Emma Gase | Medium Talk Co-Creator
The bananas are almost in your reach. Just one more inch and you’ll have the semi-ripe-but-not-too-ripe bunch in your hand, and then you’ll be free to continue meandering down the produce aisle. Suddenly you stumble to the side. A figure has bumped into you, knocking you into a large display of seasonal fruit. Persimmons clatter to the dusty linoleum, and you avoid stepping on an errant ginger root. You consider cursing at the figure that so rudely bashed into you without so much as a backward glance, but if you’ve been here before, you know the futility of such retaliation. Such is grocery shopping in New York City.
Before I moved to New York, going to the grocery store was my most beloved chore. I’d peruse the produce section at my leisure, taking my time debating between leafy greens and citruses. I would mosey through the upstairs liquor department that housed a wealth of reasonably priced craft beer and decent Malbecs. I could use a big grocery cart, and leave it on one end of the aisle while I reeled back to check if they were out of the chipotle Frontera salsa, and expect the cart to remain in its original place upon my return. I would load my groceries into the trunk of my car, and drive back to my apartment, replenished with food and the satisfaction of a chore well done.
And then I moved to New York. I’ve quickly learned going to the grocery store in New York requires acrobatic skill in navigating the crowded, infinitesimal aisles, the frenzied New Yorkers that push your cart out of their way, naturally, and not to mention the exorbitant prices and low quality of the food itself. It’s a battleground out there. I’ve been insulted, pushed around, and abused more in my neighborhood supermarket than any other setting in the city. Should grocery shopping require thick skin?
The joy-sucking experience of grocery shopping in NYC begins in the design of the store. Consider the Unnamed Market on the Upper West Side (this is a good and representative template for most other supermarkets in Manhattan). The 1.75 feet-wide aisles hardly accommodate one cart, let alone two people attempting to pass each other in the opposite directions. You would think—at the very least—the organization in this tiny excuse for a grocery store must be superior, else how would they do decent business? A space this small surely has an intuitive set-up. Dream on, silly shopper.
Looking for half and half? It will likely be located on a different shelf each time you visit, as the dairy section shifts around like the moving staircases at Hogwarts. Planning a stir-fry dinner? You’d be better off paying $12 at your local Korean place for a mediocre bi bimp bop bowl, because finding the tofu in this store is about as likely as locating finding a seat on the subway during rush hour. The sesame oil doesn’t live with its fellow oil cousins of the olive, grapeseed or canola varieties, but is inexplicably excommunicated to a remote, inward facing shelf near the fish counter, just above the sad display of in-store sushi. How does this compute?
Of course, there are tricks you can try to jimmy the system and avoid the crowds. But this too comes with consequences. If you happen to enter the grocery store before 8am, get ready to jump over a battalion of supply guys with earbuds in loading parsley and ginger in the section and tossing platanos between them like footballs. They will refuse to acknowledge you, the shopper, as a presence as you attempt to somehow navigate through the aisles that are strewn with industrial size boxes of oatmeal and cases of agave nectar. You will soon switch to carrying a basket, as the cart proves only to be a liability. An attractive bruise will soon develop in the crook of your arm as you painfully lug your almond milk around in search of the elusive berry section.
Finally, you reach the checkout counter. If your cart is filled with 78% of what you came there for, it’s a good day. Still, the worst part is ahead. As you unload the food onto the conveyor belt, you brace yourself. “Debit, please,” you tell the bored, gum-chewing high-schooler when she asks. “$58.94” she tells you as she picks on a chipped fake nail. You attempt to do the mental math that could explain how one reusable grocery bag of food could possibly amount to almost $60*. You then remember that the simple business of breathing air in New York City will cost you at least a third more than anywhere else in the country. Except maybe San Francisco.
*I can’t even write about Trader Joes, a place in New York that has been so bastardized from its original form that one is forced to actually shop while waiting in line from the moment they enter the store. It may be the one place in this city to get a full bag of edible food at a reasonable price, but when you factor in train time to the store, the waiting, the crowds befitting a music festival headliner, and the prospect of schlepping all your bags back on the train and up the four flights of stairs to your apartment, going to a halal cart for dinner almost sounds marginally appealing.