The city seen from anywhere is new to me. It’s mysterious and beautiful at times. But more often, at the moment, it feels mysterious and confusing.
We arrived in Manhattan from Los Angeles just two weeks ago. Most of the boxes are unpacked, but things are still strewn around the floor because it is possible that I had more closet space in my freshman college dorm than we do in this Manhattan apartment.
We’ve been trying to adjust to life a little at a time, and I’m finding it more difficult than I imagined. Life’s daily tasks, things that I always did without thinking, have become tricky.
There’s a little market at the corner of our block where I’ve been able to duck in and get groceries. It has a great deli, but it’s small and really expensive. Shockingly expensive.
The day after we arrived in New York, I went in to pick up a few kid-essentials: a couple of bananas, containers of yogurt, milk, and orange juice, and a box of cereal. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the prices, but as I picked up a box of Cheerios — a small one, not a gigantic Costco-sized box of Cheerios — I saw the price stamped on the side. $7.00. SEVEN DOLLARS FOR CHEERIOS? I almost threw it back on the shelf.
I perused the other boxes of cereal. Seven dollars for Frosted Flakes. Seven dollars for Apple Jacks. Seven dollars for Rice Chex. I made a loud “tsk” noise and looked around to see if there were other people around to join in my outrage about the cereal prices. A young woman with a hoop earring through her nose gave me a sympathetic smile. I walked through the four aisles of the store looking for alternate breakfast fare, wondering who would pay seven dollars for a small box of Cheerios.
Then I envisioned going back to our apartment without any cereal product in my bag and felt a stab of guilt. The kids no longer had a cul de sac in which to ride their bicycles or a back yard with a huge tree perfect for climbing. They no longer even had their own rooms to spend some quiet time alone. I didn’t want to walk into our small apartment and tell them that cereal, like real estate, was too expensive in New York. I reached over and put the Cheerios in my basket.
Knowing that seven-dollar Cheerios had to be the exception and not the rule, I spent several days contemplating how I was going to tackle this grocery problem. We had Indian food for dinner and Cheerios for breakfast while I wondered, Is there a regular grocery store within walking distance? We had hamburgers for dinner and Cheerios for breakfast while I thought, How will I push the stroller and the grocery cart at the same time? Next night was Thai food and Will there be a place to park strollers in the front of the store? A stroller parking lot, perhaps? Then Mediterranean food and Will they deliver the groceries to my building? And, finally, Thai food again and Even if the store delivers, won’t the ice cream melt and frozen peas thaw before everything arrives?
Finally, the morning after I poured the last crumbs of the seven-dollar Cheerios into our bowls, I set out with the kids in the stroller in the direction of what my doorman called “The Food Emporium.” An empire of food. Sounded promising. Sounded large. Plus, the doorman promised the prices were decent, at least for Manhattan, and assured me they’d deliver.
The day was sweltering, and hot air from passing busses blasted us as we walked. And walked. Finally, I saw dozens of produce boxes lined up along the sidewalk. Underneath a cluster of scaffolding, I saw the smallish, green words, “The Food Emporium.” I side-stepped a box of unpacked oranges and steered the stroller into the store.
Imagine a regular suburban grocery store, and then shrink it in area by three quarters, bring the ceiling down from twenty or thirty feet to seven-and-a-half feet, turn half of the lights off, and take about a third of the food product off the shelves and litter it around the floor. Then you’ll have an idea of what kind of emporium it was. At the entrance, not more than 20 carts were lined against the wall. Miniature carts, shorter and about half the size of a regular grocery cart. I pulled my two-year old out of the stroller and plunked her in the front of the mini-cart. With no stroller parking lot anywhere in sight, I enlisted my five-year-old to push the empty stroller as we made our way into the store.
I passed the checkout lines first, hoping that there would be an informative sign that would tell me how the store’s delivery system operated. But the signage appeared to relate only to price specials. I paused for a moment, wondering whether I should grab a half-gallon of milk and a box of Cheerios and come back to figure out the rest next week. A broad-shouldered police officer was leaning on the customer-service counter conversing in Spanish with the store assistant manager. They stopped talking for a moment to look at me.
“Yes?” The manager asked.
“Umm. I’m wondering whether you deliver.”
He glanced at the officer with a raised eyebrow before he said, “Of course.”
In that raised eyebrow, I felt hurtled back to a time when I was nine years old. We had lived in Brussels, Belgium, for something like three weeks when my mom piled me and my sister into the car and took us to the local grocery store. We hunted the aisles of unfamiliar food, filling our cart with boxes and containers printed in French and Flemish. We did several laps around the store looking for some version of the soft, plastic-bag encased, presliced bread of the United States. Instead, loaves of crusty bread in all different shapes peeked out of baskets in the front corner of the store. A big machine stood in the middle of the baskets with crumbs littered all around it. We watched a woman pick a whole loaf of bread out of a basket, slide it in the machine, and adjust some levers, and then as the machine rattled and shook, the bread came out the other side — sliced.
My sister and I were giddy with the delight. My mom stepped up to the machine, a loaf of crusty white bread in her hand. She placed it on the edge of the machine and then searched for the switch. She felt the front and the back, she looked around the side and underneath the machine. Finally, a Belgian woman let out an exasperated sigh, her long salt-and-pepper bangs falling into her eyes as she reached over the top of the machine and flipped it on.
“Merci,” my mother murmured, her eyes shifting and betraying her discomfort.
The machine shook until our bread came out the other end. My mother shifted the bread into a paper bag, but as she struggled with the bag, two pieces of bread fell to the floor. We walked away, leaving the fallen slices there among the crumbs.
The store manager and the police officer were still looking at me. My five-year-old rammed the stroller into my heels.
“How does it work? The delivery, I mean. What do I do?”
He raised his eyebrows again. His voice was thick with condescension. “Tell the checker you want delivery. It’s three-fifty for ten blocks and nine dollars for more than ten blocks.”
“And, um. Does it take very long?”
“Under an hour.”
“Under an hour?” I repeated. Unlikely that frozen items would melt in under an hour. I looked around the store at all of the things that I would be able to put in my cart. It seemed like a miracle to be able to pile a cart, even a mini-cart, full of items with no thought whatsoever to their weight and my ability to carry them for several blocks.
“Can we get peanut butter?” my five-year-old asked.
“Sure. Get the big one.” I said.
And a six-pack of paper towels. One hundred tall kitchen garbage bags. Five heavy, round artichokes. Two gallons of milk.
It didn’t take long to fill the mini-cart, and my five-year-old pushed a half-gallon of orange juice and a twelve-pack of juice boxes in the stroller before I decided the amount of food in the mini-cart was probably roughly equivalent to the space in my new mini-kitchen.
We paid for the items, and I watched the cashier mark my bags with my name and address. The three of us walked out of the store into the heat without a single item.
When we’d gone half a block, my two-year-old suddenly pointed back at the store. “Our stuff!” she cried.
“It’s okay,” I said, sounding confident. “They’re going to bring our food right to our apartment in a little while.”
I turned the corner of Chambers and Greenwich and almost ran into the calves of two women standing in the middle of the sidewalk, one wearing a straw hat with a red-and-blue ribbon tied around the middle, the other wearing a sparkling new, white NYC hat.
“‘Scuse me, Ma’am,” the one in the NYC hat spoke to me in a southern accent. “Can you tell us whether Church Street is north or south of here?”
“It’s east.” I said, pointing. “Two blocks.”
They thanked me. I smiled, walking a few paces ahead of them while my laughing children pulled their shirts up trying to cool their hot, sticky bellies.
Our groceries arrived at our apartment door twenty-five minutes later. The ice cream was just slightly thawed, and the Cheerios cost $4.39.