Nostalgia for a New Jersey Costco

As a mother of four children whose diets have a heavy cereal and milk component (a bowl or two of cereal is consumed most often at breakfast, but frequently as an after-school snack and sometimes as a dinner choice), I spend an inordinate amount of time at Costco. No matter that the refrigerator in our new California rental home is not nearly as large the behemoth-sized cooling unit that was a sparkly feature of our renovated New Jersey kitchen, the Costco routine is ingrained in my body.

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. From store to store, you’ll find the same clearly defined sections of produce and packaged goods. The actual layout of these sections of purchasable items 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.

For the most part, all the Costco personnel with whom I’ve had dealings (east coast or west) have been extremely professional and courteous. The Costco employees 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 toilet paper rolls. They draw smiley faces on the back of your receipt for your toddler as you depart the vast warehouse.

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, but I found that regular visits to my regular stores within my regular pattern of living filled me with a sense of calm.  I could absorb the look and feel of my new home on the west coast gradually, at a pace that wasn’t too shocking to my system.  Here’s a Costco. 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 meal preparation and a routine that even if not exactly the same, was pretty darn close to what my family and I had going on back in New Jersey. I hadn’t really felt 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.  He was doling out thin wafers piled high with prosciutto and an extra little layer of something.  I heard a Jersey accent! I brought my cart to an abrupt halt and listened attentively. Did he just say, “Bada Bing, Bada Boom!”? Yes, indeed! 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, turning their carts this way and that, to secure a sample of the unnamed delicacy.

I wasn’t really hungry but I definitely wanted to hear this guy talk so I settled into position among the sampling mob and listened. His accent was dead-on “New Jersey” and I could already feel an immediate bond forming with the young man. He and I… we were going to talk.  This was going to be good.

“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 drew nearer to my man. Sidling up close to the table, where he was prepping the next cracker sandwich, I asked him, “Are you from New Jersey?!”

“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, somewhat crestfallen. He wasn’t the authentic New Jersey bud I had hoped to meet and what… befriend? I fled the food prep station, pushed my cart forcefully past the patio furniture and camping equipment displays, and headed directly for the check out area near the front of the store. As I waited in line for my turn to unload the Costco haul, I thought to myself,  how pathetic…to be that excited about meeting a fellow New Jersey type…one of “my people.”  I recalled, then, my most favorite New Jersey Costco moment when my youngest daughter, Genevieve (two years old at the time) and I had been caught in an endless, stalled check-out  line.

My Costco co-shoppers and I were growing more restless by the minute. There didn’t seem to be enough registers open, many children were crying 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 check-out lines to begin their own warehouse shopping odysseys. My toddler was extremely bored and decided to make friends with a little girl two carts behind us.

“Hi,” Genevieve said to the little red haired girl, who had two very long pony tails hanging on either side of her small 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. The little girl glanced over at us but gave no response.

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

Little redhead made eye contact with us again then hid behind her flour/sugar mound for a second time.

“Hi,” my child repeated.

This little “back and forth” business between the girls went on for quite some time, with Redhead’s wordless peek-a-boo gestures inciting my two-year-old so that she began screaming her salutations. “Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi!”

Our line had not moved one bit. The other lines, on either side of us, had not moved either. The entire check-out area seemed to be at a complete standstill. People were beginning to breathe hard. Eyes were rolling.. “What’s going on?” we demanded. “Get another cashier to open up!” I overheard the guy to my right hissing curses under his breath. A stout man in front of me was rolling his neck this way and that, raising his shoulders up and down. If he could just rid himself of the tension.

All the while the “Hi, Hi, Hi, Hi” game was growing 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 mocking way. My daughter fell for the bait. “Hi, Hi, Hi,” she bellowed at the top of her lungs.

Suddenly, “Rolling Neck Man” boomed (without making eye contact with me, my child or anyone else in the community of irritated 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 flour sacks again.  My young daughter turned to see where the “man voice” had come from but was instantly quiet, alert to the serious and forceful tone of his voice. A woman in the next line over exchanged a look with me. We both cracked smiles. Rolling Neck Man was right, it was more peaceful now that the stupid “Hi” game had ended. The outburst had actually succeeded in quieting a lot of us. Finally, one line to my right began nudging forward, then another and another and the business of checking out seemed to be underway again. The community of waiters watched with relief as the check-out rhythm was restored.

That’s a New Jersey Costco for you, I thought, as I recalled the New Jersey scene in my mind. In Jersey, everyone’s business in the never ending line that isn’t moving  is YOUR business.  You suffer the pain and exasperation of it loudly…fervently…together.

In the California Costco, I waited briefly in a line that moved at quite a brisk pace. I felt no connection or community with any of the jolly customers around me. Where was the angst…the hassle…the fuss? Where was that Jersey spice, the juicy curses that easily slid off the tongue, the dramatic body language that expressed frustration with flourish and the accented words that were barked loudly for all to hear?

I miss all that. Yes, I do. I miss the Bada Bing, Bada Boom.

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