There are some things that the bonds of matrimony are no match for and they come up this time of year through my admittedly perverse desire to walk into Macy's on Christmas Eve (Union or Herald Square, in San Francisco or N.Y. -- the bigger the better) and, on New Year's Eve, to "pick something up" at Trader Joe's. (And not just any TJ's, but the hyper-claustrophobic Silver Lake one.) Here my wife draws the line and will not follow her deluded man into the hell-maw of last-minute shopping.
Like most people, I have a love-hate relationship with TJ's that began as a love-love thing. Mine began when the stores still bore the Pronto Market moniker, and extended through its acquisition of the old Hub Market on Silver Lake's Hyperion Ave. By now the strains of our relationship are obvious to anyone who hears me talking about recent visits.
The aisles, for one thing, are roughly the width of my VW's front seat and make shoppers suddenly feel vulnerable, as though they face imminent ambush. Worse, though, is that the store turns everyone into mindless zombies. Educated, rational people suddenly take out their cell phones and begin long, earnest conversations while standing with their carts stock still in the middle of said aisles. Or they inflict their undisciplined children on the rest of us, as though the store is some sort of playground for their brood.
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Then there's the inevitable realization that You Are Where You Shop, and that there's something undeniably smug and self-satisfying about the TJ's experience, from the demolition derby pit laughingly referred to as a parking lot to knowing you will run into people you know who will comment on your cart's contents: "You still eat meat?" or "Are you having a party I wasn't invited to or is all this liquor for you?"
Today was predictable Bedlam. Forget parking in the TJ's lots -- either the main one or its Siberian cousin up the street. You couldn't even park at Gelson's across the road, but had to find space on Griffith Park Blvd. But, as I've said, there's something about being in huge holiday crowds that lures me in every time and there I was, standing in line with a delicately balanced armful of food because, naturally, there had been no hand baskets in sight when I got here. I stood in the express line and the checker invited me to drop my groceries into a just-vacated basket. A big mistake, because a basket of oh-so-carefully-balanced cherry tomatoes fell to the ground and exploded like a cluster bomb.
"I will fear no evil," I whispered to myself through gritted teeth, "I am a stranger in a strange land."
Just then a real stranger leapt into action a quickly scooped up the tomatoes before they became floor puree. Someone totally unconnected to me who could've stood by and smirked at my predicament. And then I ran into someone I knew -- not someone who made a crack about my groceries but a friend I hadn't seen in a very long time and was happy to meet again. Today's TJ's experience had leveled off from meltdown to -- well, hardly mellow, but to something resembling that old good-timey feeling. And so I left -- past the near-colliding cars, wandering children and compulsive cell phone users, happy to have gotten my supplies. Until the next visit.