A new Whole PaycheckFoods opened up in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and the other day, I went there for the first time. This neighborhood is one of the wealthiest ones in the city, with a median family income of $77,100 and an average home value of $351,000.

As we all know, Whole Foods is not the most inexpensive grocery store out there, and besides the rows upon rows of beautifully displayed, organic edibles that cost $1,000,000 each, I was really intrigued by the subtle displays of wealth exhibited by the people who were shopping there. Now, I’m fully aware that the observations that I am about to mention are sweeping overgeneralizations, but bear with me because I actually have a point that is relatable to writing and characterization. (No, really!)

First, it was a Monday morning around 10:30am, and there were many women there dressed in workout clothes pushing infants in grocery carts, wearing them in Baby Bjorns, or toting them in $1,000 strollers. It was clear that many of these women were the children’s mothers (kids looked like them or called them “mom” as I walked by) as opposed to nannies, although I did see a few nannies as well. Now they, like me, could have had the day off from work, but let’s assume, for the sake of the larger point I’m making, that they didn’t. Instead, it is very likely that they are able to stay at home with their children all while living in one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city.

Second, what was also interesting to me is that a few had three or four children. With the average number of children per family in the US still hovering around 2, and with the sagging economy continuing to affect many people, seeing families of 3+ young children are becoming increasingly rare. About a year ago, I read several articles about how in some wealthy communities, having a third child has become a status symbol. It is a way of saying that a family has means because they (frequently, the father) can afford the costs of three private-school tuitions, three fees for extra-curricular activities, and three college plans. Of course, my Google-fu is not working, so I can’t seem to find any of those articles now, but that was what was going through my mind as I strolled the aisles trying to keep my own kid from pulling products off of the shelves (well, that, and “Oh, my goodness! How do you manage?!)

Third, their carts were piled high–brimming with tasty, exotic things, all lovingly handpicked from far-away places and treated fairly and organically. These women were at Whole Foods doing their hardcore, for-real grocery shopping for the week, instead of picking up a few random items before heading off to the Food4Less for canned corn and Campbell’s Tomato Soup (*cough* like me *cough*). My five items ended up totaling $50 (!), so I can only imagine how much a cart full of food costs.

Anyway, as a person to loves to observe people, I was in heaven. So much backstory could be created just from the small details. Like the woman with two small girls in her cart and an infant boy strapped to her body. Did she and her husband have a conversation about having a third? Was it tied to a need for a son? Her need or his? (And for the sake of argument, I’m clearly assuming a heterosexual couple here.) Or the Orthodox Jewish woman with four kids–two boys and two girls. The oldest girl, who was probably 10, carried the infant boy around a lot. Was she in training for how to conform to gender roles as dictated by her faith? All these possibilities. All these stories. Whole worlds could be imagined just by watching people go about their daily activities.

It’s the details, and in this case, the minute hints to wealth, that led me thinking about my own writing, and one of my characters in particular. In my first novella in my series, Greg makes a very nice living being an escort. In my mind, I figure that he probably makes upwards of 80K. He’s single, and he manages his money well, and I wanted to demonstrate that he was a man of means without having him say, “I make a lot of money, baby!” while peeling off a couple of Benjamins from a wad stuck in his pocket. So I tried to do it subtly. Aisha notices his car–an Audi with leather seats–his expensive yet understated clothes, and his spacious single-family home in a part of the city where condos are more of the norm. By doing this, I hoped to clue the reader in to his wealth instead of hitting them over the head with a “money, money, money” clue-stick. I think this approach is more effective and more realistic, and I hope that it adds to the overall ambiance of the story as well. Time will only tell if readers agree with me.

As I go about my day, I’ll continue to look for things that give hints into a person’s background, way of life, and economic social standing, and I’ll strive to include those details in a meaningful way in my writing. I guess spending $50 on 5 things at Whole Foods wasn’t so bad, considering that the inspiration that it sparked in me was priceless.


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