Welcome to What I Miss Most, a recurring column in which writers wax poetic about the things from home that they found themselves yearning for upon moving to NYC (or the things from NYC they craved upon moving away from it). For an archive of previous What I Miss Most columns, click here.
I got homesick in the narrow-ass soup aisle of a Key Food in Williamsburg five years ago.
I was holding a can of vegetable chowder -- disappointment incarnate -- and standing in the middle of the narrow ribbon of tile in the no man’s land of a no man’s grocery store. It was a rainy night. The linoleum squeaked beneath the wet shoes of shoppers as they impatiently shouldered past. Or, tried to. Canyon walls of broth, stew, and bouillon soared skyward. One normal-sized person could comfortably walk between them with shoulders squared; two normal-sized people could wedge politely by one another, as long as they did that crowded-bar move where you bring your arms up above your shoulders. I am not normal-sized, and there were a bunch of us. The aisle was jammed.
A personal hell -- that's what NYC's grocery store aisles are.
That was the first time I hated New York. Or the second, or the 100th. I don’t know. But I do know that NYC’s claustrophobic supermarket aisles -- and more generally, the dimly lit stench-caves that pass for “supermarkets” in this town -- make me pine for the suburbs more than anything I’d encountered before, or have since.
NYC grocery aisles are tight. They’re gloomy. They occasionally have large cinderblock pillars planted directly in their centers, like a riot-proof hallway in a prison. Have you ever rounded a corner and tripped over a rogue 5lb bag of navy beans? I have. It happened just the other day at Red Apple. That particular grocery store is underground, which I can make peace with. But those aisles? A goddamned war zone. The gates of Thermopylae. Struggling through NYC’s bullshit grocery aisles is harder than watching 300 sober.
In other words: it is very, very hard.
If you were raised here, you likely have no idea what I’m talking about. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said one of my friends, who was raised here. “A supermarket is a supermarket.” We were in the Fairway near 74th, and the produce aisle looked like the deck of the Titanic. True, there was a crate of summer squash where Billy Zane should’ve been, but other than that, the scene was identical. “People weren’t meant to live like this,” I hissed, clutching my basket to my chest as a family of four crowded towards the sugar cereals. Flanked by an in-aisle pop-up display of maple syrups, I had no escape. The fear set in. “This is no supermarket.”
Beyond the Five Boroughs, things are different. Out there, in the great beyond, there are supermarkets deserving of the name. Their aisles are vast -- vast like the sky is vast, like a six-lane highway at midnight is vast. Suburban aisles fill you with childlike wonder. They numb the dull, ceaseless agony of adulthood. Once, I wandered the colossal promenades of a Publix for 20 minutes. I wasn’t even shopping; I was just basking in the splendor. It was all clean, new, and bright. Everything in its right place. I was at peace.
In a real supermarket, away from this place, you can wheel a full-sized cart around. They have those, because the aisles are wide enough that you could drive a Lincoln down ‘em. In New York, to stop in the aisle is to submit to a game of Frogger with your miniature cart.
- A mom needs the apple sauce; move up.
- Some dude wants to price several jams; shift 2ft to the right.
- An employee simply MUST restock the decaf coffee right this instant, because it cannot wait; exit the aisle in frustration without getting whatever you entered it for.
Hell. That’s what NYC’s grocery store aisles are. A personal hell.
I don’t want to move to the suburbs at this point in my life. I love NYC -- or more accurately, I love it more than I hate it, which is all you can really ask for. And I understand why our grocery store aisles are narrow: it’s how the Adjustment Bureau gaslights us into buying more hummus. Or maybe it’s just because space is at a premium. Maybe it’s a combination of the two? Whatever. The point is, I get it.
But goddamn if my skin doesn’t crawl every time I walk by the flesh parade in Trader Joe’s near 21st. Goddamn if I haven’t found myself staving off a full-blown temper tantrum in the murky corner of that C-Town by Pratt. Goddamn if I’m not overtaken, each and every time I go for groceries, with the conviction that yes, I would be happier if I moved to a small town with a big Wegmans. In a city full of enormous buildings and bigger egos, you’d think we could get some elbow room in Aisle 8. I yearn for it.
There I was, holding a can of chowder, blocking the way, and wistfully reminiscing on the easy-street aisles of supermarkets from my suburban youth. The people passed, and then the moment. I loved New York again. But goddamn if I don’t miss supermarkets with wide aisles to this very day.
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