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Saturday, January 14, 2006


I was entertained yesterday at Trader Joe's.

Trader Joe's, in case you don't know is a chain of grocery stores that, how shall I say, leans more toward the unprocessed, organic and green side of agribusiness. What does that mean? Well, instead of 48 different kinds of laundry detergent, they sell maybe two, one scented and one not but both made without chemicals and without being tested on unfortunate, defenseless bunnies. Instead of half an aisle devoted to paper towels, they have half an aisle devoted to nuts. In other words, they may not always have everything you need, but you'll feel a lot better buying and using their products than you would using those of the bigger supermarket chains.

A couple other things about Trader Joe's that must be mentioned.

1. Because their marketing seems to be limited to an occasional direct mail flyer printed on recycled paper, their prices are much, much lower than the bigger chains'. Yesterday, I bought five bags of groceries including three bottles of wine and one bottle of hootch and it only cost $117. I know that seems like a lot for the rest of the country but for Los Angeles, that's a bargain.

2. Trader Joe's is the cleanest grocery store in Southern California including the higher end Gelson's. [caveat: I've never been in a Whole Foods. Have you? Tell me what it's like.]

3. If you're ever in need of confirmation that an acceptable level of customer service still exists somewhere in the world, go to the nearest Trader Joe's. It doesn't even matter which one because apparently Trader Joe's has some sort of skilled employee breeding program that uses only the finest and most competent cashiers, stockers, and managers as studs, keeping all stores supplied with only the best help possible. They're like McDonald's fries. They taste exactly the same no matter where you are. Friendly, able, smart, witty, even hip without being pretentious (the untouchable goal of so many here in Los Angeles), these people are simply the best at what they do. Trader Joe's has cornered the market on excellent customer service.

And as if that weren't reason enough to shop there...

4. No one, and I mean no one, bags groceries as expertly as the cashiers at Trader Joe's. As a former bagger myself (Roche Brothers, Linden Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1978-79), I understand that proper grocery bagging is a true art form. At Trader Joe's, each bag is prepared for its journey like a perfect little package, always a manageable weight and balance, always with the most efficient use of space, bags always doubled using bags made from, of course, recycled paper. And each packed bag can pass the ultimate test: it can be placed on a flat surface and sliced down the side with a razor without causing the contents to topple.

OK. Enough already. Let's get to the entertainment portion of the story. Like I said I bought five bags of groceries yesterday so I had plenty of time in the checkout line to do some people watching. It was crowded, as every place in Los Angeles is perpetually crowded. No sooner had I positioned my cart so that Dusty could start unloading and scanning my items did I hear a loud voice and its possessor entering the store.

"No, I think it's fine the way it is. I think it just needs some punching up is all and I guarantee you that Emil is on board with that. Woodruff, too."

This guy was loud. Something about talking into a cell phone automatically boosts the volume of some peoples voices. It's like the microwaves emitted from the device cause the nearest vocal chords to resonate twice as much. Electricity and biology are a dangerous mix.

He was about 50, short, with uncolored spiky hair. He was obviously in the industry. When we Angelenos say "the industry" we mean the business of entertainment. That could be movies, television, or music. And if you're in the industry, it doesn't matter what you do within the industry. What matters is that you are, in fact, in the industry. At least that's all that matters to those of us self-righteous, non-industry members of the citizenry. See, we like to pity the industry types, focusing on the back-stabbing, the crappy family lives, the self-absorption, the shallowness and general lack of value they place on things that are important to those of us not in the industry, things like human compassion, loyalty, and love. Focusing on those things, whether they exist or not, makes it easier to overlook the rest of it – the insane money they make, the access to untouchable people and places, and all the daily perks that must go along with being in the industry. In all likelihood, the self-righteousness is baseless and is really just a defense mechanism for those of us who feel like we're superior but lack the clout to prove it.

I immediately noticed how 99% of this guy's attention was funneled into what was happening on the other end of his cell phone, leaving the rest to take care of whatever his task was here at the Eagle Rock Trader Joe's. The empty orange basket swung from one arm while the other smushed the phone into his cheek. He was very animated and very loud. He had yet to make any eye contact with any other human in the store.

"I'll back you up on that if that's what it comes down to but I don't think there's a need for that, to be honest. I mean, we can tweak the narrative just enough to save us the money that Gerald's worried about."

His eyes swung widely across the floor as he sauntered, yes, sauntered towards the liquor stand. They used to have the liquor in one of the aisles but they moved it out to make room for more nuts. Without deliberation of any kind, he pulled from the shelf a bottle of Glenfiddich, that pricey (by my non-industry type standards) single malt scotch whisky. Old Boston friends and single malt lovers Ken Michaels and Pete DuCharmes once told me that the best whiskies start with "Glen," as in Glen Ord, Glenury Royal, Glendullan, Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, and Glenfiddich. Typical for this industry dude to get the finest scotch in the store. I imagined him having a glass with a producer that evening and complaining that it wasn't as "oakey" as he prefers, something he probably read in a long ago discarded script that his studio optioned.

Now he was in at the register next to me. He wasn't even aware that he had lucked his way into a checkout line that had just opened up so he wouldn't have to wait. Lucky bastard. He plunked his basket down on the little shelf at the register, the single malt his single item. This guy was amazing. Still no eye contact!

"When it gets to that part of the story we'll go to Chicago. I mean, we'll just cut to Chicago. The bomb stuff we'll just show on the news so we won't even have to shoot it. There's no need. And besides it helps move the story along. That way it's like Woody Allen. I mean that's what I love about Woody Allen's stuff."

While praising Woody Allen, he removed a well-worn wallet from his pants, produced a credit card, swiped it, signed the screen, put the card back in his wallet and the wallet back in his pants. Ramon the cashier, typical Trader Joe's employee that he is, went about his business as usual, efficiently and quickly. The Glenfiddich was paper bagged and double-bagged and the receipt was in there too as he he handed it all off to the guy.

"It's great. It's gonna be great. Don't worry about it. It's all under control. I'll talk to Darren and if you need to talk to him then I let you know, but don't worry about it right now. It's all good."

He sauntered past the registers and out the door. During his entire visit, he spoke to no one in the store and in fact never even looked at anyone in the store. The entire transaction was completed without any human interaction whatsoever. Why? I guess because there was nothing in it for this industry type.



At 1/17/2006 12:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding laundry detergent testing on defenseless bunnies, I understand it took laboratories quite a few years just to breed a rabbit that could last a half hour in the washing machine.

Jim Hyde

At 1/16/2008 10:21 PM, Anonymous paperplastic said...

Overheard at TJ's in Silver Lake:

"So now you're saying you don't want her to come just because of something she said? I'm thinking we shouldn't even have the wedding at all. In fact, why don't you call everyone and let them know it's not happening."


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