For one hour a week the supermarket lights are dimmed and the music stops. And it’s a kind of triumph, writes Michelle Langstone.
I thought there’d been a power cut. The lights were out at the entrance, so you arrived into a kind of gloom. There was no music, and no advertisements accompanying shoppers down the aisles with constant chatter. There were barely any shoppers at all, and no staff that I could see. One old man leaning hard on his trolley came past me like a ghost, and I kept looking around, half expecting everyone to jump out and yell, “Surprise!” I had to get bread and eggs, so I carried on, wondering when someone would come round and ask me to leave. I considered whether there had been a robbery, or a death in the store, and I peered around the liquor aisle expecting to see medics crouching over someone who’d ceased to exist in the frozen section. There was nothing, just the odd person stepping carefully down the lanes of food. It was a bit like a post-apocalyptic scene in a book, where scavengers come out in the low light to pick over the remnants of a once-functioning society. Not much of a stretch in these Covid-19-filled days.
Nothing gleams as much. That’s the first thing you notice; the plastic packets lose the sheen they pick up from the overhead lights. In the confectionery aisle every second fluorescent strip was dark, and all the sugared items seemed to have lost their power. Without so many spotlights, their garish wrappers appeared less spectacular, and the lure of the Skittles, once as strong as a siren call, seemed reduced to little more than a whimper. Two women pushing trolleys with children riding in the top compartments came past me. Perhaps no older than three or four, the kids gazed at the rows of chocolate with total indifference. It was then I realised I had happened upon a Quiet Hour, the one hour every week when Countdown supermarkets all over the country dim the lights, turn off the music, and discourage staff from repacking the shelves. Autism New Zealand has supported the move, which creates a space for sensitive people to shop in a low-sensory zone. By sheer luck I had arrived, on this unassuming Wednesday afternoon, to a scene of triumph.
You can hear everyone’s footsteps, and the wheels on the trolleys squeaking. You can hear the hum of the chillers for the first time, and the sounds of industry out back that are usually shielded by the endless loop of noise. It feels like you’re in the cogs of a big machine, but you’ve got ear plugs in, and the sounds buzz with a kind of white noise comfort. Only the chilled sections remain lit; the meat and yoghurt and cheese, the bags of pre-washed salad and the bunches of herbs. Out on the floor, the piles of mandarins and bananas on special just catch the edges of the spilled light, and their colour for once is dusky, and muted.
I have never dawdled in a supermarket, but I dawdled in the quiet hour. I usually work from a list, getting in and out in under 20 minutes, avoiding aisles that do not contain what I need. On this Wednesday I cruised every single one, taking in the quiet for nearly 45 minutes, at the end of which I felt a kind of meditative peace come over me, beaming as I left, with only bread and eggs, but with a feeling of goodwill towards all shoppers. I am easily swayed by stimulus, and it’s not uncommon to shove things in my trolley on impulse, dazzled as I am by the sale displays, and the noise. I did not need a bag, I just carried the bread and eggs to the car in my arms.
I have adjusted the way I shop to be able to take part in this weekly gift to the nation’s sanity. I have attended quiet hours in several Countdown supermarkets across Auckland, and one in Rotorua as well. I like to gauge the feeling of the hush in different suburbs. I am addicted to the quiet, and I suspect I’m not the only one. Shoppers have a reverence, like they’re on their way to church. It’s the first time I’ve been in supermarkets and not heard someone’s conversation on a telephone. As if to respect the silence, people just come to shop, which is how I imagine it was decades earlier, before we had phones, and an obsession with multi-tasking that means we try to conduct business meetings from the International Foods section. As I stroll, I imagine the lights out in little clusters across the country, and in those dark spots, aisles of relieved souls just like me, tuned to the squeaky wheels and the calm.