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Sunday, May 07, 2006

A Very Grocery Story, also there are some umbrellas involved

This morning began here, which is a nice, literal way to start the day:

For the last three years, my friends and I have done the Revlon Run for women’s cancers, which starts on Times Square and goes through Central Park. Last year we ran in the rain. We were at the front of the line—so we almost got mowed down and killed by the more eager participants, some of whom were running with umbrellas. (Note to all who want to run a race with an open umbrella: DON’T. IT IS DANGEROUS AND STUPID.)

The umbrella-runners almost wiped out the rest of us, which was very much not in keeping with the spirit of the day. They were plowing us into the potholes and poking our eyes with umbrella-prongs and generally running into everything because they were . . . carrying umbrellas.

There are few things in this world less areodynamic than an umbrella. If you're going to do that, why not just run carrying a small table or a sheepdog or the fender from a Volkswagen Jetta? Or why not just put a bucket over your head and see where you end up? At least that would be kind of mysterious and exciting, you would definitely still be dry, and you wouldn't actually piece the eyes of runners around you.

I offer this just as a suggestion.

But today! Today New York did me proud. It was fabulously, ridiculous beautiful. 40,000 of us ran in style. It was impossible to be serious about today. It demanded two additional walks through the park, and even a milkshake. It’s got to be a seriously nice day for me to get a milkshake.

As much as I like being away, there is nothing quite like coming home. I am a New Yorker, and as soon as I get back, I relax. I came back from Philadelphia the other day and opened my refrigerator to discover that mostly what I had to eat was a half a container of soy milk, a selection of mustards, three beers, and some jam. This didn’t have much appeal, so I immediately went over to Whole Foods.


Many people mock Whole Foods and say it is nothing but an overpriced, pretentious hipster hangout. And in order to understand why they think that, you have to know a little about New York grocery stores. So, in keeping with my tradition of telling you exceedingly exciting stories, like my recent posts about laundry and parking, I will walk you through a few basic realities of the New York grocery store experience.


The average American grocery story is a big place. The average New York grocery store is not. While you can easily drive a car down the aisles of many stores out there, you really can’t even get a cart down the aisles of many New York stores. Some stores offer mini-carts, which are somewhat better. But you will still get stuck. You can experience an actual traffic jam inside of a store. Add to this the fact that most of us don’t have cars, and you will understand why we try to buy small, lightweight foods. Fast shoes, small, quick movements, small foods. That’s the secret to shopping here. If you want to lumber around buying watermelons, hams, and gallon-sized jars of mayonnaise—just don’t.


If you want it, you can find it here. It doesn’t matter what it is. You name your stinky cheese, your exotic Chinese honey, your improbable mushroom—some store in New York has it. It may cost you a thousand dollars and kill you if prepared incorrectly, but we have it. This is even more true in some of the regional neighborhoods, such as Chinatown, where you can buy things like dried seahorse.

In my neighborhood, for some reason, our local store sells entire skinned lambs (head and all). Sometimes it gets even kookier, like the night I went in to find that someone had made pancakes, wrapped them loosely in plastic wrap, and filled an entire display with them—or the night when I went in and found chicken hearts on sale along with the bread.


New Yorkers are so deeply weird about their grocery stores that if a new one opens that is kind of cool, we will do almost anything to get inside. We will step over the weak and punch small children if they get in our way in the process. When Trader Joe’s opened here in March, the line to get in the front door was over 100 people long. Fights broke out in the checkout line. I wriggled my way in about a week later, barely squeezed through the aisles to look around, only to find that the shelves had been picked clean of food. The staff literally could not keep up.


Want to come to New York and see a celebrity? Go to the supermarket. Yes, it’s true. They eat. And they tend to go to Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. There was a time that there was a celebrity in Whole Foods every single time I went in, sometimes several. I knew this because I always went with a friend who’s really good at spotting them. They frequently linger in the produce section. I have no idea why. Maybe they think that the foliage protects them.


So, I went to Whole Foods. Why? Because I am a vegetarian, and Whole Foods offers a tempting array of veggie products that I enjoy.

I hopped off the subway at Union Square. (Not really—I walked—but I thought the “hopping” part would give the story some excitement.) Coming down the stairs as I was going up was a man with two small plastic pet cages hanging from his neck. Each one contained a live tarantula.

When I got into the store and was picking out my vegetables, a woman was walking along with a small child who was obviously foreign. She was pointing out foods and teaching him the words. As they got next to me, she pointed to a fresh, rosy bundle of radishes and said, “Beets! Beets! Look at these! These are beets! The reddest beets I’ve ever seen.”

Except that they weren’t. They were radishes. I was standing next to the beets, which were huge and purple, and there were about a million of them.

And the little kid pointed to the radishes and said, “Beets.”

This woman, however well-intentioned she might have been, was going around telling this kid all the wrong information. She was pointing at pretty much anything round and calling it beets. Really, really insistently.

So I had one of those quick, soul-searching moments where I debated just fixing this problem here and now, so that if in the future this kid was in some critical salad bar-related exchange, he wouldn’t blow it and embarrass himself. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to correct her. But I saw them all throughout the store, and I was pretty sure she was getting stuff wrong all over the place.

That was basically my story about grocery shopping. The moral is that I am just happy to be back in New York, where people can wear spiders around their necks and misinform children about produce. And that you shouldn't run with an umbrella.


Anonymous Chelsea said...

Is it even possible to run with umbrellas? Well, I guess it is, but it seems dangerous and kind of defeats the purpose of running the first place. They just slow you down when they're open. Besides, running in the rain is one of my favorite things to do. It's strangely satisfying.

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