I hate grocery stores in New York. I know I’ve said this a million times, but it’s true. The grocery store, as the provider of food and foodstuffs, is probably one of the few things with which I require regular interaction to survive. Record stores in New York suck too, but I can not buy records. Cable TV in New York sucks, but I gave up on that after they pulled my bootleg connection, and it’s probably better that I don’t watch TV. Booksellers in New York – well, there are many good points, but they can also be run by snooty pieces of shit, and I can always take my business to Amazon.com. But aside from eating food off of a cart or ordering delivery every night, I need to eat. And it would be nice if this interaction was a pleasant, helpful, quick, and value-added experience. But it’s more like having a metal bucket full of feral rats strapped to your ass and heated with a blowtorch until the rodents seek escape by tearing through your anus and into your intestines. Well that, and they require you to carry a plastic card for a 1% discount.
I’ll admit: I’ve been spoiled. When I was in college and had my first real experience with buying groceries with my own money, I used to shop at Kroger all the time. Kroger went 24-hour when I was in high school, and around the same time became pretty much the first place to take credit cards. That meant it was no big deal for me to go in and buy a two-liter and a frozen burrito for $1.37 and put it on my Visa. Plastic was the lifeblood of the student, and Kroger made me a loyal customer (until Marsh showed up by my place in Colonial Crest.) Kroger also started building these mega-stores, that contained everything from fishing gear to bulk foods to fresh seafood to stationery supplies. Many a night, I would go to the Kroger at College Mall at three in the morning with a UCS paycheck burning a hole in my pocket and fill an entire square, top-heavy cart with everything you’d need to make two back-to-back Thanksgiving dinners for twelve with groceries left for the next week.
In Seattle, I had my choice from two major chains: Safeway and QVC. Both were open 24 hours. Both had sizeable stores with full-service delis and giant freezer sections. They offered a wide variety of health foods and veg-friendly stuff (I wasn’t vegan or anything, but it was when I had stomach problems and tried to watch what I ate.) The help at both were pretty friendly, and I managed to know cashiers who remembered me by name. Credit card payment was quick and easy, and sales and specials made a good dent in my bills. I shopped at Safeway a bit more, because they always sent very good coupon books, and some weeks, every single item I wanted to buy was on sale, and I’d end up getting $47 of food for about $16. Later, the Safeway closest to my house closed down to get knocked down and rebuilt as a super-Safeway, but at about the same time, QVC opened a new mega-store with an underground parking garage and a produce section bigger than most grocery stores overall. The two kept each other in check, and overall it meant that a trip to the store, be it for a single item or a trunk full of food would be enjoyable.
Okay. Fast-forward five years. I’m here in Astoria, and there are two stores near me. One is C-Town, the other is Key Food. There are also a lot of tiny groceries and bodegas that old ladies shop at, but I don’t speak Greek and I would rather not shop at a place where they’re going to avoid every health precaution available and spray my food with Windex. Neither Key Food or C-Town have around the clock service, but that’s typical, seeing as we’re in the city that never sleeps, and every fucking person who has ever used that phrase to describe New York has not tried to do something like buy a case of Coke at 1 AM, something that is even trivial to do in Goshen, Indiana.
To get a good picture of what Key Food looks like on a Saturday morning, watch the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. To imagine the same at C-Town, do the same, but on one of those 2″ Sony Watchman TV sets. Much like a quick drive just outside of Tripoli will confirm that there are no traffic rules except “he who has the biggest gun welded to the back of his Toyota pickup truck has the right-of-way”, you will see people who obviously have no idea what the normal flow in a grocery store should be. I thought this was something you learned at an early age from sitting in the cart with your mom, or maybe the grocery store chain pays some Pavlovian psychiatry think-tank design firm to put up the signs and aisles and dividers in such a way that people could instinctively tell that you step in the front door, take a cart, go toward the aisle with the salad and crap, and then corkscrew through the store. Not so. Most people flail in every direction, as if a boxcar of geriatric prisoners were pushed out of a boxcar and into some Nazi maze of death while SS officers shot machine guns over their heads. It’s always a total clusterfuck. And to be fair to the people who are lost and confused, the stores here don’t always follow the smooth intestinal track of back and forth and back and forth, calmly oozing customers with full carts toward the multiple anuses of the cash registers. There are always protrusions and extra counters and racks and bizarre design issues made largely because square footage is so limited and they can’t simply put in twenty foot aisles with lots of breathing room in between.
The total lack of square footage means a radically reduced product line, of course. An Albertson’s or Safeway may have twenty feet of ketchup in an aisle; ketchup products that are hearty, light, lean, dietary, squeezable, industrial-sized, single-serving, kid-friendly, eco-designed, spicy, low-sodium, or even various non-ketchup colors, such as green. There may be different brands of ketchup, from the store brands to the generics to Heinz or even some organic hippy brand that substitutes agave juice for the sugar that gives most ketchup its flavor. But the bottom line is, you’re going to have a shitload of choices, and that always helps the consumer. You buy what you want, you try other options to find the ones that make you happy, you meet your dietary needs, and you probably save money, because there will be competition between the brands and they will strive to make you happy.
This, of course, is not true in a New York grocery store. More often than not, certain products will have a “family line”. For example, the Frito-Lay family has several brands of snack chip, such as Doritos, Ruffles, Chitos, and so on. At a smaller store, one or two big family lines, plus the shitty generic, will push out all other products. So, for example, Key Food might not have Kettle Chips. You might say “tough shit, Jon, they don’t have the space.” But my bitch is that because they don’t have the space, they can’t meet peoples’ needs. And if I want Kettle Chips, I’ve gotta rent a fucking car and drive to Rhode Island and buy them. How is that “the city that has everything?” Why doesn’t the store just sell everything that people want and then build a bigger store from the profits? Or spend some money to design a better store where the cashiers can ring people up faster and it’s harder for people to rip them off and less food is damaged while it’s on the shelves and everything else that would make them more money? Because they don’t give a shit.
This is usually evident the first time you get rung up at a Key Food or a C-Town. Anywhere else in the country, the cashier usually gives you a fake, forced smile and asks how you are, or maybe if you have anything on the bottom of the cart. While she rings up the shit, it goes to the other end, and a dude puts it into bags. Then she announces the total, and you pay her. Then she says thanks or have a nice day or whatever, and you go through, and the dude has put all of your bags on the cart, and sometimes they even offer to put it in your car if you drive up.
Okay, here what happens is you put all of your stuff on the belt. The woman acts as if you aren’t even there. In fact, she will try her hardest to not look at you, as if you are some kind of crazed sexual pervert with his cock out, jerking off to the Young Miss magazines right there in the checkout line, attempting to reach a climax and spray her face with your evil seed. She does not say hello. She does not greet you. When your total comes up, she does not annouce it to you, and chances are that the register does not contain a readout that is facing you, so you have to ask her what the total actually is. If you attempt to pay with a credit card, she will act as if you have attempted to insert a large household appliance in her rectum with no lubrication. Meanwhile, there is no guy bagging your shit – it is just sitting there, and most of the time, you have to bag it yourself. She does not say goodbye. Many times, she will not give you a receipt. And god fucking forbid one of your items does not come up in the computer during a scan.
People who work at grocery stores do not give a shit. The customer is never right. When you need help, they are not there to provide it. It is never their job to tell you where something is, and there’s also no system of telling where things are anyway. Need a corkscrew? In Kroger, there is a whole section of Aisle 8 dedicated to housewares – choose from any one of eight different models. At Key Food, tough shit. You’ll need to go up and down every single aisle to find that they have one sitting under the maxi-pads, and it’s probably broken.
The deli at any one of these stores is proof positive that these people are fucks. Well, first, if you ever have to get into line at a deli counter at one of these places and any more than, say, zero people are in front of you, it’s recommended that you carry a Japanese sword for your ritual suicide at this point. Any person ahead of you in a deli line is guaranteed to be a problem, with some serious OCD issues and a project that involves 37 different kinds of sliced meat, because they will spend all day ordering shit you’ve never even heard of and then bitching because the fixed-blade slicer is making the stuff too thin or too thick or whatever. Then when you get to the front of the line and you ask the guy, who you assume speaks enough of some dialect of English that you can at least point at something and scream an approximate weight at him and he will understand, won’t. The most simple order for, say, a half-pound of cheddar cheese (which you have to buy from the deli because they don’t even have the most basic Kraft shit you’d normally get) is a huge fucking ordeal, and he has to go into some meat locker dungeon that, based on the time he is gone, must burrow straight down into Middle fucking Earth. And even then, you’ll pay like $16 for a slab of shit that tastes like the government cheese they dumped off of Long Island back in 1982.
I don’t even know where I was going with this except to say that I went to Key Food tonight and I was really pissed off because I wanted some frozen corn dogs and they didn’t have any. Now I’m bored with this, so I’ll stop. I hope they get freshdirect.com here soon.