It's the Wile E. Coyote Kroger. Approaching from the south you see it suspended above the intersection of Pellissippi Parkway and Northshore Drive, hanging in the air supported by—well, by not much of anything these days, beyond the convictions of West Knox suburbanites that gas prices are bound to fall soon.
The coyote (scientific name Overconfidentii vulgaris) is, of course, always bound to fall, but only after his Acme Rocket Shoes have failed to make that last hairpin turn and blasted him instead 1,500 yards from the edge of the cliff into empty space.
He doesn't drop immediately even then—he hangs there maybe a few seconds, when it finally dawns on the hapless animal that there's nothing below him but a gaping chasm. He gives us one crestfallen glance before his long descent, ending in a muted crash and puff of dust at the bottom of the canyon.
You know what's going to happen every time. The repeated failure of beautiful illusions, that's the American story, from roadrunner cartoons to suburban grocery stores. What do you do with people who spend election after election looking for a General Patton type who drinks Budweiser and bowls 300—especially when you know that given a choice between the real Patton and the guy who played him in the movie we'd probably go for George C. Scott? Americans live in permanent suspension of disbelief.
The Kroger at Northshore Drive and Pellissippi also hangs happily suspended in that instant before the long fall. The store looks great. Hell, it is great. It's huge. This May there's a veritable garden center outside the store, plus a pharmacy, a branch of the ORNL Federal Credit Union, and a Starbucks inside.
The Kroger sells and rents videos, greeting cards, lawn furniture, TVs. The produce department offers beautiful fruits and vegetables; there is a large selection of organic and natural products; the deli and bakery are large and well stocked; the meat department is everything you could want it to be.
The prices are reasonable, our shopping cart costing exactly the same as the one at this column's benchmark, the Bearden Kroger. The Northshore store, like Bearden, offers double-off manufacturer's coupons.
So what's the problem? Nothing, if gas prices fall back to $2.50 a gallon by September. Maybe they will, but Kroger itself seems to be betting that's not going to happen. The gas sign before the Northshore exit on Pellissippi Parkway now lists Pilot, Weigel's, BP, and Kroger Fuel. The store has installed pumps selling gas at $3.42 a gallon with the Kroger shoppers card, $3.45 without (on May 6, average gas prices in Knoxville were at $3.46).
Oil futures hit a record $122.73 a barrel the same day. The shoppers buying gas and groceries at the Northshore Kroger, and there were a lot of them, pulled up in Escapes, Blazers, Odysseys, Explorers, Quests, and Caravans. Presumably they came out of the green hills, dotted with subdivisions, visible from Pellissippi Parkway, and from the homes springing up along the river for miles to the west. They probably filled up for the trip home.
Does it help to know that the price of gas is twice as high in Europe? Does it help to know that, with food prices driven by the cost of oil, hungry people are rioting in the Third World? The price of Kroger's chuck roast is up 70 cents over what it was in February, but the shoppers there haven't taken to the streets.
We haven't got streets to riot in, just interstates and exits and parking lots. As far as the Europeans are concerned, they've got trains, and subways, and coffeehouses within walking distance on every corner. We have to do Starbucks' drive-through, or at best go to the Kroger, park in the lot, and then stroll in for our coffee.
All things considered, I can't say that West Knox County really has the infrastructure it needs for the coming fall; illusions out the wazoo, but no infrastructure.