Thursday, December 08, 2005

Supermarkets Don't Exist In My Neighborhood

I’m tired of waiting in a queue before I make it to the checkout line in my neighborhood grocery store on the Upper Westside. I don’t like being held hostage in the bread and chips aisle by Caribbean nannies with uncontrollable toddlers in strollers, impromptu college reunions wedged between the cheese and imported crackers island, or spaced out tourists whose backpacks threaten to topple boxes of pasta.

I’m tired of feeling like I’m on an obstacle course, or in a maze when food shopping. The giant rats scurrying around the nearby cathedral or in either of the two parks have more room to roam. Why should I have less courtesy when spending my money? I shouldn’t, yet cramped spaces among the working class in Manhattan are a foregone conclusion. When I lived in West New York, New Jersey, on the other side of the Hudson, A & P was the nearest grocery store. The store wasn’t huge by southern standards, yet there was elbowroom in the aisles. No such comfort in Manhattan grocery stores in my immediate neighborhood.

My predicament could be remedied by shopping elsewhere, but distance is a factor. Manhattan prides itself on convenience. I remember riding past a large Pathmark in Spanish Harlem, but shopping there would be inconvenient. I would have to take a gypsy cab home with groceries in the trunk or take my Granny cart (the same type of cart many other New Yorkers use to transport laundry and groceries) and wheel my bags cross-town and home. Have these local store owners heard of bulk? And forget regular sales items. There are three grocery stores and one bodega within walking distance of my apartment. I’m in the habit of playing musical stores to reduce costs and find sales items on weekends. Again, the feeling of being on an obstacle course comes to mind. Round and round the stores I go, making mental notes of which has Tropicana orange juice, Barilla pasta, or the lowest price on peeled baby carrots, before I actually buy anything is exhausting. It really chaps me when I walk into one of other two stores and realize I could have saved four to six dollars – that’s a roundtrip on the inflated subway.

I miss those super-sized Texas grocery stores with pert ladies handing out food samples, a courtesy booth to buy postage stamps, pay the utilities, and a buy a money order. One of my favorite supermarkets in Houston was Fiesta, where the selection included moderate priced clothes, household furniture, and tropical fish and supplies. I miss the full sized grocery carts where babies would sit comfortable, legs dangling, away from traffic. The grocery carts here look like toys, and those handheld baskets are full with six or seven items, which tend to collide with other shoppers struggling to balance their load.

There’s a different feeling rolling a cart out to a parked car, opening the trunk or back seat and loading up neatly packed bags. There’s a different feeling buying in bulk outside a wholesaler. Shopping in some Manhattan grocery stores can be a contact sport, not unlike NFL football. Shopping for those of us without a nanny or maid requires a budget. I’m sure that portion of the population doesn’t gasp at prices, think about how much they really want a particular item, return it to the shelf or refrigerated compartment, and walk around to see if anything else catches their eye – before making their way back to the item in question.

What makes a market super? Is it the cleanliness of the store? Two of the three stores I shop have foul odors every now and then coming from where they prepare their meats. It’s enough to consider vegetarianism. Does a varied selection increase its value and standing in a neighborhood? Reasonable prices get my vote every time. Being mindful that I’m not in Texas or Kansas for that matter, the managers here aren’t ones to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. Rush hour shopping in any of these stores isn’t for the impatient and weak of heart. The managers like to point and delegate, rather than bagging groceries or mopping up a spill in the dairy section. I like that New York is a cultural melting pot, but I want friendly English-speaking cashiers.

Instead, I’m bombarded with several languages among the cashiers speaking through me while scanning my items. Some of these same women never remember those produce codes and have to ask a manager in accented English while I wear my patient and understanding smile. I miss grocery stores where cashiers wear smocks with nametags and personally greet me. Is that too much to ask?

I expect higher prices at a convenience store or bodega, not at stores that are supposed to be conventional. I’ll do without exclusive and imported items, if I can save money on the four basic food groups. I don’t need hand-rolled blue or green organic corn chips to dip salsa at the few parties I host at my apartment.

Gone are the days when I stood in an aisle of countless of boxes of cereal and breakfast bars. I’m neither confounded nor impressed by the selection at the neighborhood stores. Grocery stores outside Manhattan have an added advantage of sackers and able-bodied students who offer to push your cart to your car or truck, if you live in Texas, for a tip. Manhattan has overworked or disinterested cashiers who expect you to bag your own groceries. When you don’t, they shoot you a dirty look when you smile back, expecting them to do their job. Isn’t that part of the service and prices when no sackers stand at the ready?

The shopping experience begins at the front door and culminates upon exit. The longer I live in New York, the more I remember the standard of living down south. Manhattan has one of the richest landscapes in the world, yet developers and architects can’t see fit to build a comparable supermarket. My neighborhood would be different if Wal-mart, Piggly Wiggly or BJ’s Wholesale opened a store uptown. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. In the interim, I’ll continue my comparison shopping and preparation for a future Manhattan marathon.

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