“Trader Joe’s is a happy place,” says my coworker Julia. Julia is a happy person. “People always smile there.”

I have not found this to be true. There are three Trader Joe’s grocery stores in Manhattan and one in Brooklyn—clearly not enough for all 8 million New Yorkers to shop there. But they all seem to try. People don’t apologize when they knock into you with their cart or basket because they’d never get to take a breath around saying “Sorry.” The grains I want are never on the shelves. And some shoppers resort to joining the end of the years-long checkout line as soon as they walk through the door, grabbing items as they pass by the produce and dairy sections, or dashing off to get something from the frozen aisle and leaving the person behind them in line to kick their basket ahead. It’s a place with an unspoken set of rules; only by buying in do you learn to estimate, based on the location of the End of Line flag bearers, just how long it might take you to get in and out. Once you’re in, you hear people on the phone, when it’s actually not that bad, saying “I’m at the end of a huge line in Trader Joe’s” and you think You clearly are out of the loop. You let yourself feel a little bit superior.

Julia and I are lucky enough to work a block away from the store in Chelsea, so we can go during lunch and avoid some of the crowds. Although even at lunch time, depending on the day of the week, it can still take ten minutes to get through the line.

I’ve adopted an in-and-out plan of attack. I try to compose my grocery list based on the store’s layout, to make an efficient road map. The things I will pass and therefore can pick up while inching through the line go at the end. I try to avoid interactions. I try to wind through the crowds. Stay focused.

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking for chocolate. 85% dark chocolate, because it’s so intense I can actually just eat a few squares and feel satiated. Trader Joe’s sells lots of kinds of chocolate: pound-sized, caramel-filled, Valhrona brand, store brand, dark, milk, white. I stood in the aisle and stared. People banged around past me and my bubble of focus. At last my eyes settled on a wrapper that seemed right. I picked up the bar and looked at it. And then I heard, “This kind is the best.”

A man was standing next to me, reaching for a chocolate bar. Not the kind I held in my hand. He pulled one off the shelf and waved it at me. “85% cacao,” he said. “It’s the best.”

“Really?” I said, distracted. “That’s what I’ve been looking for.”

He held out the chocolate bar. “Here,” he said. “It’s yours.”

I took it from him. The wrapper had tropical leaves and a big cacao bean on it. The Dark Chocolate Lover’s Chocolate Bar. He grabbed another and waved that at me, too. “Never say I was never nice to you,” he told me.

I laughed, my nervous response when I’m not sure of social protocol in a particular situation. My guard was up. My brain said, Who is this guy? What does he want with me? Why is he giving me chocolate?

Out loud, I said, “Thank you. This looks great.”

And he said, “Congratulations.”


He pointed at the chocolate bar in my hand. In my left hand, the one with the pretty sparkly ring on it. “On your engagement,” he said. Duh.

I laughed nervously again. “Thank you,” I said again.

“When’s the big day?”

“May of next year.”

I laughed another time. “Thanks again for the recommendation,” I said. And I walked past him. I got in line. I felt flustered as I waited; I kept looking around. What had just happened? Was he going to pass by again? If he did, should I acknowledge him?

Well, I didn’t have to decide that. As far as I know, he stayed in the chocolate section and shared the knowledge of the Dark Chocolate Lover’s Bar to other shoppers. I stayed on edge, confused, ready to keep laughing. I paid. I walked back to work. I told Julia the whole confusing story. And then I started to feel sad.

When did I become so distrustful? How has the city changed me? This guy was being perfectly nice. Maybe he noticed how long I stood there, weighing my options, and wanted to assist in my tortured decision-making process. Maybe he was just in a great mood and wanted to chat with someone. In any case, he didn’t want anything from me. No expectations. Just advice.

And it was good advice: the chocolate was delicious.

Maybe Julia is right. Maybe Trader Joe’s is a happy place. Maybe any store, any street of Manhattan, could be a happy place.

Maybe I’m the one who is out of the loop.

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    I love revelations in grocery stores… Thanks for sharing!


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