In Defense of the Park Slope Food Coop; or, I Heart Chaos

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12/31/2006

Union St. & 6th Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

[The following is the second of two responses to “Confronting the Park Slope Food Coop”, Fran Giuffre’s blistering assault on the beloved Brooklyn institution, that has resulted in virtually nonstop Park Slope controversy for the last five years. In addition to Giuffre’s historic polemic, another defense of the Coop, by the enigmatic “Dina”, is also available on the Neighborhood. –Ed.]

First off: yes, I am a vegetarian. But I am a vegetarian who likes pie, cigarettes, and hard liquor, and usually on my graduate student budget will always choose the $1.21/pound non-organic red peppers over the $4.37/a pound organic ones (do they water them with liquid gold or something?). I am neither an aging hippie nor a raw-foodist nor a yuppie foodie. And I love the Park Slope Food Co-op.

Leave aside for the moment that the apples I had this morning for breakfast, that tasted like paradise, were only 81 cents a pound—far cheaper than any of the farmer’s markets around town, and about half the price of the engorged, waxy ones at the Korean market down the block, which usually turn out to have rotted brown cores once I cut into them. Leave aside for the moment the best coffee I’ve ever had sold in bulk and the yummy chili-lime dried mango, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. I love the Co-op most of all for the reasons all the haters hate it: for its inefficiency, its chaos, its variability, the proximity it puts you into with other people. I love it because it’s annoying sometimes, and therefore human.

Sure, I’ve had my share of unpleasant experiences. I’ve definitely waited on line too long. I’ve been told, by a man by whose empty cardboard box I once momentarily placed my closed juice bottle, “Excuse me, could you not put your food, your saliva, next to my food?” I’ve wanted to slap my share of squalling babies and kick people blocking the narrow aisles with their carts. But at no other commercial establishment can I go with the near assurance that I will run into a friend or acquaintance, who just also happens to be there. Almost nowhere else do I see the same faces again and again, people I don’t know at all but whose sporadic reappearance gives a continuity and a neighborhoodliness to my daily life. In general, even among people who don’t otherwise interact with one another, there is a sense of community and a freedom of interaction at the Co-op. I generally dislike chatting with strangers, actually: but for some reason I’m perfectly happy to speculate on the weather or the relative merits of flavors of ice cream with a fellow Co-op shopper. And let it be said: complaining about/mocking the Co-op is also favorite bonding activity among members.

It’s true that there can occasionally be a certain fascisoid feeling about the Co-op’s administration, but despite all the bluster, it’s actually more low-key than anywhere else. Would you feel comfortable at Whole Foods snacking from your cookie box as you shop? I’d be worried that there’d be some manager looking over my shoulder, ready to reel me in for shoplifting or unhygienic practices. The “no non-members eat Co-op food” rule is somewhat obnoxious—Can I make coffee for my roommates? Can I host a dinner party with a clean conscience?—but honestly, no one is going to check up on you. For the most part, in practical terms, you’re on the honor system—a relatively low-key form of authoritarianism, if you ask me.

I work the shopping squad, aka check-out. For three hours once a month (every fourth Friday, 1-3:45, come say hi), I get to watch a parade of people pass through with their groceries like a little cross-section of the neighborhood. I love the impatient Orthodox moms with their sulky kids, buying enough chicken legs for the next century. I love the reformed frat boys with their organic boxed macaroni and cheese and their veggie burgers. I love the people having parties who buy cheese, olives, chocolate, and beer and nothing else. I even love the hypochondriacs and the health freaks with their probiotic yogurt and alphabet list of pills. I love asking people what you do, really, with that raw turmeric. I love my weird squad leader, who is incredulous that I always bring some esoteric book to my shift (because, if it gets slow, you can read: another benefit), and once, analyzing my handwriting, assured me that I should get an IQ test right away because I “might be a genius.” I get a slightly childish kick out of expertly pressing the buttons and asking things like, “are these the organic or non-organic mustard greens?” I feel like Tom Cruise in Cocktail as I scan the frozen burrito with a flourish while reaching for the broccoli with the other hand. It might make me a dork, but I do. And if you’re anti-social, there’s plenty of other things you can work at. I’ve also cut cheese and stocked shelves: it can be almost meditative.

In this world increasingly dominated by corporate multinationals and supersized megamarts (8 kg. wheels of plastic-tasting brie, anyone?), and where the least bit of eccentricity and disorganization is scrubbed away until the exterior shines like the teeth of an SS officer on a recruitment poster, the Co-op is a blissful space of chaos and humanity. If it’s not for you, fine, no one’s forcing you. Go to C-Town and have your cornflakes scanned by a pimply teenager who looks like she’d rather be slitting her wrists than be there. Or get shoved through the streamlined machine and servile friendliness of the fancy food stores. As for me, I’ll take the freaks and the seitan stew any day.

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