Mr. Ugli Fruit or: How I Stopped Being Nice and Learned to Hate Fairway

The Grocery Wars have made Manhattan a battlefield strewn with fallen asparagus, and no turf is more contested than the Upper West Side, where battered heavyweight Fairway fends off competitors.

Yes, “hate” is a strong word, and I don’t throw it around often, except when referring to New York’s transit system or That ‘70s Show. My mother, a devout born-again Christian, has always told me the only thing worthy of hate is the work of the Devil. Well, considering that he tempted Eve with one hell of an apple, and that Fairway, Manhattan’s self-christened food market “like no other,” offers shoppers some of the most seductive produce around, I feel my ire is ecclesiastically sanctioned.

Fairway didn’t always raise my hackles. When I first moved to the Upper West Side in 1993 from Brooklyn’s then-gastronomically barren Cobble Hill, I was awestruck by the mountains of fresh fruits and vegetables, sometimes strange and always beautiful, that lined its storefront. It took a degree in architectural engineering to figure out how to grab a few apples, dates, or ugli fruit without the entire heap tumbling down upon your head. The cheese department, assembled by James Beard award-winning author Steve Jenkins, is one of the finest in the country (although in his stentorious modesty, he’d likely say the world). You could order from the prepared-foods counter every day and not repeat a meal for six weeks. And that was the fun. In the early ‘90s, Fairway was so innovative, so brash, so New York.

But then it took over the adjacent D’Agostino, a ground feeder in the food chain of food chain stores. And that’s when I noticed everything going south. The market began suffering from a case of being too big for its britches: Cashiers grew snarky, managers turned surly, produce men avoided me, and worst of all, customers—even some of my own neighbors—turned pathologically passive-aggressive. Despite deep-breathing exercises and attempts at a little anger management, I began a slow, steady simmer of loathing.

My first major clash was with a cashier with attitude. I placed my hand basket on the counter and fished in my pocket for a few crumpled bills. When I looked up, she was staring me.

“Take the stuff out of the basket,” she ordered.

“Excuse me?”

“I said, ‘Take the stuff out of the basket.’” Then she crossed her arms, cocked her head to one side, and sucked in her cheeks like the models do on the cover of Vogue.

“No, you take the stuff out of the basket,” I shot back, crossing my arms, too. “That’s your job.”

She just stared at me with those half-lidded eyes.

I scrambled for a witty, David Niven retort to disarm the situation, but all I could manage was a pansified: “Well…well, I pay your salary, missy.” A few cashiers nearby went silent; one put her hand on her hip. A bouncer-sized guy who was directing store traffic appeared to move a step closer. The pinch-faced woman next to me in line wrinkled her nose as if she smelled a gym locker full of festering socks. So this is what it feels like to be a fish in an aquarium, I thought. But I couldn’t back down now. I’d been made to feel like an intrusion, a carbuncle upon the lives of these cashiers, who for too long ignored me while carrying on raucous conversations with each other, and I wasn’t going to take it anymore. And neither were my brethren shoppers, I decided. I imagined myself an overweight Norma Rae, clambering onto the counter holding up a sign reading, “Food Fight!” Rallied by my actions, the customers descended upon the workers, letting out years of pent-up rage. Even old Pinch Face was straddling a stock boy, pummeling him senseless with her Kelly bag.

“Would you just take the freaking stuff out of the basket?” At first the voice sounded muffled and far away, as if someone were speaking from the wrong side of a megaphone. But it grew loud and grizzled and woke me. It belonged to a pissed-off man at the end of the line behind me. I looked at the cashier; she hadn’t budged. Humiliated, I caved and deposited the groceries on the counter with a resigned shake of my head, not unlike the way Mary Tyler Moore tosses that over-priced steak into her cart in the opening credits of her show. I grabbed my change and slunk out, making a wide arc around Bouncer Boy.

“It has to be a front for money laundering or number running,” I said to friends at dinner not long after, as I served short ribs I had bought at nearby Citarella, as much out of embarrassment as protest. “How else can you explain the colossally rude service?” My guests just rolled their eyes, passing off my protestations as just another in a string of obsessions, like when I spent weeks trying to convince them not to drink soy milk because I heard it was poisonous or that lemon curd was the new chocolate.

When I walked in, shame prickled my face, and I was sure someone was going to point a finger and shout in a thunderous, godlike voice, “Behold the ass who attempted to fell the great House of Fairway!” After that, I boycotted the joint and undertook a supermarket version of speed dating, courting most of the area food stores. Pioneer: Could a market be any dirtier? Gristedes and Citarella: I refuse to sell my remaining kidney so I can afford to buy a filet mignon. Westside Market: produce: 4, service: 3, which was two points better than Fairway. Whole Foods at the new Time-Warner building: I wasn’t about to haul groceries 18 blocks back home without a chauffeur, even if one of the fringe benefits of shopping there was playing dumb so the prepared-food servers would offer me a taste of everything.

Debauched after a month of indiscriminate shopping, I came to a horrible realization: Not only am I cheap, I am also lazy. Of all the stores in the neighborhood, the closest and least expensive was Fairway. “What about FreshDirect?” a friend suggested. An online grocer, FreshDirect lets you shop from the comfort of your couch and delivers to your door in record time. It was tempting to use them, if for no other reason than that they’re the sworn enemy of Fairway in the War of the Groceries on the Upper West Side. But I steadfastly refused. I’m the kind of guy who likes to squeeze his own melons.

Having burned through the neighborhood stores, I had no other recourse but to return. When I walked in, shame prickled my face, and I was sure someone was going to point a finger and shout in a thunderous, godlike voice, “Behold the ass who attempted to fell the great House of Fairway!” But no such thing happened. In fact, no one even noticed I was there. And so it went for quite a while, nothing but benign neglect and irritating invisibility. Then one afternoon I went shopping for a dinner party. I scanned the produce section, which was being restocked for the early-evening rush, and saw a man lobbing lemons up to the farthest reaches of a fruit mountain.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Could you tell me where the Seville oranges are?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“It says right there,” I said, pointing to a handwritten sign above, “‘Seville oranges,’ but these are all tangerines.”

Again the shrug. Then it dawned on me: He doesn’t speak English. “Sorry,” I said. He nodded and resumed his tossing. A week or so later I was burrowing through the garlic bin when I saw a petite young thing in capri pants who could have been right out of Smith or Barnard approach my produce guy. I smiled, waiting to see her reaction to his wordless ways.

“Excuse me, what are those?” she asked, pointing what looked like celery stalks on steroids.

“Cardoons,” he said with hardly an accent. My face went slack. I looked on in disbelief as they shared a few more pleasantries.

“That’s it!” I said to no one in particular. I dropped my hand basket in the garlic bin and stormed out, the smell of self-righteousness billowing behind me like so much Hai Karate. If he can choose the people he wants to help, I thought, then I can choose the store that helps me. When I got home, I realized I’d left a birthday card I’d just bought at Hallmark back in the hand basket. Ah, to hell with it, I thought. A dollar ninety-nine was a bargain-basement price to pay for my freedom.

But like an abused dog, I returned again to my tormentor. And the indignations have continued unabated. I’ve had skirmishes with nearly every cashier and a run-in with a manager who actually screamed at me. (It wasn’t my fault, really: I had to go to him three times to find out where the Bell’s Seasoning was, and each time he sent me off in the wrong direction. When I returned the final time, he took one look at me and blew up.) And then there was the old woman who decided the only way to get through the dairy section faster was to ram her cart repeatedly into the back of my heels.

Of course, there’s always the chance that in time I could learn to hate my own moral lassitude (damn Devil’s work!), which might propel me, shopping list in hand, across town to find succor in some other food store. But, then, where would I find such lovely cardoons?


TMN Contributing Writer David Leite has stated a little too emphatically that he is not a food snob. (But we have it on good authority that while other people have moldering hot dog buns and withering mesclun in their fridge, he has been know to harbor lobes of foie gras, exotic mushrooms, and bottles of champagne.) He’s quick to note that he loves plain ole mac and cheese, but he was overseen recently pish-toshing at the waitress until the chef agreed to drizzle it with truffle oil. He’s not above a McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish, though. He’s also the publisher of the James Beard Award-winning website, Leite’s Culinaria, and the author of the upcoming cookbook The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors From Europe’s Western Coast. More by David Leite