Traded sanity for Trader Joe’s

Let me preface this little story about Trader Joe’s with another shopping moment from the night before.

I figured, living in Harlem, I wouldn’t suffer the same price inflation as other markets south of 110th. The humble corner Apple Tree Market looked like the answer to my foodie prayers and hunger pangs, that is until I saw that everything, literally everything, from a box of crackers to a loaf of bread cost $5-7. My hopes of stocking cupboards that night dwindled as I could find nothing reasonable to purchase. I scanned the store and saw no mans land. At the salad bar,  adding a spoon of craisins or corn would be an extra dollar each. Near the register, a menacing sign forbid customers from paying with a credit card for purchases under $10 (typically it’s $5).  I searched for familiar pricing –  my god, where I’m from, if a local store were to put out these prices, they’d be mauled by outraged Midwesterners – but everything was alien to me! I  turned to the weary old man staring at the $8 grapes and half-joked about how the city was trying to starve me. He popped a grape in his mouth a walked off with a laugh, which I wasn’t sure connoted agreeance or dismissal. With a firmness I find myself practicing more often in this town, I refused to buckle to the produce piracy and walked calmly out of the store.

Thank god for websites like – not meaning to plug them, as I used to work for them – but where else can you find 438 reviews on a single market known for quality, organic and economical food? Trader Joe’s saved me. The next morning, I woke up early to avoid what some customer reviewers detested about the place, horrendous lines. I don’t want to keep you in suspense about this either – I waited in line about four minutes. Worse things have happened in my life; somehow I got over it. To be fair to those weekend shoppers that were scarred by their line-waiting experiences, I made my purchases on a Thursday morning.

It really was an ideal time. Though still busy, I was only jostled by frenzied shoppers and wayward carts a few times, and anyways, I was too absorbed in my thoughts to sulk. It was honestly like I’d never been inside a grocery store before. Once past the produce, the Trader Joe brand products were all foreign to me. I had to read each product description and assess which ones were best by how many were left. Shoppers loot the best products early on, so I stalked up on the chipotle pepper hummus and lobster ravioli, as they were nearly out when I came upon them.

They do not have EVERYTHING, but they provide the basics, in many tasty forms.I had to ask a staffer what salsa and pasta sauce were considered favorites and she knew immediately. She also became invested in my experience there.

“So are you a first-time shopper, honey? So where are you from originally? Oh Kansas City! We sell a great KC style barbecue sauce.”

She was a doll.

Trader Joe’s allowed me to successfully stock my first cupboard. Did I mention it was my first cupboard? I am twenty-one years old, living for the first time in my own apartment with a kitchen. I have survived this long on my mom and college meal plans. But this summer, I chronicle the beginning of my foodie independence – with Trader Joe’s to thank. Knowing me – I can be sentimental – I will hold a lifelong fondness for them and shop there whenever I can.

That brings me to the final leg of my story, the trek home. In theory, I was to take the subway from Union Square to Columbia University, that’s 14th to 116th, and then walk a few more blocks to my apartment. With a willing spirit, I was all too keen to travel with an eco-friendly tote full of fridge-needy goods like tangerine sorbet, greek yogurt and eggs. I had a second, non-eco-friendly paper bag of other assorted goods that could hang out awhile in the subway with me without spoiling. I didn’t really think too much about it. I just ran out of Trader Joe’s with a bag on either hip like clinging babies. I reeled down the stairs to the subway and took the R to 42nd where I transferred to the 1, which meant more scrambling around. Once on the 1, I thought I was home free to 116th. Sure, after half an hour, my fridge-needy goods weren’t in the best shape of their lives, but all would be fine after a good chill in the apartment.

But then I heard the small voice of the announcer proclaim that due to “necessary construction,” after 96th street, the next stop would be 137th. Well this wouldn’t do. I lent over to touch my frozen fruit bars and might as well have been touching a box of triscuits. Now at room temperature, all I could do was ride onward, past my stop on 116th. I transferred to a returning train once on 137th and nearly missed my stop when the subway door closed tight around my bag of groceries. Two men desperately pried the doors opened. I thanked them warmly and walked onward, this time, with the paper bag’s broken handle flapping in my face.  At this point, I think I was laughing. A young man in a nice suit approached me to ask for directions to St. Luke’s hospital. I told him to follow me and with my broken bags of groceries, I managed to help him find his way. Now if only I could make it to my destination. Well I did, eventually. I sat at my little kitchen table, panting, and unwrapped a once-frozen fruit bar into a bowl.

It was my first time grocery shopping and I would need a long night’s rest to recoup from it. Will I brave another day at Trader Joe’s? In passing the Apple Tree Market and their $8 grapes daily, I believe I will rally and return when the  hummus runs out.