On a recent Sunday at the new Fairway supermarket in Brooklyn, a pale, reed-thin man, pointy-nosed and wearing glasses and black long-sleeves, was contemplating a Portugal Serpa. This is a spicy, strong-smelling cheese made in southeast Portugal from ewe’s milk. Here in this Epcot Center of a cheese display, the Serpa bordered on a Torta del Casar, which I took to mean “wedding cake,” but which subsequent research showed to be another ewe’s-milk cheese from the nearby Extramadura region of West Central Spain, and—lo!—a cruelly named Aged Balarina. Ugly, intrusively cheerful cards stuck out of these and countless other wedges, each shouting things like “Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve!” and other phrases that seemed to have been torn from their original context in a luxury game park in South Africa.
Moments later, the thin man’s girlfriend was beside him, just checking in, just saying hi, just seeing what he was up to. He pointed to his purchase, tentatively, which was being carefully sliced and packaged behind the counter.
“A quarter of a pound of Portugal Serpa,” he told her, in a whisper, as if not to disturb this bit of cross-cultural commerce. She nodded, or said “good”—whatever, she was satisfied—and left him to his further responsibilities, perhaps somewhere in “Ham, I Am” Land, home of the preposterously un-Italian Iowa Organic Prosciutto and the cheerfully pornographic Cherry Wood-Smoked Bone-In Iowa Ham, or toward the giant round fish station, mobbed all around by a heaving, panting mass of Brooklynites. DeLillo’s supermarkets were dignified in comparison.
Even a couple months after it opened in May, the pious whispers can still be heard on the F train, recounting visits to the Fairway like pilgrims bearing witness: “Have you been to the new Fairway yet?” As though the Cathedral of Notre Dame had just been erected in their backyards.
A visit to Fairway on a weekend day in Brooklyn these days is a redundant proposition. A weekend day is Fairway day. And in the religious calendar that has formed among the Brooklyn faithful, for whom a certain connoisseurship of groceries serves as a stand-in for the contemplative life, Fairway Day is a holy day of obligation.
There are gourmet Belgian beer battles and nuzzling around the nectarines, fighting in front of the Israeli salad and whining before the baby carrots. There are loving couples to envy and squabbling couples to not; nuclear families wielding torn-out recipes. That person smeared in free samples you glimpsed in the nightmarish Make Your Own Granola station will probably pop up again in the Totally Environmentally Apocalyptic Plastic Packaged Dried Fruits, Nuts and Candy aisle. Shoppers eye each other—coveting either their bounty or their light load or something else.
Never was there such a garish incubator of aspirational thoughts as the destination grocery store (and this is perhaps Brooklyn’s first real one), and a day spent there is a window on your neighbors’ domestic lives, how they might behave in their own kitchen.
It’s stressful. So there’s a lot of communication, and even more reading. Fair-Maidens and Fair-Lads will spend hours taking cues and studying up on, say, chocolates—sorting the Toffifee (Germany) from the Valrhona (France), the Hachez (Germany) from the Scharffenberger (German-American), and all of it, hopefully, from the unfortunate Plantations (Ecuador). The honey, too, presents a bevy of international options for mostly unilingual folks: Ours Brun, Miel de Fleurs, Waben Quell, Marco Polo. “Provencale Honey” read one section heading, and a yuppie-ish, Duke lacrosse type, grabbing at the elegant jars with meaty hands, actually seemed to know what this meant.
He’d better, because in the family-friendly Fairway, he probably had someone to answer to.
Men, it seemed, entered Fairway at their peril, engaging in what must be endless checkpoints of tiny relationship tests. Over here was a tattooed, CBGB T-shirt-wearing and shaved-head dad, overcome—hypnotized, really—by the gourmet beer department. His wife chattered on, exasperated, with their two kids, trying to distract them while Pa loitered. “I’ll check this out for a buck 69,” he said in an “oh yeah” voice to no one in particular, cockily placing the St. Peter’s Cream Stout into their cart. CBGB then examined the Hitachino, a nest beer white ale and Japanese Belgian-Style Winner of Medals in Beer Competitions in the U.S. and the U.K. “Are you happy?” said the kid. “Yes, and why?” said the mom. “Because you love me,” said the kid. Dad then picked up some Magic Hat, something with “fruity apricot notes” for $9.49, and just about tore himself away until, “Ohhhh, wait a second—goodness!”—it was the Grand Cru of the Emperor, another Belgian ale in a swanky big bottle.
Over there, a madras-wearing man, pleased with himself for locating two boxes of cookies, danced down the aisle toward his pregnant ladyfriend’s cart, where she, horrified and no longer chirping orders, held a magazine clipping in midair. A hipster couple, still carrying only the two avocados I’d seen them with 20 minutes ago, paused nearby. “See this?” the messy-haired tall man said to his pretty blue-wearing girlfriend softly, and gently touched something Ziploc-related. “Mmm-hmm,” she murmured, and pushed him on, like a mental patient.
“Do you like this?” asked another young husband. He was holding a value pack of toilet paper. His wife looked at him blankly. “What do you mean, do I like it?” she said. He looked at the Charmin, then at her. “It’s so … big.”
She walked away, past where a man and a woman, both slender-in-black and back-to-back and posed like Degas’ bronze tiny dancer, gazed upon the racks as if at a stuffy art opening. She pondering the aluminum foil, he musing on toilet paper. Angel Soft, Scott, Charmin—Aloft!
What was all the fuss? Their objets d’art weren’t even something respectably promiscuous like ravioli, or at all as terrifying as the spice rack—where later I’d overheard a neurotic thirtysomething sputter at an employee trapped on a ladder next to him: “Basil! Basil! Basil!”
“Yes, I will follow all your rules,” said a small father to his 3-year-old son, effectively obliterating all disciplinary work no doubt implemented by his wife, which is what she gets for sending them off alone to do the grocery shopping.
“You making hamburgers or dogs?” yelled Woman to Man.
“Frogs?” Man yelled back.
It was the couple in Vitamins, engaged in a frantic search for melatonin, that seemed sanest.
THE RED HOOK FAIRWAY IS ANOTHER SIGN that the brownstone-ish Brooklyn of now is the Upper West Side of the 1970’s/80’s. The two neighborhoods in their respective heydays have much in common: media intellectuals, burgeoning careerdom, the terror of the firstborn, Woody Allen by way of Meghan Daum wood floors. And now a big, glorious supermarket with lots and lots of ridiculously named stuff.
But, presumably, even during that dismal decade, the Upper West Side’s Fairway had something that the three-month-old Red Hook Fairway, by now in the throes of its own giddy weekend routine, mostly does not: single people.
Not just the romantically uncoupled, but the solo, the alone. And, in fact, despite their similarities, if a dim-witted New Jersey teen happened upon both Fairways on the same Sunday, she’d think the two boroughs were two different planets. One’s shades of the New York she’d imagined, populated by the self-sufficient and self-absorbed, the other reminiscent of the suburb she grew up in: home to the reliant and reliable, with a few Manhattany traits—the extraordinary luxury of neuroses, the curse of aspirations—thrown in.
Uptown, Fairway looks a bit like you’d expect from a New York supermarket. Schlumpy-dressed people, most of them alone, battle their way through the poorly lit, low-ceilinged aisles, forlorn baskets holding the half-dozen eggs and slender cartons of orange juice they’ll easily cart home to small apartments that are no doubt just blocks, maybe one subway stop, away. Just like stopping off at the deli to pick up a few things—but yummier things, perhaps cheaper things—where your Lebanese deli man couldn’t give a shit what you’re buying. Anonymity still reigns, and so it’s an unspoken rule, like omertà, that buying only a six-pack of Stella and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Oatmeal Cookie Dough, maybe some butter, isn’t to be viewed as pathetic.
Not so in Red Hook. To get to this slowly flowering desert of a neighborhood—it looks a bit like comeback/dying cities such as Wilmington, N.C.—Brooklynites must trek to the end of the earth. The neighborhood doesn’t even have a subway stop, and so everyone drives, packs up their partner, their baby, their mom (lots of twentysomethings’ moms at Fairway), and loads them all into the four-door for a protracted Fairway Day, during which they buy as much crap as humanly possible.
Supermarkets have always served as little fishbowls of American society—society at it’s most intense and vulnerable and unnerving. So it’s a wonder what sort of mythology Brooklynites will create about this New York.
It won’t be the New York of Annie Hall, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s (American Psycho would be virtually unrecognizable).
Considering how much of the media, and the literary world, lives out here, it’s likely this Brooklyn will be the one dimwitted New Jersey kids hear about from now on: this New York of families, of domesticity and dependence.
Not the other one, the New York of aloneness and no strings attached.
This is the other thing to know about the new Fairwayified outer borough—everyone drives, and if you don’t, no tamarind paste for you.
“How did you get here?” my friends Caleb and Peter asked when I ran into them outside of the Brooklyn Fairway on a recent Sunday.
“I walked,” I said, sweating in what felt like an equatorial sun, even though I’d just left the ungodly, inhuman cold of the store. “Yeah.”
“Wow,” they said, concerned and sweet. “Well, if you want to wait, we could give you a ride. We have our car.”
They were on their way in, and they knew I was on my way out, and yet it didn’t seem odd that I might want to wait around while they shopped in order to grab that precious ride back to Fort Greene. It’s really far. But I thanked them and explained I was taking the 61 bus and miserably made my way out of the parking lot, a war zone of RAV4’s and other people’s children.
Public transportation can get you to Fairway. The 61 bus, the F train of Brooklyn buses, winds a lovely path from Williamsburg, through Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, into downtown Brooklyn and Boerum Hill and Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens right up to a couple blocks from the Fairway in Red Hook. But no one else got off there, and no one with Fairway bags got on to take it home either, because most everyone on the 61 bus gets off at the projects.
Which seem worlds away from this Brooklyn. At least, further than Serpa, Extramadura or wherever it is in Belgium that beer is made Grand Cru.