Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Whole Foods in Union Square is Awful

The Whole Foods in Union Square is awful because no one there understands how to shop. No, this is not entirely true, more accurately; no one is there to shop. They are there to do the following things: text message in front of the escalator, read the ingredients of organic brownie mix to someone standing twenty feet away, talk about the economy, calculate saturated fat levels on their fingers, drink coffee while leaning against the olive display, talk about Obama, talk about the tragedy of David Foster Wallace, worry if they should put back the pound of chanterelle mushrooms they’re carrying, talk about Damien Hirst while forgetting his name.

They are not there to shop. Not in the sense that a mother of four who works as a receptionist in your dentist’s office enters her local C-Town with a carefully penciled list and a small bag of coupons and goes to work with efficiency and purpose. A person like that knows how to shop, and so when you go to your local C-Town the aisles are not strewn with distracted mopes in silly, ironic winter hats who stand listlessly in front of the dairy display talking to their companions about the freak-folk side project they’re working on with Devon and fiddling with their Iphones.

These people have their minds on a million different things and sour cream is very low on the list. Unfortunately I need to get to the sour cream. This is why the Whole Foods in Union Square is awful. It has wonderful amenities and a beautiful store environment but is not as much a supermarket as a circus. It is the supermarket equivalent of the Max from “Saved by the Bell”, with people filtering in to hang out and eat and sit on their chairs backwards and whatever other pointless nonsense is constantly going on in either of these places.

All of this occurs in aisles, by those barrels of nuts and of course, in front of the sour cream. This is fine if you’re not interested in buying a set list of things and just want to wander around a brightly lit, fresh-smelling atmosphere and dream. Sometimes I do feel that way. Does that make it any less insignificantly annoying? No. It's the same kind of mundanely hellish experience as trying to walk near Penn Station or Times Square at 5:30 on a Friday. The aim of “shopping” has entirely been replaced by “browsing”, which is shopping without any sense of purpose. This means that when I want to get a really high-grade chocolate chip cookie or pay too much for cheese I have to go all the way to the Whole Foods on Bowery, which is a first-world tragedy of the highest order.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Ice Cream Wars

Now that it’s freezing outside the last thing anyway wants to talk about is ice cream, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do, because for obvious reasons not wanting to talk about ice cream reminds me of a story about ice cream.

Back during the summer, when all anyone wanted to do was talk about ice cream, I was having a discussion about things over which the mafia possibly had control. This is a fun topic because since the mafia seems to have a tendency to specialize in the most boring possible areas (trash, construction, off-track betting) you can easily imagine all kinds of obscure, mundane stuff (Tupperware parties, the button industry, singing telegrams) as being part of the racket, which not only invests it with that whole mythology but gives you hypothetical situations where a guy in a Members Only jacket ends up with a whole truckload of stolen pencil sharpeners or novelty ties and starts to wonder if the whole thing is really worth it.

This conversation, however, centered on the ice cream truck business. I feel like ice cream trucks are perfect for the mafia – they’re unregulated, locally managed and low-key enough that no one is paying much attention. If you shake down the ice cream truck guy at the end of the week for 25% of his profits no one is going to notice because really, who knows an ice cream truck guy? If this is not something the mafia is already involved in then I encourage them to explore this business opportunity.

So this conversation came and went, and of course I never expected any real-life follow-up, but due to a serendipitous occurrence I discovered that the world of ice cream trucks is as rough and tumble as in my wildest fantasies. This is what happened. I had just left a show at South Street Seaport and was in line for ice cream. This is out of character for me but I was with some stupid friends so even though ice cream cones make me more nervous than just about anything I was ready to take the plunge. Then, in a moment out of Charlie Brown or something (I feel like this is where most mundanely terrible things occur), just as I was next in line, another ice cream truck pulled up behind the one from which I was ordering.

Someone made a comment about the newly arrived ice cream man looking pissed off but no one took this seriously, because when you are getting ice cream you never imagine a world where anger thrives and ice cream men hate each other. However, this was not just the case, it was an understatement. The new ice cream man was furious. He jumped out of his truck and started screaming at the original ice cream man, making it clear that a) this was not the first time this had occurred b) we were dealing with a turf war.

The immediate issue of why this guy thought he could just roll over to one of the busiest tourist spots in Manhattan and take command of the area because it was his spot is fascinating in itself but it needs to be pushed aside for now, because this situation is good enough on its own without overanalyzing it. Screaming was apparently not enough for this ice cream man, he started kicking the other guy’s truck with a ferocity usually reserved for movies about white supremacists. He was screaming and kicking and the other guy was lurching his truck forward a few feet every few seconds but not totally escaping and suddenly I was a man without a line to stand in or an ice cream truck to buy from.

At this point no one knows what to do and most of the crowd responds by dispersing. This, of course, is the last thing I’m going to do in any situation involving screaming. My friend Lisa, who has the mind of a five-year-old in the body of a fifteen-year old (this sounds mean but it isn’t, really), responded to this by screaming “you’re a mean man” and sticking out her tongue at the enraged ice cream man, to which he responded “get out of here little girl,” ratcheting up the exchange to a level of absurdity unmatched by any other ice-cream related situation I’ve encountered. Then he told the first guy that he was going to “cut his neck” in a loud enough voice that he was probably serious.

This scared off the first ice cream man to a considerable distance, although he did not flee entirely. Then the police came. The first ice cream man drove off, leaving the angry one alone at the site, free to claim any customers who had stuck around long enough to hear him threaten to cut someone’s neck (this somehow sounds worse than “cut your throat”). Worst of all I had to eat this man’s ice cream. It was delicious, but there was a bitter taste in my mouth I could not get rid of. It was guilt. Guilt from having eaten the tarnished product of a very angry ice cream man.