be a fucking landline.
1:54 PM: We need to stand up and be counted, re: battery. There is something that must be done.
2:01 PM: I've been buying Diet Cokes half from fatigue, half for something to do, and the caffeine has me wired. My right eye is pulsing. I'm buzzing and pissy, which is a horrendous combination of things.
2:04 PM: I was planning to save the ASDA café for much later in the afternoon, but I need a boost.
2:06 PM: Everyone here seems to be a freelancer. Why have I only just learnt about this place? Why have I been spending £2.60 [$4.00] on a coffee every hour like a dickhead when I could have come here and worked for half the price?
2:28 PM: I take a break for more food. It's sunny outside so I stroll around the car park, a free agent. I drink a soy milkshake and relax. I look around and people seem to know each other here; this ASDA is a hub for community spirit that would otherwise be lost in somewhere as soulless as Clapham. A place for people who might not speak to many people during their day to touch base and share experiences. I'm slightly embarrassed by how elated this makes me feel.
2:39 PM: I find a garden display out front. Its beauty is unparalleled (in the context of greeting cards and training bras decorated with butterflies). I long to cook on that barbecue and drink with my family. I take a picture. This will come in handy later during my darker moments.
2:56 PM: I text some unemployed friends to see if they want to come here to drink with me. "Meet Clapham ASDA?" No one's fussed.
3:17 PM: I'm on a downer after seeing how nice the weather is, so I head to the magazine aisle and read all my favorites back to back. Seriously, though, it feels like I've been in here a week.
4:39 PM: There is a magazine for every niche interest. Two tractor magazines. We're in London. London.
5:01 PM: You know the best thing about niche mags? They don't have to compete so they can actually have a laugh with the cover lines. "Ladies ploughing" from Tractor and Machinery and "What flicks your switch?" from Scootering are my two favorites.
5:11 PM: I look at Carp Talk and remember when a guy from a carp-based magazine came in to talk at my uni. I smile. Then remember I paid to do a masters in magazine journalism. I stop smiling.
5:19 PM: I go back near the entrance to stare outside.
5:41 PM: I realize I've been stood here for about 20 minutes. An attractive couple in denim shorts walks in. "It's horrible in here," the girl shivers. "Let's just get these drinks and get out," her boyfriend agrees. I want to smack them.
5:58 PM: I buy some ciders, put them in my backpack and go out to the barbecue again. I want to drink them but can't risk being asked to leave. Plus I really hate getting told off. Why is it summer weather and why am I here?
6:05 PM: There are no hidden cameras. I quickly drain a couple of tins, staring at the barbecue from behind the fence. This metaphor for my whole predicament is not lost on me.
6:22 PM: There's a "chimenea" in here, too. My dad wanted one of those. I think about my dad and life and death and family and it makes my chest ache. I think about stealing the chimenea for ages.
(I would later pinpoint this half hour as the beginning of the end.)
6:47 PM: I feel anxious. I sit on the bench by the entrance next to some people from a gym who are trying to flog some crap. The guy starts flirting with me but I'm incapable of human interaction. I pretend to be on my phone but that doesn't stop him. He keeps circling back around and whispering. It's too much. He gives me his business card. I stand up to go. He is the worst; he has made me leave the solace of the car park. My Eden.
6:59 PM: I go back inside to sit down and collect my thoughts. I head to the top floor to look out over the store. That the Script song about the guy waiting on the girl is playing.
7:13 PM: I see a woman reaching for a box of Dolce Gusto capsules at the very top of the shelving of additional stock. She'll never reach it without calling for help; it's a few feet taller than her. It makes me angry she's waving her arm at it. It's "Lungo" she wants. I notice there is a line of "Lungo" midway down. Why hasn't she seen this? I want to call out and tell her. Make her stop waving. I stand up and hiss through a gap in the glass. She turns around and looks at me blankly. She hasn't heard. I scream instructions. She reaches for "Lungo" and walks away.
7:29 PM: I'm on a real caffeine slump and feel awful, so buy some Wellwoman Boost "Fizz" because my mum recommended it once.
7:46 PM: There's a Femfresh deodorant spray. What is 2015? My vagina is an armpit is a vagina is an armpit is a vagina.
7:47 PM: I wonder if I need to be doing something more fulfilling with my life. Not just the supermarket thing, but in general. I feel anxious.
7:57 PM: This task is more difficult than I thought it'd be.
8:13 PM: Apparently I've just made a note and forgotten about it instantly: "Lynx Africa. Problematic?"
8:15 PM: I realize I've spent the last hour aimlessly pacing the store like a distressed labrador. I'm barely looking at anything any more. I pick up food and drink, pay for it, and consume it, circling around again. Time is moving so slowly. I NEED to go home. For my health.
8:31 PM: I go back to the café. It's shut. I stare at the barricade of tiny baby highchairs put there to stop people going in.
9:00 PM: I realize I've been staring at them for half an hour and set myself some tasks to keep my mind ticking over until I can finally leave. I need to stop thinking about ~ things ~. I set myself the task of finding the most disgusting food.
9:06 PM: There is so much stuff here. Someone buys everything in this shop. Every weird, unappetizing or useless product is here because someone out there keeps buying it.
9:29 PM: Teacakes and Snowballs are disgusting aren't they? The sort of crap treat your nan would get from the cupboard every time you'd go around and you'd always say no so they'd keep making that quarter-yearly trip out of the cupboard for years.
9:32 PM: Princes Bacon Grill. Ingredients: Pork 43 percent, Mechanically Recovered Chicken (16 percent). How the fuck do you mechanically recover a chicken?
9:38 PM: Princes Lunch Tongue. That one's just tongue. Princes has a lot to answer for.
9:41 PM: Food is absolutely foul. The more you think about it, the more abhorrent it becomes. We should all just eat, like, an apple when we really need it and nothing else. I can't believe all these disgusting products will soon be in the bodies circling the aisles.
9:50 PM: Here's something I've always wanted to know: what's in dog food? I find the aisle and pick up a can of ASDA own brand Hero "Select": steamed turkey and rice in gravy. Its lettering is in silver Clintons font, which gives it a real air of quality. The ingredients read: Meat and animal derivatives 36 percent including 4 percent turkey. What animals? What derivatives?
9:53 PM: To further my investigation I pick up what I believe to be a respectable household name—Pedigree—just in case ASDA's own brand had some cheap, nasty practices going on. The story is the same: 36 percent animal derivatives and 4 percent named meat. Four is the magic number.
10:0 3PM: I return to the chicken wings because I want to cry. I want to provoke any semblance of emotion out of the spiritless husk that my body has become. I'm so tired.
10:11 PM: I sit outside for an hour and think about what I'm doing with my life. I text my friends and loved ones. Nine percent battery.
10:33 PM: I think again about life choices. I wonder whether I should move to Brighton.
11:02 PM: I decide to move to Brighton.
11:03 PM: I decide to leave early and pretend I stayed the full time. I get a text from my friend Sophie saying she's coming to get me. I'm so close. I'll stay.
11:09 PM: I gather my last dregs of mental strength and return inside. It's nearly time to leave. I've never wanted to be in my shit house more than this. Even on a festival comedown, I swear to god.
11:11 PM: A woman is walking around in a slogan tee with "TAKE A MENTAL PICTURE ;)" written in caps in gold lame and it breaks me. I crouch on the floor and flitter between laughter and very solemn moments of introspection. I realize I haven't blinked for what seems like ten minutes.
11:24 PM: I realize the security staff are different. I've seen three rotations now. Staff are coming and going. I remain.
11:35 PM: Sophie arrives and I hug her very hard. "What the fuck is wrong with you?" she says. "You're acting so weird."
11:40 PM: We walk around the supermarket as Sophie rattles on about how horrible and cold the supermarket is.
11:42 PM: We plan to wait out the remaining half hour outside so I don't have to be in the building any more, but I don't care. It was like opening the cage door to a whippet's cage. We ran across the car park. A man told us he'd lick our pussies for a pound. We screamed at him and I felt one tiny bit of my old self come back again.
What did I learn from this experience? I learnt that you need to have a very strong mind to spend 20 hours anywhere watching everything change, fall apart, be restocked. To watch people come and people go, endlessly. Come without due preparation and training and you could well find yourself in an existential crisis. I avoided supermarkets for the week following this.
Less insularly, I remembered that the nicest people all work in retail. The 24-hour supermarket is the great leveler. Everyone comes here at some point. Some depend on it more than others. For human contact, for routine. The staff here have seen everything. And I hope to never see any of it again.
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