Military Tactics for Grocery Shopping in the Upper West Side

When shopping for Thanksgiving dinner in a new city turns into Medieval Warfare

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As a recent southern transplant in New York City, and my first holiday away from my family, I took it easy on myself and ordered a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for my boyfriend and I.  A few days later, a friend invited us to her home for dinner, and we decided to combine store-bought dishes with a couple homemade ones. I wanted to bring my favorite sweet potato casserole, and she offered to cook the turkey. With it being too late to change my order, I figured there was no harm in having a spare turkey around.

On Thanksgiving morning, I rolled myself out of bed to stand outside my local version of a supermarket. I went up to a semi truck being unloading of boxes labeled “fairway catering.” I asked the woman in front of me if this was the line for Thanksgiving and she nodded. There was a table set up between the line and the truck, but no one manning it. Everyone in line had their reservation confirmation pulled up on their iPhones as proof of their purchase.

We waited for the employee to return when it occurred to me how weird it was that I was living in New York City, waiting to buy my dinner off the back of a truck, when Al Franken walked past me. I squinted at the comedian turned Minnesota Senator wearing a long camel coat, scarf and round spectacles. Hmm, he must live around here, I thought coolly, since I’m a local, and don’t freak out on my famous neighbors. If anyone around noticed him, they didn’t let on, but he was probably walking home from the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade that started just a few blocks away.

it occurred to me how weird it was that I was living in New York City, waiting to buy my dinner off the back of a truck, when Al Franken walked past me

The guy in charge of doling out the contents of the truck finally came back from break, and I was first in line. I read him my confirmation number, and without even looking down at his list he said, “You gotta go inside to the meat department for that.”

“Huh? “ I asked, wondering why is my turkey inside the store and not on this shady truck? I walked toward the door to brace myself for the crowd inside. Fairway on the upper west side is a treacherous place any day of the week, but on this day it was kill or be killed. Everyone knew it. It was the battlefield that lay between my thanksgiving meal and me.

Blocking the entrance, on the front lines, are the old ladies. They come shopping everyday and bring their own rolly-carts to use as walkers. If you get stuck behind even one, you’re done. They march at a dangerously slow pace, making you an easy target for an airstrike. I brought my own rolly-cart, so I used it to my advantage. With one fell swoop, I swung open my rolly-cart and spread it in all its 4-wheel glory. I placed my purse inside to allow for unconstrained movement. My armor of wintery layers protected me from a strike, but made it harder to maneuver. I pushed through, getting inside the store, but had to watch my back for those behind me pushing their way inside.

I swiped a bag of chopped pecans off an end cap before getting cut off by a woman pushing a triplets stroller. Mommy Cunts are the next line of defense. They are the sharply brilliant women who use their military minds disciplining their kids instead of running corporations. You don’t want to get between them and a jar of Justin’s almond butter. They’re always on the defense and ready to strike. I’d never get past them, too risky for this mission. I decided to go around the perimeter of the store to get to the meat department. There would be fewer Mommy Cunts over there, because they buy all their food upstairs, in the organic section. I just had to steer clear of the line for the elevator where they gather.

Over at the cheese section, there was just a young couple arguing about whether they needed fancy cheese for their guests. I slipped by undetected. In the hot foods section, the old ladies were distracted with filling their rolly-carts with pre-made dishes, and I negotiated my way through their horde undisturbed. Finally, at the meat department, chaos ensued. I attempted and failed to make eye contact with anyone behind the counter when I spotted a confused looking young man cowering behind a digital scale. Using my most Mommy Cunt-ish voice, I said “Hello. I was told at the catering truck to come back here for my order.” I presented my phone so he could check my confirmation number.

He replied, “you have to go talk to the manager up front.”

Up front? That was a suicide mission. I barely made it to the meat department with my head, and was now being sent on a wild goose chase through an active war zone. Determined to see this through, I turned back to the field, but this time, instead of pulling my cart behind me, I pushed it from behind to make way through the store like the cattle prod on the front of a locomotive.

Staying low to communicate with the stock boys in the trenches, navigating through the produce section, asking every one I passed, “Manager?” Each of them silently pointed the way, but the last one told me the person I was seeking would be at the front of the store past checkout, AKA enemy headquarters. This could be a trap, set up by Fairway’s intelligence, to lure me into the open, where artillery could light me up. Or maybe it was the truth.

The path through the store to the checkout lanes was packed tight. No amount of pardon me’s or get outta my way’s could get me through that cluster. It wouldn’t work.

Instead I made a b-line for the front doors and went back out onto the sidewalk where it all began, then made another sharp turn into the exit doors. I bypassed the entire line to get to the commander, finally making it to the far corner, headquarters of operations. I explained to the woman who addressed herself as supervisor that I needed my order. She tried to brush me off saying, “You have to go to the trucks,” when I finally cut her off.

“I’ve been to the truck. I’ve been to the meat department; I came to talk to you.”

She cut her eyes at me, then responded, “The woman you want to talk to is over there,” pointing to ground zero, the center of the chaos.

“I’ll never make it over there. She has to come to me.” The supervisor nodded and waved her over. It took a few minutes, but she made it, the first person to give me their full attention.

I explained the story again, handed over my phone for her inspection, when she started the interrogation. “How did you order? Have you already paid? Did you get catering?”

I had to stop her and say sharply, “I just ordered online, I don’t know anymore than you do.” With that she softened.

“We take orders for Thanksgiving three different ways.”

“I just went online and ordered. I haven’t paid yet, but I will. I’m not trying to pull anything.”

“If you ordered online, your food will be on the truck outside.”

“I went to the truck. They sent me to the meat department, who sent me to you.”

“There’s two different trucks outside, which one did you go to?”

“I’m supposed to know that? I went to the truck handing out turkeys.”-“Ok, I’ll take you out there.” She walked me out; talked to the first guy she saw, he nodded, and she came back and said they had my food. Finally.

“They need to see your phone to put your order together.”

“Sure.” I handed over my yellow Kate Spade case reading “that’s bananas” to a large work gloved hand.

The manager came over to me, “I’ll grab your order, just go wait over by the register.”

“But I have other stuff to get!” I whined.

“It’s ok. Go grab your stuff, and then come find me. You can skip the line.”

I felt that strange feeling when you get yourself all riled up, and then the conflict is resolved. You were ready for a fight to the death, but then they yielded, and you won without bloodshed. But you were ready to shed blood.

“Thank you” I responded meekly as she walked off to go put out a dozen more fires that started since our encounter. I started to walk back into the store, to find the other few things on my list, when I remembered my phone back in the refrigerated truck. Could I live without it? Was my iPhone just another casualty of war? No, not today.

I went back for it just as the same man leaned down and said, “here’s your phone, ma’am, sorry about all that.” That’s when I remembered what it was like to work in the service industry, and how easily I could find myself working in it again. How you’re carrying out orders by some boss who rules off the battlefield. He’s enjoying his thanksgiving at home with his family while you peddle his wares for time and a half. I imagine the employees at a high-end grocery store have been talked at and down to five ways from Sunday. I’m sure they could handle whatever tantrum I was having, but I didn’t want to be just another entitled customer who throws a fit when we don’t carry their particular brand of gluten free gluten.

I decided to try to work with them instead of against them. I went into stealth mode, sliced into the entrance again, and yelled to no one in particular, “Where’s flour and sugar?”

“Aisle 9,” a voice behind me answered.

Aisle 9, just get to aisle 9. As if in a blackout, I sliced through every man woman and child in my path. I heard a baby crying near the seafood counter, and empathized with it rather than cursing it. One more right turn and I was on aisle 9. I scanned the shelves and saw the sundries I needed were on the opposite end. Of course they were. I got behind my shield, I mean, rolly-cart, and zigzagged through the narrow aisle. There was a woman with a shopping cart blocking the tiny baking section. The pallets of 5 and 10-pound bags of flour and sugar I was used to seeing in suburbia were replaced with neat rows of boxed ingredients fitting for miniature Manhattan cupboards.

I waited for the woman to budge and then planted myself in her place. I searched the section until I found exactly what I needed for my sweet potato casserole, and jetted for the checkouts. As I made my way to the front, I was stopped by an employee who insisted I needed to go to the back of the line, around the store.

“No, no, no! I have a deal with the manager. She told me to skip.”

“You have to go to the back of the line, ma’am.”

“You don’t understand, my stuff if waiting up there.” I was attempting to push past her, when I spotted the manager. “That’s her! See?” she waved me up and blew past the weary and wounded still waiting in line. She directed me to an empty checkout where the containers of mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread stuffing, Brussels sprouts, and green beans I ordered were being rung up. I placed my additional items next to them. I was almost out of there alive when a stock boy brought over the guest of honor, a fresh 14-pound turkey. My heart sank. All the other food was fully cooked and prepared, and this turkey was raw. How did I miss that? I must have ordered it this way, but how could I be such an idiot?

“Does everything look okay?” the manager asked before she whisked off to deal with another problem.

I took a breath, smiled, and said, “Yes. Thank you so much for helping me.”

My groceries were packed into my rolly-cart while I paid, and I was ready to walk out, almost victorious. I passed other customers who fought next to me along the way. “Did they find your order?”

“Yes! Thank you. They did.” I nodded and walked away from the battlefield.

I had a couple blocks to walk and think about the turkey. I’ve never made a turkey before. I guess technically I could cook one. But I don’t have a roasting pan. Come to think of it, I don’t have any pans. There’s no time for shopping and I don’t think that turkey would even fit inside my oven. I have a crock pot, but it wouldn’t fit in there either. Aside from butchering this bird myself and baking it in parts, I don’t have any way to cook this turkey.

I got back to my building, but had to take the long way with the wheelchair ramps because of my rolly-cart. I almost reached the elevator when I realized someone else could cook the turkey. I can’t just take it home and let it go bad. I’ll see if anyone who works in the building could use a turkey. At the front desk, I clumsily explained how it’s my first thanksgiving in the city, and I accidentally bought a raw turkey, and I couldn’t cook it, and he told me he’d try to find a good home for it.

“You’ll make sure someone who works here gets it? I don’t want it to go to waste.”

Just then a man walked up wearing the standard uniform, eyed the bird, and said, “Yeah, I’ll take a turkey.”

“Thank you!” I sighed in relief and plopped the poultry into his arms I had just slaughtered dozens of innocent people to obtain, only to give it away to the first person who would take it off my hands.

Mission Accomplished.

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