Trader Joe’s

Trader Joes

Everyone told me to avoid Trader Joe’s at weekends because it was too crowded, but I didn’t listen to them, just like I ignored people who advised me to take warm clothing to Britain in August because it would feel chilly after Italy. I don’t know if this is down to my delusional optimism or lack of imagination (though that never seems to desert me in a stalled underground train). The fact is, I see such people as naysayers, the sort who always think the the glass might be half empty.

So, a couple of Sundays ago, against everyone’s better judgement, I popped down to pick up a few groceries. It’s fifty blocks down from me, but worth the bus fare for its good, affordable produce in this eye-poppingly expensive city. When I first arrived in New York I was so alarmed by the price of  fresh fruit that I bought one pear at a time.

Joe’s is situated just in front of 72nd street subway station with an entrance so small and unassuming you might miss it. Inside an escalator takes you two floors down to the subterranean shopping area. It’s a bit shabby, as a lot of stores outside the main tourist drag can be, but, unlike other retail outlets, it seems to have  concentrated all the available bonhomie in the city into its cramped  premises.  This impressive recruitment policy is for a very good reason:  the supermarket is so popular, and space so limited,  that almost as they step off the elevator, shoppers have to be ushered into a never-ending line, Disney-style, around the aisles and towards the checkout, choosing their purchases on the way. The movement of people is accomplished by enthusiastic assistants, holding signs saying ‘The end of the line is HERE’ or ‘Not long now!’ or “You are 5 minutes from the checkout’. Assertively, they urge you to ‘move right on down’ or ‘close it up a little folks’ so that the line proceeds in a timely manner. In order for this  system to work there is a unspoken agreement that shoppers will cooperate, and apart from the odd abandoned trolley, most people are philosophical.

So,  could Sundays be any worse than other days?  Reader, it was gridlock.  As well as the samples of warm lasagne strategically offered half way along the line, extra lollipops were handed out to reward us on the home run.  I exited  double-bagged,  in the nick of time,  just as an orderly line was forming outside the entrance in 72nd street.


Catharsis at the Met

You either love opera or you hate it. Personally, I’m a big fan, and for a number of reasons. I am thrilled by a live performance that you will never see interpreted in exactly the same way again. I like the sense of continuity of enjoying a work that generations have admired  before me and others will discover long after I’m gone. And I love the communality of sharing with others our appreciation of a beautiful opera performed well, the anticipation of a special aria, and the mounting tension as the resolution of the final act draws near. There is no heartbreak more complete than the collective sigh of the audience as the hero, or more usually, the heroine, finally expires, after a protracted (and vocal) deathbed scene. In Italy, where provincial opera houses are a couple of hundred years old and never air-conditioned, the sensuality of the process is further heightened by the rising heat in the theatre. And tbe acoustics in these architectural  jewels are exceptional, which I still miss.  But whether in New York, Paris, or Modena, opera-goers are still drawn,  not only by beauty, by also the desire for catharsis that these representations of universal human emotions can bring.


Yesterday’s Cav & Pag did not disappoint.  Both operas of the verismo genre, these works depict the lives of ordinary people rather than power struggles between Dukes and Kings. The late Denis Forman* described  Cavelleria Rusticana as ” not so much a plot as a  situation.”  Complete with an (almost) girl fight of the ‘just hold my earrings for me’ kind,  some primitive ear biting between the guys, and a truly wimpish hero, it has some glorious music (that Easter hymn!) and a couple of  memorable arias.  During one duet, the elegantly dressed older guy sitting next to me pulled out a laundered white handkerchief and dabbed his eyes. This type of restrained engagement enhances the experience for me even more.

The tenor, Marcel Alvarez, who I have mentioned in a previous post, was on magnificent form and his Vesti la Giubba would have satisfied even the most hardnosed Italian male loggionista. (sorry to gender that, but I have strong anecdotal evidence).

Something I notice in New York is that older people,  women especially (and I don’t just mean older like I am – much older than that, and often with mobility problems), are out there, glammed up, living their lives to the hilt. This is very inspiring. But of course, money does help.


And thanks to Sabina Simon for the vernacular training 🙂

New York

A free ride

Going about my everyday business, I often notice potential cameos for a Woody Allen movie. Recently, on a bus, our driver noticed a guy reversing into a no parking area alongside Central Park. He honked his horn and stopped to bellow ” you’ll get towed away. Can’t you see the stop sign? Use your eyes my friend ! ” This is a perfect example of the No Frills solidarity you find in New York. Generally, working people don’t engage in unnecessary chit chat and communication tends to be brief and purposeful,

A regular exception to this rule is on buses where I continue to be delighted by the sense of community which develops between passengers. A few weeks ago, my buddy Nancy and I were coming back from the theatre on the M104 and the ticket machine was broken. The driver’s challenge was to keep to schedule and allow the late night crowd to travel ticketless without explicitly saying so. He used a variety of ‘A Nod’s as Good as a Wink’ techniques to do this and the rest of us enjoyed watching the reaction of the passengers as they were waved on at each new stop. Most of them caught on quickly and a sense of pleasurable complicity developed between us all. One passenger, though, persisted in trying to insert his card, finally sitting down in a huff. He just didn’t get it. Overall, the feelgood vibe on that bus was high.


March 2015: I have to add a post script to this. During Christmas at my sister’s home, my son was browsing Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence ” and showed me the very first example in the book : NYC bus drivers


New York

There’s something about tomato ketchup, or Instant Karma.

This semester is in full throttle and weekends are dedicated to study, so I have taken to easing myself into them with breakfast in a place called  Community Food and Juice. I usually go along quite early and take along an article to read over my coffee so that I’m keeping the standard of the insane work ethic around here. CF & J is quite pricey –  I could eat handsomely for six bucks at Tom’s across the road –  but it feels trendy and bustling, and it’s become a treat to myself and a nod to the leisurely weekend I would like to have.

I went along on Sunday morning jet lagged after my flight back the night before. It was already filling up and the server took me to the long community table.  I wanted to take the end seat,  but a woman sitting opposite said that it belonged to her daughter, so I sat in the next one. As I picked up the menu I unconsciously put my bag down on it, and the woman said again in a bald on record sort of way,”That’s my daughter’s seat.”.  I know rationally that this kind of unhedged communication is not intended to be rude. Once on a bus coming back from Harlem I sat down with a large bag of shopping to hear a loud voice “Ouch that’s my bad knee!’ I leapt up apologetically, and the woman behind me said without rancour ” alright dear just get it off my knee”.  The directness is cultural rather then personal. But this woman’s neurotic attitude towards her daughter’s seat narked me slightly. After all, it is supposed to be a community kitchen.

The daughter turned up and waiter brought their food. I had just settled down to read the article over my coffee when all of a sudden a large dollop of tomato ketchup plopped onto A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph.  I looked up to see the woman covered in red blobs  – in her hair, under her eye, and on her smart blouse. She had shaken the posh ketchup bottle without checking whether the lid was screwed on. The poor soul had to apologise to me for messing up Francis Christensen and remove the organic ketchup from her person at the same time. No problem, I said, smilingly, and tucked into my truffled kitchen.

New York

God forbid

After a trip down to the the Apple store this bitterly cold evening I decided to pop into Zabar’s for some soul food, in this case,  a hot drink and a knish. I settled myself onto one of the stools at the communal table next to three older ladies. It was Maggie Smith meets Upper West Side.

A… did she go into rehab?…

B.  oh yes she did do rehab..

A. …because they say it isn’t always successful…

C. (unclear) ….I had therapy…

B. so did I.  I had wonderful therapy….

B. I had to have the operation but I didn’t sue the handyman though I was down on the floor before he said watch your step… but he would’ve lost his job. You know what?  I have a metal femur.

B ….Anyway it doesn’t get easier

A.  No sweetheart it doesn’t

B ….but we’re still here. I had to have surgery too my surgeon was excellent . His father was the one who operated on Kennedy…. his back.

C ….(conversation switches to food in a holiday hotel) I figured it was better not be tempted it’s hard

A…. well I’m with you and he’s kosher too you know?

C … it’s too heavy I know now what my mother meant.

( B  gets up to get some ice-cream)

C. I’m just looking at that coat..

A. I don’t wear a fur coat, no way,  but I understand people who want to…

C. I had a mink coat but you know what? I never wore it..

A. Oh I had a fox fur collar, leather coats and all that kind of crap …but of course then there was  the garment district..

( B returns ) can I interest you in some ice cream?

A.   No thank you so much but I appreciate it  (comments on  man at the bar) What kind of scones?  Whaddya think for Chrissake you’re looking at them

C I wonder if theres anything on TV tonight?



The first day

IMG_1494 My bed is positioned along  the length of a large window, and I am relaxing on it to type this, Carrie Bradshaw fashion, with the sounds of Hispanic music at a discreet volume wafting over my urban panorama. After the unpromising arrival last night it  has been a very promising first day.  This morning I walked downtown to buy some bedding. A very helpful assistant mediated all the bedding terms in American English which are completely different to what I’m used to. It seems to me that my cultural confusion lies less in interaction with people and more in interaction with things. I don’t know if this is a sign of how attached I have become to material goods. I think instead that its more to do with wanting to have the right linguistic terms to hand. When I use the term ‘toilet paper’ and the assistant reformulates it as bathroom tissue, I feel a bit out of kilter.

I took the subway back which for me, with my claustrophobic tendencies, was a small triumph.  I’m also managing the lift to my 10th floor bedroom very comfortably too, so this project is a coming-of-age in more ways than one. After lunch I went to the language centre to meet my colleagues for the first time. They were really friendly and supportive as Americans tend to be. But that doesn’t disguise the fact that they have this enormous work ethic and I’m going to have to get up to speed on that. But I came away feeling that this is going to be a welcoming academic community. The day ended perfectly when I returned to my student residence and found that both my parcels  have arrived. I went to the mail room where a broadly smiling guy in the stamp of an elderly James Stewart  sorted me out very quickly.

What a difference a day makes. I feel like a completely different person to the one who arrived last night.