Shakedown at the warehouse club
There was shopping to do and we had to get the kids out of the house.
If you have a car in New York City you are one of a privileged few. You can blaze a trail of adventure and wanderlust across the land. Or, you can simply drive someplace where it is a little less crowded to do your shopping, avoiding the hordes that clog your local stores for the slightly less overstuffed shopping experiences of the suburbs.
Pro tip for current and future parents: IKEA stores have a free indoor play area called “Småland” where they will babysit your kids for free if you are in their store.
This past Sunday we headed to Hicksville for the chance to look again at a couch we may want to buy from IKEA and to do our bulk shopping where it was slightly less aggravating.
The drive had put our children to sleep and my wife and I enjoyed listening to Joan Jett’s greatest hits and catching up on adult conversation while our three blessed hellions slumped in their child seats. We decided to get some of our shopping done while they napped. I headed to BJs.
BJ’s is not as fun as it sounds. It’s not an emporium of fellatio but rather a warehouse club like Costco or Sam’s Club. Showing your BJ’s card only wins you the pleasure of buying in bulk.
The BJs in Westbury, Long Island, was a lot less crowded than the one we usually visit in College Point, Queens. I found the things I needed easily. I got in line at one of the self-checkout lanes as going to one of the other lines means an incredibly long wait behind people whose shopping carts are filled to the brim with bulk items.
The woman is taking too long looking over everyone’s cart and there is a line forming just to get out of the store.
The only question I’ve ever had facing this security check in the past is if one of my daughters asks me if this person is going to draw a Mickey Mouse on our receipt.
The woman looks at my cart for what seems like an extended period and then circles the number of items on my receipt. She says there is a problem, something about me having too many items in my cart. Her English is poor, and I ask what is the item that wasn’t scanned. She points to the checkout area, and I think she wants me to go back there but I want to understand this problem and solve it quickly. I’m not going to scan every item again or stand on another line if the store is bringing up the issue. I keep asking what the problem is and what’s not right, and I get no answer. The woman leaves me there and starts checking other customers’ receipts. A chubby woman mumbles something under her breath at me as she walks by, but not loud enough to hear.
The receipt women with broken English calls someone else over. He checks my receipt. He counts the items in my cart. He checks the receipt again; he counts the items in my cart again. People keep passing by and looking at me. I stay stoic.
The young man now checks the UPC numbers on every item against my receipt. He’s moving more things around in the cart and checking off each item on the receipt.
“The tomato sauce,” he says before scurrying off. “The tomato sauce.”
The receipt checking lady has forgotten about me. Her backup left me standing there with my marked-up receipt and no recommendations. I don’t bother to check his work; I just want out of there. I put the tomato sauce aside and walk out the door. No one stops me. I’m free but without the tomato sauce we wanted to buy and with precious time wasted.
Westbury BJ’s: 1, Polite New Yorker: 0.
I had traded the aggravation of weaving your way through crowds of clueless shoppers to being shaken down by store security and singled out as a potential shoplifter. While this was annoying it could have been so much worse. People who forget to scan the groceries on the bottom shelf of their shopping cart have been accused of shoplifting and had their careers ruined. The store employees could have called the police.
I made it back to my van without further delay. The children were awake. We moved on to our next adventure.
New York’s non-horrible holiday cheer
New York City is largely spared the horrors of Black Friday shopping brawls. A security guard was trampled to death a few years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island, right outside of Queens, but within the five boroughs we have a better history of crowd control. And few of our poor people have cars. There’s not a lot of motivation to try to haul a 60-inch plasma screen TV home on the subway.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not enough misery to go around. Last year I was trying to get to a restaurant in midtown the night of the Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center. Not only were the usual crowds heading to the tree lighting, but protesters objecting to a grand jury not indicting police offers in the Eric Garner case were headed that way also in an attempt to disrupt the ceremony or at least get on television. It was the only time in my life I walked towards Times Square to avoid worse crowds.
New York City has some great iconic holiday sights and experiences, all of which most New Yorkers avoid like the plague. The tree at Rockefeller Center, the windows of Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue, the laser light show at Grand Central Terminal are all great things that are mobbed with tourists to the point of not being truly enjoyable unless you are a tourist just happy to be there.
Here are some alternative and authentically New York holiday experiences you can consider to keep more money and sanity through the season.
For alternative shopping options, you should go visit The Kinda Punky Flea Market – Holiday Style is set to take place in Brooklyn at the Lucky 13 Saloon on December 20. I can’t think of a better place to shop for people with good taste. The Lucky 13 Saloon is a cool vestige of pre-insanity Brooklyn and attracts the interesting artists and musicians you thought had been run out of the borough entirely. There is also the Morbid Anatomy Flea Market at The Bell House in Brooklyn (there’s a high potential hipster factor at this one, but it might be worth it).
Plenty of people will buy expensive tickets to see Handel’s Messiah at Carnegie Hall. I went there more than a decade ago and deeply regret not screaming “SLAYER!!!” at the quiet moment between the third and fourth movements. Radio City Music Hall’s holiday show is a by-the-numbers holiday show with the Rockettes and Santa Clause, but there are better shows that will give you an excuse to visit Radio City Music Hall. The Holiday Show in Astoria Queens will fill you to the brim with holiday punk rock goodness from some awesome bands. Astoria is not hard to get to and you’ll get a taste of real New York City punk. If you prefer more traditional holiday classical music, consider instead the holiday concert by the Queens Oratorio Society on December 20 in Queens.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx started on Nov. 21 but it runs into the New Year. I have gone on New Year’s Eve and the crowds were not that bad. You’ll be impressed with the models of New York City landmarks made from plants. The trains are interesting too.
And if you would just rather look at some pretty trees and other holiday decorations, then you can avoid the overcrowded Hades of Rockefeller Center and enjoy the Origami Holiday Tree at the American Museum of Natural History or the UNICEF Snowflakes near Central Park.
New York at Christmas Time
The holidays are a time when many of us are reluctantly pushed into public places to go through the motions about being happy about the holidays. Sometimes the very happiness of the holidays are mocking and angering. Sometimes the very image of others’ happiness is a slap in the face, and the holidays give other people’s happiness a particularly cold sting.
There’s no reason for the holidays this year to be any different. A cursory glance at the world at large doesn’t give the impression that there is much to celebrate.
It is my goal again this year, as in previous years, to not go into a single store to buy a Christmas present. I would rather be an antisocial Grinch and do all of my shopping online.
I get enough of the horrendously-behaved crowds in my everyday life. The holidays are a time to reflect on the blessing we have. While living in New York City is one of those blessings, living cheek-by-jowl with millions of other human beings is not. It’s an odd conundrum: We love New York, which wouldn’t be what it is without all of its people, yet a good many of those people are detestable.
But what else are we to do? We can’t live life as disgruntled hermits. We are social creatures and the people who are successful in living outside of society don’t live very good lives.
And besides, New York is beautiful around the holidays. Even the most jaded New Yorker can appreciate how beautiful things can become around this time of year. I embrace the “bah-humbug” aspect of the holidays in every way possible, and even I feel pangs of civic pride to see our city landmarks decked out in their holiday finery.
Here are five things you can do to experience New York City at its Christmastime best:
Gingerbread Lane at the New York Hall of Science consists of record-breaking gingerbread houses and you even get a chance to take home some of the gingerbread once the holidays are over. And the New York Hall of Science is a good place to escape to from the holiday scrum of Manhattan. It is in Queens, the greatest and most American New York City borough.
The Holiday Train Show at the New York Botanical Garden has been running for over 20 years and runs until January 19. It features trains that run through beautiful models of some of New York’s greatest landmarks. The models are all made from plants. It’s like a New York-centric Rose Bowl Parade that doesn’t suck. It’s in The Bronx, and if you take some time to stroll through the Botanical Gardens, you will be amazed that you’re in a big city. It will be much less crowded after the holidays.
The Grand Central Terminal holiday light show is going to be crowded. Grand Central Terminal is always horribly crowded but it’s so beautiful that it’s worth it. The holiday light show will make you glad you went there.
Free reading of A Christmas Carol at Housing Works Bookstore Café. More than two dozen writers take turns reading from the Charles Dickens classic at this event. The book store raises money for Housing Works, an AIDS charity. Some free literature will make you feel better about yourself over the holidays.
Time Warner Center’s Holiday Under the Stars is a display of large lighted stars at the Time Warner Center’s large great room and are specially lit in a display that is set to music. The Time Warner Center does not have much to offer the non-millionaire shopper, so here is a chance to enjoy some nice holiday spirit at the center’s expense and maybe avoid some of the horrific crowds that clog other venues.
Holiday markets also abound. Union Square has one, as does Bryant Park, Grand Central Terminal and Columbus Circle. Here is your chance to buy last minute Christmas things or feel OK about doing some real retail non-online shopping this year. These may be crowded but there are enough of them and these are large enough that you should be able to find a nice place to shop among these many markets. They also usually feature local artists selling their work.
Whatever you do, get out there and see the holiday sights. Even if you hate the holidays and want to piss on everyone’s parade, it only counts if you do so in person.
Long Live the Black Thursday Backlash
Thanksgiving is a great holiday because anyone can participate in it. It’s a secular tradition that encourages thankfulness and humility.
No matter what your background or thoughts about the country’s origins, everyone has something to be Thankful for. Even if your life is miserable and you’re having tough times, someone somewhere has helped you and your own mind will be better off if you show gratitude.
But Thanksgiving is also the kickoff of the holiday season (“holiday” meaning Christmas and/or Chanukah), and as such it has been accompanied in recent decades by the ever-present “Black Friday” when the Christmas-fueled gluttony of commerce commences.
Every year we are treated to fresh news footage of frenzied shoppers trampling one another or rioting over merchandise as stores open their doors on “Black Friday,” the first full day of holiday season shopping. Actual deaths by trampling at some of these Black Friday events haven’t dissuaded people from standing in line for hours for the chance to surrender their dignity in return for a discount on merchandise. It would be interesting to see what percentage of fanatical Black Friday shoppers actually spend the bulk of that day’s shopping money on themselves rather than on gifts for others.
In my extended years of post-college underemployment, I worked for a time as a sales associate in a suburban department store. I remember having to wake up at 5 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving because the store opened at 6 a.m. instead of the usual 9:30 or 10 a.m. I remember pulling my beat-up van into the parking lot at 5:30 a.m. and seeing people already standing outside the doors waiting. I remember hating each of them instantly, and finding them among most pathetic forms of life on Earth. You could always count on these early shoppers to be absolute jerks as well. They’ll argue loudly over five cents and treat you like garbage.
It is my ambition every year now to do all of my Christmas shopping online. I don’t want to have to enter a single store or post office to buy or send Christmas gifts.
But the popularity of Black Friday events has not waned.
And recently things took a deeper step into the ridiculous as some stores have been opening their Black Friday sales on Thursday, Thanksgiving.
That’s been the tipping point for a lot of people. Watching Neanderthal shoppers trample people to death or claw each other’s eyes out for a flat-screen television didn’t offend enough people for a backlash, but being open on Thanksgiving has.
And it’s right that it should. Those people who stand for hours in the cold waiting for the Friday sales to open want to be there, but asking store employees to come in on Thanksgiving is beyond a consumer’s capacity for rapacious cruelty.
People are urging one another not to reward companies that open on Thanksgiving. Some stores are even taking advantage of the backlash and advertising that they are NOT open on Thanksgiving.
There are some places that should be open on Thanksgiving. We don’t mind police and firefighters having to work; we need them all the time. We don’t need to buy televisions on Thanksgiving.
Maybe the outrage generated by attempts at having a Black Thursday will turn the tide against holiday consumer culture. If it makes even a modest dent, that would be one more thing to be thankful for.