Being Home. And Trader Joe’s Anecdotes.

It’s weird being home. I’m home for good. Maybe. I guess. I’m happy to be back in New York City, but I’m readjusting to the way things are around here, things that I was dying for when I was away that now I have but don’t really know what to do with.

I noticed the last time I was home that there is something to be said for being able to understand what I refer to as “white noise”, or the murmur of chit chat or of quickly-caught conversations as you walk by people talking. In Belgium, I could sit at a table next to two people having an intense discussion, but had an easier time drowning them out and concentrating on what I was reading because I would really have to listen to them in order to fully understand the depth of their conversation. Now even just walking by someone on the street I catch little snibbets of conversation and sometimes I’m completely intrigued and subsequently distracted.

I haven’t been listening to my iPod much lately, all of my songs seem to carry some memory, and I’m sort of trying to start anew, focus my thoughts on the now and the future. So I’ve just been out and about listening to the sounds and the people, which is easy because in New York you are never too far from someone else – in those tiny seats on the subway, in line at the deli, picking up some stuff at Duane Reade (because what do I really buy at Duane Reade? Stuff.) People in New York talk louder than Europeans, and don’t really care who is listening. In a city of 8 million, so what if that guy overheard?

So my mom and I were at Trader Joe’s on Thursday. This was 7:30pm the night before the big storm was to hit, so everyone and their mom was at the grocery store (haha). Not only was there was a line to get in to the grocery store (for real. However, we are the country of the Ford assembly line, so things moved fast), but the line wrapped around the entire basement floor.

Now, going to the grocery store in Brussels was one of my least favorite things to do. Mostly because of the lines. The cashiers, while normally perfectly polite and always said bonjour at the very least, could have ten minute conversations with other employees in which they would cease to scan anything, or just close up their aisle during grocery store rush hour. Each cashier also always had their own money box, which never proved to be a quick swap-out at shift change. A line of three customers could take ten to fifteen minutes on a bad day.

But here on this night, back in chatty chatty New York, I found myself zoning out as the multitasking cashier chick scanned and bagged our groceries up, so I started to pick up on the conversation between another cashier guy and his customer.  Here is the almost word-for-word recap of the cashier’s one minute monologue:

My dad’s been sick for a while, but he’s okay. Thanks for asking. Yea, really, I mean, he’s totally fine. My dad is like this really hardworking man who is like, always on his Blackberry, but it’s okay because even though he wasn’t always around when I was growing up, which was like, hard, you know, he has been succhhhhhh an inspiration for me. I mean, that’s why I left California and came to New York to work for this small start-up, because I want to get things off the ground and have the same work ethic as my dad. Yea, just packed up and moved to New York a year ago…

As I transcribe this exchange, I realize I’m sort of making fun of the guy, and I’m not entirely okay with it. I mean, on one hand, this is what I love about the States – that people are open and friendly and not super stodgey. But at the same time, TMI man! In less than 60 seconds I found out where he was from, what his dad is like, where the guy works when he’s not bagging organic food, how long he’s been here, etc. Just bag my groceries! And then I remembered the most bizarre exchange I ever had with a young, hip, Hawaiian shirt-wearing TJ’s cashier register guy two summers ago:

TJ guy (possibly admiring my locket, probably looking at my boobs): Wow, that’s a really nice locket you have there. What’s the story behind that?

Me: Oh, thanks. It was my great-grandma’s. She gave it to my mom who gave it to me.

TJ guy: Was your grandma in the Holocaust?

Me: Excuse me? Umm no.

TJ guy: Ok, okay, cuz yea that would have been like, really cool.

Me: Cool if my grandma was in the Holocaust?

TJ guy: I mean, yea like a cool story. Like if the locket was your grandma’s, but then like the Nazis came and sent her to a camp but she hid the locket somewhere in her house and like, survived and went back and got it and then made it to America and then passed it down to your mom who passed it down to you.

Me (somewhere between flabbergasted and utterly at a loss): Umm no actually, my grandma was just from Oklahoma. 

Jeez. The things I go through for a box of Ghiradelli brownie mix.

So I don’t know what I like better. Clipped politeness coupled with shitty service, or a borderline therapy session that gets me in and out of the store before dinner time? Maybe it’s just Trader Joe’s, the store does exude more of a friendly, neighborhood vibe than Gristedes or Stop & Shop. It could have something to do with the Hawaiian shirt uniform, which I’ll never wrap my head around.

What’s great about being home:

  • My family. They are hilarious, cheerful, and awesome. But now they think I brew the coffee too strong.
  • My friends. Just walking around and catching up, reminiscing, meeting their friends. Talking in English.
  • New York people. Weirdos, wackos, men from Harlem with beautiful voices. I stopped playing my iPod the other day when these guys got on the subway and belted out “This Little Light of Mine”.  On a cold, wintery, sleety day, it was just what I needed to cheer up a bit. And the guy who gave the New York Cares orientation. You could tell the guy lived in Queens his whole life (born in 1940), and loved his city and the people in it.
  • Classic rock on the radio. Q.1043.
  • Shitty rap songs about thrift shops.
  • Bodegas. Best coffee, and they’ve got literally whatever you need. My favorite? Mexican Deli on Broadway between 103rd and 104th. Good people, good grub, to-the-point store name.
  • Expensive yet super efficient public transportation
  • Chatty yentas
  • Enthusiastic tourists
  • The reading area in Barnes & Noble where you can go and read books you haven’t bought to your hearts desire. Last week they hosted the New Explorations Into Science, Math, + Technology high school creative writing club, and I was about to leave, but I stuck around to hear what these kids had written. Really insightful, moving poems and short stories by an eclectic group of young people. I was happy to have stumbled upon it.
  • Unpretentious bars where people like to mix and mingle

What’s not so great about being home:

  • Watery beer
  • Watery coffee
  • Lots and lots of snow and slush
  • Super skanky college kids bumping, grinding, and air-pole dancing at the Irish pub on the corner. I swear I never was that bad.
  • How many god d*mn commercials there are!! Oh my god, it’s insane. I thought I would watch more TV or take advantage of Hulu.com more now that I’m home but they bombard you with ads! Even at the gym, where now you can literally just select a TV show to watch on the screen in front of you for the entirety of your workout, there are about seven commercial breaks. The radio is no better, and it’s always commercials for tire companies that come on as soon as your favorite song has ended, and tire commercials are the absolute worse. Loud, in your ears, stress inducing, and spit-fire speech.

So amidst all the rants and memories and anecdotes, this is how I’m feeling now. Happy, sad, cold, a bit out of it, nostalgic, and grappling with how I’ve changed since I last lived at home. Because this is it. For now at least.

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
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2 Responses to Being Home. And Trader Joe’s Anecdotes.

  1. Jim Egan says:

    Diagnosis: mild culture shock. Cure: time.

  2. Pingback: One Month In: Thoughts on San Francisco | Language and other musings

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