It was a balmy fall afternoon on the Upper East Side, and there was a loose cannon in Citarella. Unfortunately, it was me—again. I was engaged in a Socratic dialogue with the counterman over why I shouldn’t have to pay for an unwanted frittata under a piece of grilled salmon.
“I don’t make the rules,” he said. “We have to weigh them together. If you don’t want the frittata, I can take it out after I weigh it.”
“But that’s not fair,” I argued, becoming increasingly agitated. “I want to speak to the manager.”
Having uttered the time-honored “manager” phrase, I realized I was headed for a confrontation. There is nothing more righteous than a New Yorker at the local gourmet food store, trying not to get taken. The manager was just a few feet away at another counter, busy cutting nova for another customer. I marched over and demanded that he deal with my situation. He kept asking me to wait. When I grew impatient, his customer freaked out. “My mother just died!” she yelled at me. I had been trumped by shiva salmon.
I bought my fish, stomped home and recounted the scene to my husband. “Oh no, not Citarella!” he moaned. “Now you can’t go back there either?”
I’ll admit it: This isn’t the first time that I’ve blown my stack at a neighborhood establishment, only to later regret having to find a less convenient, less desirable alternative. Think of that Seinfeld episode where Kramer and then Jerry are banned from their favorite fruit market, or Frances McDormand’s character in the movie Friends with Money, becoming enraged at an Old Navy as someone cuts in front of her in line. It’s the urban consumer’s equivalent of road rage. And if you’re going to take a stand, you’d better be prepared to make a sacrifice.
I used to love eating at a local Lexington Avenue coffee shop because they had fantastic grilled-cheese sandwiches. One day my friend and I were having lunch there, and they tried to charge her for a hot-water refill on her tea. She had a huge fit. I completely agreed that charging just for hot water—not even a fresh teabag!—was an outrageous act of price gouging, and we both yelled at the manager about this insane policy (his rationale was that if they charged for hot water, customers wouldn’t order any more tea, thus facilitating table turnover). We vowed we would never grace those particular tables again, but sometimes when I pass by the place, I wish I had fewer principles and more grilled cheese.
My husband, meanwhile, recently wrote off a Middle Eastern restaurant on the Upper East Side. When we ate there and ordered the hummus, we always had lots of pita, but when we did takeout they always skimped on the bread. We had several arguments with the manager over the rationing of the pita and the restaurant’s insistence that they had to charge us for the “extra” bread until, finally, my husband just lost it. He told the manager that if they would not give us adequate amounts of bread for our hummus, we were not coming back. I still miss their grilled octopus.
And I know we’re not alone in our ambivalent indignation.
My friend Victoria, also an Upper East Sider, once brought some dirty slipcovers from her sofa into a dry cleaner she’d frequented for four years. The manager told her they should be dry-cleaned. After the process, they were still filthy, and the manager said, “Oh no, you should have had them washed in the industrial washing machine. The dry-cleaning would never remove those stains!” So she left them to be washed. A week later the stains were still there. The manager told her, “Oh no, you should have them dry-cleaned—washing will never remove those stains!” Victoria then pointed out that dry-cleaning had been his original suggestion, to which the manager responded, “I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do for you.”
“Well, then I guess I cannot come back,” Victoria said, making her exit. “I am proud to say I have never returned—it has been about five years now,” she told me. “But it still kills me that every time I need to have my clothes dry-cleaned, I need to go the extra block out of my way.”
Another friend—let’s call her “Plum”—was almost arrested after she refused to pay the bill at an Upper West Side hair salon. She had gotten it colored and asked the price of a cut with blow-dry: $45. She decided against the cut. The stylist asked if she wanted the blow-dry anyway. Plum said sure. Then came the bill. The charge for the blow-dry: 30 bucks. Plum went ballistic (and it wasn’t the first or last time; “I’m blacklisted from many places in the city,” she admitted). Within 10 minutes, two bemused policemen arrived on the scene and she reluctantly forked up.
Though Plum knew she could never return to that salon, she really liked her new look. So she asked one of the officers to help her out. “What color did you use on her hair?” the cop asked the stylist, who disgustedly replied something generic and useless like “Clairol.”
Having a meltdown in front of a merchant isn’t always costly, of course. If it’s a ubiquitous store like Starbucks or Duane Reade, you can either find another branch a block away or wait a few months until the staff turns over again and they have no idea that you’re the lunatic who screamed about your delayed chai latte.
But my most recent New York consumer-rage moment left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t shopping for something frivolous, but searching all over the Upper East Side for some plastic shofars to bring to my son’s class. One of my stops was the Jewish Museum gift shop. I asked the cashier for help, and she told me that she didn’t have any shofars, but that the Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side might have some left. She then told me that the J.C.C. didn’t have enough shofars for me, although I observed she hadn’t called them. When I asked how she knew, she said in a very patronizing voice, “Because I checked the computer!” She was so nasty, especially given that it was a holiday, that I stormed out of the shop, yelling, “Yeah, have a really happy new year!”
“And Shana Tova to you!” called the Hispanic security guard, as I fled the museum. It’s going to be a long time before I frequent that gift shop again. Like maybe when the Messiah comes.