Nostalgia for a New Jersey Costco

As a mother of four children whose diet has a heavy cereal and milk component (cereal is consumed most often at breakfast, but frequently as an after-school snack and sometimes as a dinner choice if what’s being served as the main course is too disagreeable and the mother refuses to make a second main course, which is, she feels, her right as Queen Bee), I spend an inordinate amount of time at Costco. No matter that the refrigerator in our California rental home is not nearly as large the behemoth-sized cooling unit that was a sparkly feature of our New Jersey kitchen, the Costco routine is ingrained in my body and I WILL find a way to adjust the California fridge shelves to accommodate six half gallons of Kirkland Organic 1% milk! Only a couple of days into our new life on the west coast, I was inquiring about how I could find a Costco nearby.

A California Costco has many of the same characteristics as a New Jersey Costco. There are the same polished concrete floors, that when run across by your entirely metal shopping cart, generate enough static electricity to zap you into the next hemisphere as you pull on the metal handle of the very long refrigerated wall that houses your organic milk, eggs and orange juice. There are the same clearly defined sections of produce and packaged goods, where you’ll find your bread and bakery items, your meat, your wine, your fiber snack bars and nuts, your dog and cat food supplies.

The actual layout of these sections of purchasable goods may differ from Costco to Costco (even those within the same state) but the sections are always there and you know that if you just start at the beginning of the Costco maze, by the end of it you are sure to have found the three-bottled set of ketchup, mustard and relish you wanted for your weekend barbecue party. Sometimes there are particular items that can be found in one Costco (again it makes no difference whether you are state hopping or remain within state lines) but not in another. I notice this most with cereal, since stockpiling cereal is one of my clear objectives on any Costco run. One Costco location may carry Cinnamon Toast Crunch, but another store will feature Honey Nut Cheerios with CTC nowhere to be found.

For the most part, all the Costco personnel with whom I’ve had dealings (east coast or west) have been extremely professional and courteous. They smile as they hand over the flax seed granola sample with their latex-gloved hands. They assist you in unloading the gargantuan shrink wrapped package of thirty Kirkland (Kirkland is the Costco name brand) toilet paper rolls. They draw smiley faces on the back of your receipt for your toddler who waits patiently beside you while the contents of your cart are quickly matched up against the itemized purchases on your sales receipt.

This “COSTCO SAMENESS” was like a comforting embrace to me when we first moved to northern California. I wasn’t really overwhelmed with feelings of homesickness (there were pangs here and there but nothing too major) in our relocation. However, once here, I did find that these regular visits to my regular stores within my regular pattern of living filled me with a sense of calm and sameness, allowing me to absorb the look and feel of my new environment gradually, at a pace that wasn’t too shocking to my system. Ahh…here’s a Costco. I know how to do this. I know what is sold here and in which aisle I’ll find it. One day melted into the next, filled with the same mothering…the same preparing of meals and a routine that even if not exactly the same, was pretty darn close to what we had going on back in New Jersey. I wasn’t really feeling any pangs of nostalgia for my old New Jersey life… until yesterday.

As I rolled my cart away from the paper goods section and aimed it toward specialty meats, I heard a most amazing sound coming from the voice of a Costco worker (clad almost entirely in white), who was doling out thin wafers piled high with prosciutto and an extra little layer of something…a Jersey accent! I brought my cart to an abrupt halt and listened attentively. Did he just say, “Bada Bing, Bada Boom!”? Yes, indeed! He just said, “Bada Bing, Bada Boom!” The crowd had grown threefold in the twenty seconds since I had parked my cart in front of the Jersey-accented prosciutto presenter. Folks were surging in from all sides, carts bumping and turning this way and that, to grab a sample of the delicacy.

I wasn’t really hungry but I definitely wanted to hear this guy talk so I remained within the sampling mob and waited my turn. His accent was dead-on New Jersey and I could already feel an immediate bond forming with this young man. He and I… we were going to talk..both of us from Jersey. What do ya got to say fer yourself?

“Now, ya see, ya put this prosciutto here on the cracker and then ya top it off with some of this here parm…and bada bing, bada boom, ya got your appetiza.” The Bada Bing thing again. I got closer to my man. Sidling up close to the table where he was prepping the next cracker sandwich, I asked, “Are you from New Jersey?!” (How could he not be…with an accent like that?!)

“No, no,” he said, chuckling. “I’m from Afghanistan. Just working on my Jersey Shore accent.” (Chuckle, chuckle.) “Pretty good, huh?”

“Yea, that’s good,” I said, crestfallen. He’s not the authentic New Jersey bud I had hoped to meet and befriend. I fled the food prep station, pushing my cart headstrong past the patio furniture and camping equipment displays, and heading directly for the check out area near the front of the store. As I waited in line for my turn to unload this week’s Costco haul, I thought to myself how pathetic.. to be that excited about thinking I was going to connect with someone from my home state…one of my people. I recalled, then, one of my most favorite New Jersey Costco moments…when Gigi was just two years old and we were waiting in an endless line. My co-shoppers and I were growing more restless by the minute. There didn’t seem to be enough registers open, many children were crying and whining in lines all around us and there was a serious bottleneck situation growing as new shoppers, just walking into the store, couldn’t get past the backed up lines to begin their Costco odyssey. Gigi was extremely bored and decided to make friends with a little girl two carts behind us.

“Hi,” Gigi said to the little red haired girl, who had two very long pony tails hanging on either side of her head. Redhead, who looked to be three or four, sat in the body of her cart and peeked from around a mound of giant flour and sugar sacks, that were piled high behind her. The little girl glanced over at us but gave no response.

“Hi, little girl!” Gigi said again and waved.

Little redhead made eye contact with us again, hid behind her flour/sugar mound for a second and then tauntingly began to bend her head around the mound to peek at Gigi.

“Hi,” Gigi repeated.

This little “back and forth” business between the girls went on for quite some time, with Redhead’s wordless peekaboo gesture inciting my two year old to the point of her screaming,”Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi!” over and over again.

Our line had not moved one bit. The other lines on either side of us had not moved either. It was a standstill…with no explanation. People were beginning to breathe hard as they grew steamy with impatience. Everyone took turns rolling their eyes and sighing heavily. “What’s going on?” we demanded. “Get another cashier to open up!” I overheard the guy to my right hiss a curse under his breath. The guy in front of me was rolling his neck this way and that, raising his shoulders up and down. He just had to rid himself of the tension, which was rapidly growing among the waiting community. WHY…WAS…THIS…TAKING…SO…LONG?

All the while the “Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi” game was growing louder and louder despite my forceful shushing of my child, whose behavior was indeed obnoxious, but couldn’t Redhead just acknowledge the hello greeting and we’d all be done with it? Red was now snickering and peeking, snickering and peeking in such a taunting way. And Gigi was falling for the bait,”Hi, Hi, Hi,” she bellowed at the top of her lungs.

Suddenly I hear Rolling Neck Man say loudly (without making eye contact with me, my child or anyone else in the community of restless waiters), “For the love of God, just answer the kid!”

The “Hi” game stopped most abruptly. The peeking redhead child vanished, never to show her face from around the sacks again. Gigi turned to see where the man voice had come from but was instantly quiet, alert to the tone of voice that just boomed. A woman in the next line over exchanged a look with me. We both cracked smiles. Rolling Neck Man was right, it was much more peaceful and tolerable now that the stupid “Hi” game had ended. The outburst had actually succeeded in quieting a lot of us. Finally one line nudged up, then another and another as the business of checking out was underway again. The bustling noises of packages could be heard as they were unloaded and repositioned, replacing the exasperated sighs from before. People further down the line watched as the unload-reload rhythm returned and the outward displays of aggravation all but disappeared.

That’s a New Jersey Costco for you, I thought, as I fondly recalled the New Jersey scene in my mind. In Jersey, everyone’s business in the never ending line is your business…while you suffer the pain and exasperation of it loudly, fervently, together.

In the California Costco yesterday, I waited briefly in a line that moved at a brisk pace. I felt no connection or community with any of the happy and jolly customers around me. Where was the angst…the hassle…the fuss? Where was that Jersey spice, those juicy curses that so easily slide off the tongue, the dramatic body language that expresses your inner frustration with flourish, the accented words barked out loudly for all the world to hear? I think I might actually miss all that. I miss the Bada Bing, Bada Boom.

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