Tag Archives: TJ’s

Bag it, Tag it: A post-mortem for the New York Sun

You learn lots of interesting things about people when you have a grocery eye view of their world. In the space of two tightly packed paper bags, you can tell who’s vegan, who’s only able to buy groceries with government assistance, who’s getting government assistance for groceries but can still afford an iPhone and Chanel bag, whose kids need an extra boost of protein, the number and appetite of people’s cats, etc.

Today I learned that one of the last things the New York Sun did was to give very nice, sturdy and easy to carry tote bags to its employees. Then it ceased publication and laid nearly everybody off.

This I found out from the woman at my register today who brought the bag to fill with her groceries. She used to cover music for the Sun until it shuttered in September of last year.

Do you still write at all? I asked

“Yes, if I can find anyone who will actually pay me to do it.”

The Sun was an interesting and worthwhile (despite reportedly hemorraghing $1 million a month) experiment in big-city journalism that launched in 2002. Interesting because it attempted to land a massive, fully armed battle helicopter right on the crumbling ledge of the cliff the rest of the print world was digging into with cracking fingernails. Worthwhile because it highlighted smart writing, intelligent coverage and tried to inject the kind of sensible, academic conservative dialogue that William F. Buckley advocated into the New York City liberal gestalt. Worthwhile also because the introduction of a new newspaper in New York City in 2002 was a big, steaming middle finger to the prevailing trends at the time that even that frozen bag of edamame I put in the woman’s bag could have seen was a ridiculous time to invest money in a new print publication with a staff of 110 full-timers.

The Sun’s closure last fall was immenent and anticlimactic, because it didn’t have the cultural tenure of The New York Times or the Daily News, or the intensely important niche coverage of the Wall Street Journal and because it was appreciated more in concept than in practice.

I told the woman that I am also a former newspaper reporter, that I still cover music for the paper down South (though that is gradually and predictably fading away) and had some stuff run on Billboard at my peak (though I haven’t heard a word from them since my one connection left to be the music director for Jimmy Fallon’s show).

“Have you tried blogs?” the lady asked, a question which I couldn’t immediately determine whether it was borne out of hopeful sincerity or sarcastically sadism.

Yes, I said. And the truth is, I said, I’m more interested in just being involved in important writing than I am in getting paid for it, but it would be nice to make a living off it again some day.

Her advice: A friend of hers, Michael Azerrad, wanted to be a music writer. He started writing dozens and dozens of back-of-the-book reviews for Rolling Stone for barely any pay. Then, finally, he became a top writer for the magazine before writing Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana, probably the definitive biography of the band published just a few months before Kurt (or Courtney … OH NO HE DIDN’T) shot himself.

“Sometimes you just have to write for low pay or free or whatever until you get to that level of name recognition before you can move on to something better,” she said. “Of course, that was in the 80s.”

She talked about how she writes for some blogs herself for not much pay nowadays. “Everyone’s having trouble,” she said, which made me feel slightly better about my situation, just like when I read the tweet (still don’t care for that word) from Susan Orlean the other day about her fellow Nieman fellows being out of work.

No, I didn’t get her name. I was about to ask but then she ran off, not even opting to fill out the raffle ticket you get when you bring your own bag, even if it is for a defunct media enterprise.

The history of journalism is littered with the empty shells of worthy competitors who held their own against the big city titans but were ultimately plowed under by financial problems or natural selection. The Raleigh Times lost out to the N&O eventually. The Washington Star is the prime example — a paper that probably at times hit harder and faster than The Washington Post, with a scrappier attitude that certainly kept the editors and reporters at the bigger Post on their toes, always wary of what the competition was up to. The Star was lousy with talented journalists who went on to do great things: Howie Kurtz, MoDo, Fred Barnes, Jack Germond, Mary McGrory and many others (including like 10 of my J school profs at Maryland) worked there before it shut down in 1981, a month before I was born [shotgun on the book idea about the Washington Star, fyi, you idea-grubbing hounds]. The Sun stood toe-to-toe with the Times on some of its cultural reporting, but just couldn’t make ends meet in this print-purging environment.

It reminded me of another transaction at the register about two weeks ago. The woman fumbled with her purse and pulled aside a few loose bills and change.

“Oops, that’s my newspaper money,” she said.

You seem a bit old for a paper route, I said.

“No, I use it to buy papers with,” she said. “Three papers a day, ever since I was a kid. The Times, the Post and the Daily News.”

Wow, good for you, I said, not revealing my ink-stained background.

She went on an unprovoked rant about how important newspapers were as grease in the wheels of democracy, how blogs will never replace the in-depth reporting of newspapers, how she doesn’t even look at ads online but will sometimes actually seek them out in the print paper (you’re looking at them online, even if you don’t realize it, I thought, and it’s a marketer’s dream that lives in your subconscious).

Good for you, I said with sincerity. I told her I worked for newspapers for a few years before being effectively chased out.

“You should get back into it,”  she said. “Don’t give up on it!”

Uh, yeah. If only it were that simple.

Then today I came across this bit of info from the Nieman J Lab web site (see how deliciously circular these posts are?) a few weeks ago talking about how the New York Sun web site is threatening resurgence. The site still grabs about 100,000 hits per month even in its defunct state (by comparison, this site has reached about 3,500/month at its peak), and is showing signs of life with new blog posts and a resumption of the Out and About column online.

As I was writing this, my roommate and I had a brief conversation about how solid the writing in The Sun was particularly in its arts-and-culture side, and how interesting it was for the right-of-center publication to try to stake out a place in New York City.

Maybe The ethos of the Sun still has a place in New York City. Maybe the enthusiasm of the customer who sets aside her money for three papers every day will spread wide and far.

But before she left, the lady with the New York Sun bag said this:

“Well, maybe I’ll end up working at Trader Joe’s some day.”

Hell, I said, that’s how I ended up here. Another employee, James, used to work at the now-shuttered Ann Arbor News and the Detroit Free Press before landing in TJ’s BK.

But we’re not hiring right now, lady, so just get in line, OK?

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Tonight! Trader Joe’s Brooklyn music showcase

It’s an (almost) all Trader Joe’s Brooklyn musical showcase!


Goodbye Blue Monday
is a sweet little book-store/venue in Bushwick.
FREE!
HOLY F–K!
FOUR BANDS!
HOLY F–K!

blue monThat’s right – you pester them with questions all week long about where the start of the “12 Items or Fewer” line is (even when they’re holding a sign that says “12 items or fewer”), so come out to support their non-grocery related ventures.

Featuring:

Galapagos Now!, which includes Dan Scan, your neighborhood friendly dairy order writer, and Jeff, who keeps the store full of hummus and deli meats
Cathexes, made up of dried fruits and nuts order writer Scott, and James, who occasionally serves you free samples in tiny cups and was (until-recently) in charge of keeping the store’s mutton chops display looking nice
The Outabodies featuring Shaun, the store’s No. 1 source for dreadlocks, baggy jeans and hot beats
Plus this guy, Adam Beam, who was booked by the venue and does not work with us, therefore is not entitled to any witty  personal characterization by me.

9 pm!!! TONIGHT!!

One of my favorite things about working at the store is that everyone has some secret identity, some passion they do when they’re not stocking cans that garners little financial return. It runs the gamut, from painters, poets and potters to musicians of all stripes, dancers, video producers, a guy who left another job to help start a new church, DJs, plus one sad and lonely struggling journalist.

It’s discussed a little bit in this infamous NY Magazine article about the Manhattan store from 2007. The Brooklyn store is less intense than that one, but the themes are similar.

If all the different bands and artists at the store ever collaborated on one big show, it would be an epic show that would span many hours and a dozen musical genres. But then there would be no one left to tell you which line to get into, so it probably won’t ever happen.

The Freelance National Anthem

Thanks to Kathlyn for the link:

selected lyrics:

But if one day all those employees lost their jobs one thing is true

One day later they’d be saying they had all gone ‘freelance’ too

[…]

Benefits are hard to come by

and the money’s not enough;

But our treasure is the endless

joy of working in the buff

Oh if only I could call myself a full-time freelancer. Full time generator of rejection letters from NY-area publications is more apt. But at least I have health insurance.

You can buy the song here, if, um, for some reason you felt the need to do that. Or you can send me 99 cents and we’ll never talk about it again.

Side note: was at a party Easter Sunday in Bushwick where I met some TJ’s faithful from years back. A woman who worked for the company for several years before becoming a lawyer said to me: “One of the things I’ve always noticed about TJ’s people is that they have some other pursuit they’re doing that they don’t really get paid for. So what’s yours?”

Journalist, I said.

“Oh!” she said, genuine surprise apparent. “That’s a new one.”

I mean, I guess I get paid for what I am able to do, but lots of my effort to make something out of it is still just struggling against the raging current, I said.

Mostly, it’s painters and artists and musicians and stuff who work there, which is true in my brief experience there as well.

Then she immediately began extolling the virtues of her ‘husband’ in the other room, leading to a direct correlation to the decline of my level of interest in the conversation and scrubbing the mission to flirtation that had amassed on the launch pad of a half-drunk confidence-boosting evening.

Good times.

Actual Occurences: I don’t have a problem with you shopping here, I do have a little problem with you not shopping here

Part of the Trader Joe’s corporate philosophy is that it doesn’t advertise at all. It relies on word of mouth to get people into the store, and saves the money it would spend on advertising to cut costs elsewhere (like, paying health insurance for its employees).

But if it did advertise, it should probably include something like this:

ODB and MOM

ODB and MOM

Good enough for Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s mom, good enough for the rest of Brooklyn.

Mrs. McGirt was identified in the store Saturday afternoon when Dave noticed an older woman wearing an ODB T shirt. Not terribly unheard of in Brooklyn, but still worthy of comment. Dave told her he liked her shirt.

“Yeah,” she said, “that’s my boy.”

Another employee who rang her up later confirmed her name on her credit card as Cherry Jones, ODB’s momma. Not sure what she bought, seeing as we were fresh out of organic free range neck proteckors.

Here’s a video of Ms. Jones talking about Oh Dee Bee’s connections to the neighborhood and how he just liked being one of the people.

“Dirty was never considered as famous. Never. Cause he never left Brooklyn. We lived in midst of the people. He took trains. And buses, not limos.”

Then after the store closed at night, someone turned off the regular rotation of ’80s muzak and put on Ghostface’s “Ironman” album. It was a pretty good day at work.

Diving into the Dumpsters of NY journalism

I was walking to work today when a familiar image caught my eye in the Metro newspaper box, causing me to skid to a halt, lose my footing on the snow covered sidewalk followed by being trampled underfoot by a crowd of rabid Liz Smith supporters before picking myself up and grabbing a copy. Here’s the front-page centerpiece story that did it:

‘Dumpster divers’ rate

best trash eats

Easy on the wallet, not as hard on stomach as you think

A Dumpster diver sifts for edible food outside the Trader Joe’s Brooklyn store.

A Dumpster diver sifts for edible food outside the Trader Joe’s Brooklyn store.

Most folks flock to the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s for discounts on bulk food. But another group heads there because it’s got the best place in the city to eat out of the garbage.

Kelly is typical of so-called “Dumpster divers,” who sift trash for useful items, including food.

“Pretty much all my food is from Dumpster diving,” said Kelly, 21, who did not want her last name published.

She follows a few rules, like “no sushi,” don’t leave a mess and “be polite” to store employees and authorities.

Read the rest of the online version here.

This story angered me something fierce. Not because the trash pickers are the bane of the existence of the TJ’s management. In truth, I could really give a shit about these folks picking through the trash, because the store does throw away quite a lot of food (even beyond the stuff we donate to local charities) ranging from bruised fruit to half-opened boxes of cookies to salad that’s a day away from its expiration date. Sure, the turkey slammer sandwiches pictured above are goddamn disgusting, even if they weren’t soaking in warm chicken juice for hours, even if I weren’t a vegetarian, but plenty of other food is often just missing a label or in a box that’s too damaged to sell, and some employees don’t take the time to put them in the donation pile.

The managers’ problem that they sometimes leave a mess all over the sidewalk, and they’ve discussed draconian measures such as pouring ammonia over the trash before putting it out or just opening and pouring out all the containers first. I suggested just talking to them one night. Then they asked me why I was busy telling them how to do their jobs and not using my protractor to make sure the labels on the cans of marinated bean salad were perfectly aligned, so I shut up.

I was upset because the story is terrible, and because it was in my tickler file of freelance stories to pitch around the city. Odds are it would have been a long shot to pull off without pissing off both current employer and prospective editor, seeing as I pull a paycheck from what is now considered the No. 1 freegan site in all the city.

But there is a bigger story here. Many articles have been written in recent years about freeganism and so-called Dumpster-diving, so that’s nothing new (side style note: “Dumpster” divers is not the correct term. Dumpster is a trademarked name, like Ziplock, Jetski, Jeep and even Velcro. Unless it is a Dumpster brand trash receptacle, which you can tell it is not from the photo, proper AP style would be the un-alliterative “trash-bin diver,” or, may I suggest, “trash troweler.” Style nerd!).

But trash troweling in New York City is clearly an art form. People show up with bikes with wagons attached. They obviously have a stealth system in place for avoiding detection by store management and law enforcement. And they must have a pattern down: Store X puts its trash out at this hour, we can get to store Y before the rats take over, etc. This means they must have some form of communication, a subculture of procedures and planning and organization, that the rest of us would never think about, followed by some sort of distinct preparation and serving techniques for half-opened food. I know for a fact there have been tense run-ins with the management at that store; surely other incidents elsewhere have involved the police at one point or another.

And, the bigger picture question that’s only hinted at in the story but never really discussed: how have the economic downturn and nationwide financial woes affected the trash troweler scene? Is it suddenly competitive? Are former top-executives at Fortune 500 companies among those face-deep in expired cage-free organic eggs (as this New York Times story hints may be the case)?

OK, so I know Metro is a crappy free commuter paper distributed as much, if not more, to sell ads to a broad audience as it is to actually provide news and journalism. The story was maybe 12 inches long (about 500 words) and probably included all the grand research of going to TJ’s one night and talking to three people.

I know this because I’ve done stories like this before, when an editor slinks up to your desk and is all “hey…. we need a front-page story. Fast. Like, tonight. Whattya got?” Not to mention the factual error anyone who had stepped foot inside the store would know: TJ’s doesn’t sell “bulk” food, despite what the lede suggests.

There was more even Metro could have done in its limited space, like at least made a somewhat scientific approach to the ranking of free trash food. The point is, there’s a very good story to tell here, one that speaks to the broader heart of the city in a rough winter of 2009, not just a quick synopsis. And it makes me worried that as papers from the seemingly doomed SF Chronicle up to the New York Times are worried about their futures, still nothing has really stepped up to offer an alternative.

I’ve been pitching a handful of stories to different publications since landing in New York, largely with no success, probably having something to do with naivette and terribleness and the fact that even my e-mails smell like unwashed, uncut Brooklyn hair. I’m still learning my way around the city and feeling out where the good stories are hiding, what untold things the city needs to know about itself to create and foster a worthwhile dialogue. I pick up all the papers, free and otherwise, regularly to help develop this kind of knowledge.

It’s hard not to wonder, when the big papers go away and all the freelance budgets at magazines and elsewhere dry up, where will the real conversations about our city and its people begin? Certainly parsed blog posts or quick-hit subway readers can be part of it, but sometimes you just need depth and time and research to truly paint a picture.

I don’t know the answer (SF Chronicle critics have some ideas) but for now let’s turn back to the Metro story and conclude this post with its list of trash troweler places. It is introduced by the aforementioned Kelly, who, upon looking at her picture, is kinda seriously cute, and should probably get in touch with me if she ever reads this. I’ll be one of the struggling writers working the cash register inside. You bring the turkey slammers:

"Pretty much all my food is from Dumpster diving.” Kelly

“Pretty much all my food
is from Dumpster diving.”
Kelly


1. Everything: Trader Joe’s, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, Brooklyn

2. Fruits and Vegetables: Atlantic Fruit & Vegetables, Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn

3. Bread: Caputo’s bakery, Court Street, Brooklyn, New York

4. Pastries: McNally-Jackson Bookstore, Prince Street, SoHo

Another note: the story references, but does not describe fully, the blog Abroad’r View, where author Courtney Scott is chronicling her efforts to eat completely off free samples and the like, almost like a MyOpenBar for free sustenance. Maybe someone wants a freelance story just on that experiment, if Metro doesn’t get to it first.

Actual Occurrences: Self consciousness, now on sale at Trader Joe’s

Actual Occurrences

From Trader Joe’s, circa 6 pm last night.

A guy begins walking up to my register wearing an eye patch. My first thought, naturally, was: I can’t believe Nick Fury shops here.

Nick Fury loves Joes Os

Nick Fury eating Joe's Os

Julia, an energetic, outgoing, flirty young 20-something student from Hawai’i who spent most of the two hours at an adjacent register singing “La Bamba” and learning additional Spanish words to sing from other employees (including “turtle” and “little girl”), approached him as I was scanning his groceries.

“Excuse me sir, but do you have that eye patch just to attract the ladies?” she asked him, trying to strike a balance between curiosity and flirtiness.

“Uh … no, not exactly,” the man said, now fumbling with his wallet and clearly taken by surprise at the comment (or also possibly having problems with depth perception). Nothing about this man gave evidence as to whether it was lazy eye, aspiring piratism, one-eyed-willy syndrome or horrible skull rot which had necessitated the eye patch.

She tried to cover: “I just thought it might be a way to get the ladies’ attention is all.”

“Girls dont’ really go for it,” he said.

I jumped in trying to defuse the situation with light humor: “Well, you know at least one girl who is into it, I guess.”

His response: “No, maybe if she had a brother,” said in a low voice, probably half to himself.

Me: “Oh, I see … Hey, Julia, do you have a brother?”

Julia (obliviously loud): “Wait … he’s into dudes??”

That’s when time slowed to a crawl and the cold molasses of awkwardness oozed over everyone in earshot, making the next few seconds an unbearable strain of mumbled yikesities* while cramming this poor man’s groceries into his bag and sending him on his way as quickly as possible.

In the course of two minutes, Julia had identified the the two features about this customer he was probably most self-conscious about, and done the verbal equivalent of walking up to him, shining a flashlight under the eye patch while prodding it with a cold metal screwdriver, and then writing the word “butt pirate” on his leather jacket with a Sharpie.

Patch Adams grabbed his bag as soon as the last grocery fell in and headed for the door, before I could even hand him his receipt. It took a full five minutes to explain to Julia that, indeed, the man was gay, and yes hon, he was probably not going to come back to TJ’s for a long time lest we open up a discussion on recent diarrhea episodes or something to do with daddy’s drinking problems.

Only other comparable experience, from a few weeks ago: older lady customer telling me “that’s not good customer service” when the adjacent cashier told her that, yes, despite the thousands of dollars she had spent on her precious dog, it probably still had worms, like all mammals. Just a big, nasty, worm-riddled mess, it was.

“That’s not good customer service, telling me my dog has worms. For the money I spend on her, you can believe she doesn’t.”

I have no idea if her dog had worms. I kinda hoped it did. But I need to be more careful about who I stand next to apparently.

*yes, I just made this word up, but it seems to fit.

Poor Pours: Simpler Times beer

Simpler Times beer

The deal: $4.99 for a six pack of bottles, $3.99 for a six pack of cans. That’s 66.5 cents per can.

the answer to complication

the answer to complication

What is: Lager and pilsner beer, available at Trader Joe’s. It’s a new offering at the TJ’s in NY, but apparently has been available in the stores elsewhere in the country for some time.

In simple terms, it’s the recession beer.

Ah, yes, remember those simpler times before your pension disappeared in an updraft into golden parachutes or your retirement went over the falls in a bailout. Let’s think back to the black-and-white days of the Great Depression, and remind ourselves that people get through hard times with friends, and people make friends during hard times with beer, and that beer is the simple cause of — and solution to — most of life’s problems.

Why?:Because it’s the new PBR.

Such sacrilege! But it’s true. Because at that price, and with a 6 percent alcohol content (that’s 1.8 percentage points higher than Bud Lite), it doesn’t have to be very good. But I would place the taste a step and a half above the taste of the Pabst, despite the latter’s insistence that a 116-year-old fair win is the only validation its ever needed for taste approval. Plus, it’s ludicrous speeds ahead of other discount contenders such as South Paw, Genny Lite or,yikes, Schaefer.

Plus, Simpler Times doesn’t have any pretensions pretenses attached to it yet: no sneering glances from bartenders who wonder what size girl jeans you’re wearing or how long you spent cultivating the child molester mustache like when you order a PBR; no conversations about the best methods to get the stains out of your wife beater like when you order a High Life.

Coworkers at TJ’s have been snatching it up with ravenous appetite since it first appeared a few weeks ago. This conversation about sums it up:

Me: Curtis, what did you think of that Simpler Times beer?

Curtis: It’s good enough!

It’s made by Wisconsin company Minhas Craft Brewery, which doesn’t even list Simpler Times on its web site. Minhas, you’ll surely know, is the brewer of other such wildly popular brews as Rhinelander, Mountain Creek, and — a favorite at trendy Upper West Side lounges and loft parties, Extreme Rockhead Malt Liquor.

As our country faces these rough days ahead, I think we can all agree a little dose of the Simpler Times will make everything just a bit easier to handle