Phoenix's Safegay: Thoughts on Vanity, the Past, and Grocery Shopping in Public

Behold, Safegay in Midtown.
Behold, Safegay in Midtown. Google Maps
Each morning I walk past Safegay. I’ve called my neighborhood grocer by that silly sobriquet for so long, I don’t remember if I made it up, or if someone else did and I appropriated it. I’ll have to ask my husband; he’ll know.

I began walking a few months ago. I am dieting, trying to shed the sheltering-at-home pounds I’d acquired from my proximity to pantry and bar cart. Those last five pounds weren’t budging; walking, I thought, might help. Also, there was a madman running the country and it looked like he might be reelected, and people were getting sick and dying and it was no longer safe to leave the house. I needed to do something to burn off steam, something that didn’t involve Maker’s Mark or another box of Nilla wafers.

So, each morning I walk, past houses and midcentury apartment buildings and the Safeway at 520 West Osborn, which I, or someone, began to call Safegay because it seemed always to be filled with attractive gay men, buying mums and sourdough and hair gel. Other people shopped there as well, though I came to think of them as the people who came there to look at the attractive gay men.

As I walk by, I think about the old days, before the world shut down, when I shopped at Safegay each Wednesday, looking for canned salmon and trying not to feel less-than.

Today we do curbside pickup from a grocer further downtown. Did I abandon Safegay in favor of the other market because Safegay didn’t offer curbside pickup? I can’t remember that, either. Everything we took for granted seems so long ago.

I had abandoned Safegay another time, as well. Before we’d relocated to Midtown and lived as we do now, practically next door to Safegay, we’d lived in a downtown historic district that offered an excuse not to drive to Seventh and Osborn avenues to do my marketing: There was another Safeway close to us. It had a nickname, too: Ghetto Safeway. It was a rude epithet, one I refused to use but which, it was explained to me, was a reference to the recent past, when Seventh Street and McDowell Road was still considered an unsafe neighborhood.

I remembered that time. I’d moved downtown in the early 1980s before people used terms like “gentrification” and “revitalized urban core” to describe any part of our city. Downtown was scary and forgotten still. I managed a record store, even further south, and I knew the people who slept in the planter boxes in front of the store. They asked for money while I unlocked the door each morning. The owners of the store paid a security guard to stand just outside, his presence a promise to shoppers that it was a safe place to buy the new Thompson Twins album.

So, the panhandlers in the parking lot of Ghetto Safeway, gently harassed by a man in a security guard’s costume who stood near the entrance, felt nostalgic to me. If the guard wasn’t watching, I’d sneak the beggars some change. They were as entitled to a bottle of bourbon as I was.

My husband argued that the distance between the two Safeways was the same, and that I should shop at Safegay, as he did, because it was bigger and cleaner. He teased me with things that mattered to me, like how his Safeway had a proper floral department and a full-sized deli. The butcher counter, he reminded me more than once, had a glass case full of fresh meat and a real live butcher with whom one could discuss the size of a prawn or the best preparation of a skirt steak.

Always I demurred. My husband, a kind, patient man, would sometimes try to reason with me.

“You don’t have to dress up,” he’d say. “You invented that part. No one cares what you look like at my Safeway. At any Safeway.”

I cared. I had been to his Safeway, and it was chockablock with the cutest homosexuals in all of Maricopa County. I was never a fan of grocery shopping but having to gather food while feeling old and ugly and badly attired was too much.

There was no security guard at Safegay, but had there been, I knew he’d sneer at my footwear.

At Ghetto Safeway — and really, I thought, at any other grocery in town — I could turn up not having combed my hair or changed out of the T-shirt I’d slept in. But a trip to Safegay, if the unlined glamour of its male shoppers was any indication, appeared to require that I apply a mud-mask facial three hours prior, preceded by an exfoliating scrub and followed by a moisturizing treatment, perhaps involving aloe. Probably there would be bronzer. Also, cologne.

My hair, I knew, would have to be “done,” then allowed to peep slightly from beneath a $200 baseball cap embroidered with the logo of this season’s most popular fashion mogul. I owned, I knew, neither the correct pair of designer tennis shorts to wear to Safegay, nor the proper pair of legs to snake attractively out from inside them.

My eyes were not piercingly blue enough to shop at Safegay. But when we moved, a couple of years ago, into Safegay’s neighborhood, I began to. The trip to Ghetto Safeway was no longer the same distance as Safegay, which I could see from the balconies of our apartment. I tucked my vanity just behind my need for expediency and joined all those pretty boys in the produce aisle. Sheepishly, as if I were emblazoned with warts and wore a dowager’s hump.

The floral department was delightful.

I think about it now, each morning as I walk past Safegay. Did I really used to go inside a grocery store? I wonder. And was there really a time when I cared so much about how I looked that I wouldn’t have? What the hell was that?

Today, as I marched past Safegay in snagged rayon yoga pants and my flattened gym shoes, I thought about vanity, and about ingratitude. I resolved that, should the old world ever reappear, I would march proudly into Safegay in my dingiest grocery-shopping attire, my face unwashed and my hair uncombed. I would smile at the pretty people and not feel ashamed to be seen alongside them.

First, though, I’d need to lose these last five pounds.
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela