Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shopping at Trader Joe’s: An Investment of Time

Living in L.A., I can claim a connection to Ground Zero of the Trader Joe’s phenomenon. This is where it all started, and this is certainly where Trader Joe’s started for me.

I remember the first time I walked into a Trader Joe’s. I didn’t grab a cart or even pick up a basket. I was on my way to a dinner party, and I had just dropped in to get a reasonably priced bottle of wine.

The next time I ventured into TJs, I still didn’t need a basket. My two arms sufficed – for the wine and the cheese. (Another social gathering.)

But these experiences occurred before the introduction of the various sub-brands: Trader Giotto’s, Trader Ming’s, Trader Jose’s. These early experiences occurred when Trader Joe’s was just a friendly neighborhood franchise…

Trader Joe’s is still friendly, and I love it for that, but now that I shop there regularly (and I always need a cart), I can also state, quite emphatically, that good ol’ TJs seems to employ the most sadistic parking lot designer ever known to humankind. There are now dozens of the stores in the L.A. area (and hundreds more across the country), and I’ve yet to hear of a Trader Joe’s parking lot that doesn’t challenge the patience of the chain’s dedicated patrons.

Invariably, there is a long wait to find a parking space. Invariably, those circling the lot (entering? trying to leave?) are driving against the arrows (if arrows, in fact, exist). Invariably, the parking lots’ points of entry and exit (often combined) are completely inconvenient (and often downright dangerous) vis-à-vis the major thoroughfare on which that particular store exists.

Shopping at Trader Joe’s (here at Ground Zero, at least) is really a study in commitment. How badly do you want to shop there? What risks are you willing to take? What kind of time do you have to sacrifice?

As a self-employed person, I might be envied by other Trader Joe’s shoppers. After all, I don’t have to wait until after work or weekends to make my Giotto/Ming/Jose purchases. I have the freedom of time! I can go during the day, when – surely – the parking lot is not so full of nuts.

Guess again, nine-to-fivers. I’ve had that alleged freedom for more than a half-dozen years now, and I can’t claim to have cracked the code. The Trader Joe’s parking lot is always sadistic. It was just built that way.

And somehow, even when I don’t enter the parking lot, the time commitment is unavoidable.

Here’s a story, from a few months ago:

It’s midweek, two’ish, and I’ve just hit a good break in billables. I grab my TJs shopping list and head to my car.

Driving through Los Feliz is easy enough – maybe takes four minutes; five minutes, tops – but when I get to Marshall High (famous for the exterior shot introducing Room 222), I’m slowed down considerably. The kids have just been let out, and as they cross in front of my car, I am reminded of a riddle a peer recently shared:

Q: Why are teenagers afraid of zombies?
A: Because zombies can outrun them.

I sit in my car as the teenage zombies amble in front of it. While tedious and absurd, this delay is okay. This delay has nothing, really, to do with Trader Joe’s.

When an opportunity presents itself, I crawl on. And soon, I make the right onto Griffith Park Drive. I’ve now returned to normal afternoon driving speeds. (And I’m still making good time.)

When I get to Hyperion, the light is on my side, and there’s no oncoming traffic. I make the left. (I’m really cruising now.) Then, I see it: the ultimate parking space.

Granted, it’s a metered space, but, honey, it’s worth the price of admission. It’s the last space before that hellish TJs parking lot. And what that means is this: I can back into it easily; no other car can block me in; and when I’m done with my shopping, I can just zip right back into the Hyperion traffic. (I swear, I was able to park more quickly than it took me just now to articulate that rationale!)


So then, after my quick parking maneuvers, I leap out of my car, dash to the meter, and guess what? Thirty-six minutes, pre-paid. (I kid you not.) This is just getting better and better.

I grab a cart that is right there, and I enter the store. I then zoom, unimpeded, down the uncrowded aisles. Pushing the cart that greeted me (and that, remarkably, has evenly constructed wheels and no stubborn desire to make a sudden left turn), I quickly find everything on my list. Not only that, each item is exactly where it should be (i.e., the crew has undertaken no disorienting rearrangement of inventory since my last visit).

I head to check-out, and the options are unprecedented. There is no wait, and that fact is true for at least three cash registers.

I swipe my card without a hitch. Then, with two full bags placed into my smooth-sailing cart, I head out the door and make the quick left to the sidewalk.

I arrive at my car in less than ten seconds, and I open the trunk. I place the bags therein and put the cart back where I found it (flush with the sidewalk newspaper dispenser).

I notice the meter... 27 minutes, still pre-paid. A gift for the next shopper.

I get into the driver’s side and put the key in the ignition. I turn it. What?

I try again.



My car is not making a sound.

I am smiling broadly (and, oh yes, ironically) as I get out of the car and head for the trunk. I am still smiling as I open it and retrieve my groceries. I am even smiling when I approach the raised office area at the front of the store.

“Hi,” I say to the helpful crew member. “My car won’t start, so I was wondering? Could you keep these groceries refrigerated for me until I take care of the problem?”

Of course he can. After all, he works for Trader Joe’s. So he’s a friendly, happy guy.

Long story short: forty-five minutes later, I am back at Trader Joe’s. A new battery in my car, I negotiate the sadistic parking lot. Finally, I get a space, and I run in to retrieve my groceries. Fifteen minutes after that, I’m back home. Another chunk of my life has passed by; another chunk of my life dedicated to shopping at Trader Joe’s.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Grand Central Christmas

My verbal skills include the ability to take an acerbic path. That's not necessarily a gift. It just is. And it is, among other things, potentially misleading. Contradicting that caustic edge is another part of me -- the part that is moved to tears by a profound sense of what I can only describe as universality.

That connection.

That feeling.

That “brotherhood of man” thing.

Although I claim no religious affiliations, Christmas carols have always pushed that special button for me. I don’t care if it’s about some little town named Bethlehem, a drummer boy catching Mary’s eye, or whatever it was that came upon a midnight clear… if you put me in a room where a bunch of people are singing those songs, I guarantee you, I’ll start crying.

(I might even embarrass you.)

Back in my New York years, I worked for a time at the Ford Foundation, and so my commute to and from the office involved walking through Grand Central Station. One December evening, I was in the main concourse area when I heard some familiar songs, and so I was drawn to a circle of people. Among them was a man in his late twenties (I’m guessing), dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt. His guitar was strapped on, and his enthusiasm in leading the group of carolers was charmingly genuine. As for the group, it appeared to have a core: young people. Specifically, teens.

I’ll never know the actual story behind the gathering, but I made one up on the spot, and I’m sticking to it. Here’s what I think was happening at Grand Central that evening: teacher man, who had grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, had an altruistic heart (quite different from his peers, who were – at the time – all wearing yellow ties and working on Wall Street). He successfully recruited about a dozen of the ninth graders from his Connecticut classroom, and together, they rode the train into Manhattan earlier that afternoon. Then, just in time for the rush-hour madness, they formed their circle. For anyone who joined the circle, they had prepared – and happily distributed – sheets of lyrics.

They were armed and ready – to promote joy to the world in Grand Central Station.

When I first approached the circle, it was simply out of curiosity. Once I realized I could do some caroling on my way home from work, I was more than happy to join in. I accepted a copy of the stapled collection of lyrics (though I didn’t need them for the most part), and I participated with enthusiasm.

But as we were into the second verse of Angels We Have Heard On High, I realized I had to make an adjustment. I had to hold the stapled lyrics a little higher. I had to hide my face. I was hard-pressed, at that point, to hold back the tears, and while I’m not ashamed to cry at anything, I didn’t want to disturb someone else’s good time…

I should note, though, that part of what compelled that maneuver was the observations I already had made. Before allowing that lyric sheet to hide my emotion, I had looked around. I had taken in the faces and bodies who had joined this circle of impromptu carolers. There were homeless women (at the time, we called them “bag ladies”); there were businessmen and women executives; there were local service workers and tourists just passing through. There was teacher man and his students.

There was, from what I could tell, everyone.

Everyone – singing together in a circle.

Everyone – creating a sound of joy.

The beauty of the noise emanating from Grand Central’s main concourse was so powerful. The familiarity there was so universal.

In that moment, all else seemed secondary or obsolete.

I hid behind the lyric sheet.

I sang and I cried.

And when I’d had my fill, I left the circle and caught the shuttle to Times Square.

From there, I transferred to the Broadway Local and headed home.

Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Subtext of Texting

I’ve said I’m not gonna do it, and I really hope I stick with that plan.

Of course, I said I’d never buy a cell phone. I said it for years. Now, I have one. (I still prefer my landline, though. I like the way the phone feels. And I’m not fooled for a second by the concept of “free minutes.” If they were free, I wouldn’t get a $40-plus bill every month, right?)

I also resisted the blogging thing. Yet – here I am, doing what I know I have to do as a writer. …Looking for an audience. …Hoping that some agent will drop by and want to know more.

Texting, though? Not sure I’ll get into that… I like my thumbs too much. After all, isn’t it our thumbs – and what we can do with them – that set us apart and put us further up the evolutionary chain? It worries me that the generations younger than I might work their thumbs so hard that they fall off…

When I was in Virginia recently, I caught the local eleven o’clock news one night. They showed footage of a community parade and a particular school’s banner within that parade. If you close your eyes and imagine that picture, you might envision the scene: Ten students have been selected to represent their school. As a team, they proudly carry the banner, contributing equally to its even, horizontal display – holding it, in unison, somewhere between their chests and their ankles.

Not so in the footage I saw. In the footage I saw, only the kids at either end had hands on the banner. The group in between were all texting. No faces could be seen. Just the tops of heads. Looking down.

As tempted as I am to curse technology, I can’t do that. In many ways, I am extremely grateful for it. As a person who earns money by helping nonprofit organizations find funders, I am so happy to have advanced from the days of large foundation directories. When I think of the hours I used to spend sifting through those tomes – the pages as thin as onion skin, the typeface easily a six-point font... Now, when I need to find a funder’s guidelines, I just go to their website. And when I need to learn about funders I might not otherwise know, I can use software. The Internet is my friend in these moments.

Likewise, as a writer researching agents’ interests, perusing their websites is so much more helpful than reading the profile in a published directory. The websites are current, colorful, and complete. The information is firsthand.

As for querying those agents, I am grateful that I can use email. Back in the old days, I would have sent slews of queries out by “snail mail,” and for each I sent, I would have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope. That’s a lot of paper, a lot of postage, and in the end… a bit of money.

So, yes, technology has its merits. No doubt about it. But… every time some new trend emerges, I ask myself the same question: why can’t we evolve as remarkably as the machines we create?

As I go about my day and see so many people texting, I fear for all the thumbs that might soon fall off. And I wonder: with so many heads cast down… will anybody notice?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Excerpts from my Self-Employment Manual

Work Hours and Leave Policies:

Overview: Here at Katie Dot Com, we know that individuals are not born to produce on some kind of set schedule. Nine o’clock is as arbitrary a time as five o’clock, and why shouldn’t A.M. and P.M. be interchangeable? Who cares, really?

Sick Leave: Not feeling well? Then, for God’s sake, stay in bed! You’re a Katie Dot Com employee, so we trust you! We know that you’ll get the job done. Don’t feel that you have to show up simply because it’s a Monday or a Tuesday or a Wednesday or a Thursday or a Friday. Just get better! Take care of yourself!

Vacations: Okay, chances are, as a Katie Dot Com employee, you don’t have a whole lot of money to throw around on cruises and stuff like that. But: if you need to get out of town for a while, just make your plans, put out the word, give everybody the big head’s up, and be on your way. Rest assured, the work will still be there when you get back.

Personal Days: Come on, people! Isn’t every day a personal day?

Dress Code:

Here at Katie Dot Com, we pride ourselves in recognizing that individuals have their own style. We also believe that people are most productive when they are comfortable. Accordingly, we do not dare to impose policies regarding dress. We also believe that when an employee of Katie Dot Com arrives at her workstation, her primary concern should be coffee. Therefore, if the clothes the employee is wearing allow her to make coffee, then – in our opinion – she is pretty much dressed for work.

As to secondary concerns, the work here at Katie Dot Com has everything to do with deadlines. Accordingly, if, during the course of meeting a deadline, an employee of Katie Dot Com needs to change her clothes, that is perfectly reasonable (and also encouraged).

Of course, even a business that exists in the corner of a kitchen needs to mix things up at times. Accordingly, Katie Dot Com recommends Not-So-Casual Fridays. While this is not a deal-breaker, and no employee will ever be fired for refusing to play a part in this concept, the wearing of underwear is encouraged on Fridays. It’s just our way of reminding us that the weekend is approaching…

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bully Pulpit

When I hear or see the phrase, “the bully pulpit,” the wordsmith in me cannot help but do a word scramble. And the result of that is pitbull.

(But I don't also think of lipstick, a la Mizz Palin.)

The country I call home – the “good ol’ USA” – seems always to have had the best possible billing on the world’s bully pulpit, and while I question our authority and stellar positioning, I must confess that I am grateful for the passage of time…

It wasn’t even two years ago, I guess, when the news was all about water-boarding. I was listening to NPR one day, and the story included a sound byte from our then-President. I can’t claim to quote him verbatim, but his comment went something like this: “In our country,” our then-President said, “we do not torture people.”

I leapt from the couch.

I ran toward my stereo.

I spoke into the base of the sound system that was providing radio frequency.


Because he was (simply by speaking). Because he did (simply by assuming such an important role). Because he could…

Every time that entitled son-of-a-bitch opened his mouth, I felt tortured.

Not so with Obama.

I appreciate the fact that the man thinks. I appreciate that he cares and is willing to take the time to explain. I appreciate that he has more “on his plate” than any predecessor in the Oval Office.

But, no matter my opinion of the person standing at the world’s premier bully pulpit, I remain confused. I will probably never understand international politics and the thought processes that allow it to unfold as it does. I will probably never understand why “we” think that sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan will get the job done.

And what is “the job,” anyway? It’s about al Qaeda, right? And the Taliban? I don’t know, but unless I’ve missed something, that group doesn’t exactly exist in ground-war circuits. That group is about belief systems. They are about psychology. And that’s a totally different kind of war.

According to what I know of the 9-11 attacks, these people want to die. The process takes them that much closer to their purpose.

So, have we asked our troops about their philosophies? Do they want to die? And if they do, do they know what they’re dying for?

It’s a shame that our country became so powerful so quickly. At first blush, we were the spoiled teenager. You know the one – who, on the same day, gets both a driver’s license and a brand new car. We’ve been speeding about quite cleverly since then, amassing riches (and more recently, debt). It seems, though, that we’ve yet to stand back and take stock of our own worthiness.

Our own worthiness… a broken public education system, marked by increasing illiteracy; hunger and homelessness on the rise; growing rates of unemployment; home foreclosures left and right; millions without affordable healthcare coverage; collectively dismal credit ratings reflecting lives outspent…

Who are we to show some other country how to behave? And, if Bin Laden and his band of merry men are really what we’re looking for, does it have to take 30,000 troops to bring them to their knees?

America – once the unrestricted adolescent – is now closer to thirtysomething.

Sure, we might have traded in that first car (a few times), and we may now be driving a hybrid, but… do we know where we're going?

On-star, are you with us?