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A Nose For Tofu

I’ve been in the Natural Foods business for years, 16 of them in fact.  It’s changed a lot; it’s become a lot more mainstream – now going to places like Whole Foods is for a lot of people like going to the mall.  But it wasn’t always that way.

Health Food stores used to be the province of the hard-core health nut.  I know, because I worked in one, a place in New York City called Perelandra, for four years in the late ‘90’s.  It was a magnet for the neighborhood’s zombie-like ascetics who frequented the place (loyal customers though they were).  Thin and drawn was the look of the Perelandral habitué (their appearance seemed to belie their whole healthy pursuit thing, no?).  The severe ethos of many of these people worked on them like a social attrition, making them as demanding of us as they were on themselves.

This was a heady scene to get into for a newly sober person like myself.  I answered a Village Voice ad (it had occupied a permanent place in the back of the paper since the 80’s) in the summer of ’95 and headed out to Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights for the interview.  The store was located on the ground floor of an otherwise non-descript mid-1960’s mid-rise.  As I stubbed out a Camel Light on my heel and walked in I could already tell it was like no grocery store I had ever seen.

Perelandra

They had chips, cereal and mac and cheese and all that stuff; but I’d never seen any of these brand names before.  It was like they took generic branding in another, more high-fallutin direction (I realized later this branding exclusivity explained in part, the atypical, or typical, customer).  It was a locally owned one-off with 3 aisles made of finely worked wood.  Each aisle had an attached ladder that reminded me of an Ivy League library (further adding to the exclusive vibe).  On the right was a vitamin section, 8 feet high, behind its own counter, manned by a dour looking fellow (Alan).  I liked the feel of the place, despite its apparent efforts to make food “intimidating.”

I also liked the fact that the storeowner, Steve (a reformed hippie who had opened the store in a smaller location back in ’76.) hired me, because I ended up bonding with this group of people more than any others I’d ever worked (work) with.

The typical Perelandra customer (from here on in “typical” will describe a serious health food devotee) was there for one of a variety of reasons.  They’d had cancer (or some other serious health scare); they were middle aged and had decided, in an enlightened fear of mortality, to “put off” death; or they were there in furtherance of some political stance (social or literally political).  Years of observation led me to believe that the thing they all had in common was a serious (sometimes severe) interpretation of the trajectory of their own lives.  These people realized they were on a path; and then right after; that there was no turning back.

Once one made a “political” decision like ‘eating only organic’ or ‘being a vegan’ it was next to impossible to go back to Ding Dongs and bacon.  Philosophically treed, the person had no choice but to crystallize these opinions into beliefs, leading to a defensive posture (and sometimes even a feeling of earned righteousness), which in turn caused a defensive reaction on the part of the staff.  To in any way back down would be an admission to all (and especially themselves) that they didn’t care about their health.

The typical customer was clean but usually smelled bad (due to an irrational loyalty to crystal deodorant).  They were lean but probably couldn’t even lift a 20 lb. weight.  They espoused happiness but usually looked sad.  Unwitting addicts, they were “on” Atkins or were “into” drinking their own urine (there was even one, a “breathologist” who believed their nutritional requirements were derived completely from the air).  Every new angle was better than the last and there were runs on books and products (like little retail tsunamis) just because something was mentioned on TV (as being the latest and best thing one could do for one’s health).   Rife with contradiction, some were vegetarians who ate fish or vegans who had half and half in their shade grown coffee.  Most of them were very educated, had money and could afford to worry about this kind of stuff (it WAS Brooklyn Heights).

Some of the regulars had such a wholehearted belief in their regimen that they’d eat the same thing at the same time, without any variance (they were definitely what you’d call “regulars”).  Others were just odd: one guy we called ‘Santa Claus’ would come in 2 hours before we closed poring over the bread section (and usually staying until AFTER we’d closed), he’d crouch down, revealing a ‘plumber’s smile’ that sometimes had a whole roll of paper towels sticking out.

I decided after a few months working there that the unspoken credo of the health food industry was “eat this, or else this (scary thing) might happen.”  This, I believe, is what made a lot of people angry (just below the surface) and it created a strong force that we perceived was always coming towards us.  Naturally, it begged for opposition (to keep everything in balance, you know).

The opposing force was the staff (except for Alan).  Usually jobs like this attract artistic types (like the t-shirt said, “I majored in Liberal Arts, will that be for here or to go?”), but this staff was also full of people whose aim was to not only give our clients a little push-back but also to entertain themselves, and maybe in doing so, to get the typical customer to relax…. if only a little (this usually turned out to be futile, but we never gave up).  I think the perma-ad in the Voice was really some subliminal call to an applicant’s inner Goofy (except for Alan, who we will get to).

As the “opposers,” we had a few tools at our disposal.  We could kill with kindness, or slyly mock, or crank it up to passive aggression (or take our cigarette breaks REALLY close to the front door).  My own personal strategy was coffee with sugar; lots and lots of sugar.  Customers, on the other hand, could and would show outright aggression at times, something we knew we had to avoid if we wanted to keep our jobs.

In a weird way, this opposition made the staff also entrench their own beliefs, clinging more closely to White Castles and Newports (one didn’t want to be like a ‘neurotic customer’).  We justified this by saying the food there was too expensive anyway, in fact we wouldn’t even eat anything from the Juice Bar.  We talked about not wanted to be “like them.” So, what we, customers and staff, ended up with was a kind of détente (though you could argue that the customers, by their example, kind of made us less healthy).

We had a few celebrities who shopped there, and they turned out to be the nicest ones of all.  Spike Lee’s sister Joie was a regular, as were Erykah Badu and Philip Michael Thomas (I always wanted to say “Tubbs, duck!” to see if he would).

The typical staff member (I’m not exaggerating here) was a chain smoking fast food junkie.  Sometimes tattooed and/or dreadlocked, the look as well as their usually sarcastic mien contrasted greatly with our clientele.  Our produce manager, Ross, was a tall self-described “high yellow” Bahamian who was also an aspiring R & B songwriter.  He’d written a song called “Moisture” (a, for me, too clinical take on feminine arousal).  His staff consisted of a couple of people.  Jainardo was a bongo-playing (empty bulk tofu containers in the walk in) singer of Guajiro music.  Our store couldn’t afford a mechanized produce sprayer so Jainardo had to keep everything fresh with a spray bottle.  When he was interrupted with a question he would often keep the customers pants leg “fresh” too (they never noticed when they exited the store that one leg was sometimes soaking wet).

And then there was the staff jester, named Gary.  Gary would always riff on how broke he was and would carry around a broken desk phone handset with a dangly wire (he called it his cell phone) to prove it.  He was an aspiring hip-hop artist, constant talker and coiner of made up words.

On the grocery side was Jimmy, a friend of mine who often explained why he never talked to new people (like a grunt in Vietnam, you couldn’t get close because the next time you saw them they could be in a body bag).  Jimmy had worked at Perelandra for years and knew well the managerial staff’s penchant for firing new people, sometimes on the first day, and right before lunch (sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes because it just didn’t “feel” right).  I saw it often.

 

Aisle 3, with overstock ladder

Kiesha was a cashier that I knew I’d like because on my first day there I’d sneezed (one of those where you ‘feel’ something leave your face) near one of the aisle ladders and she kindly helped me find the ejecta (hey, I couldn’t let a customer find it).  She, several times over the years,  and though she was not a Muslim,  would run up to me and enclose me in a big bear hug, farting loudly while saying “Allah akbar!” and not letting go (committing a definite act of terrorism). When she’d do that, it made me think about how the ’93 attack on the World Trade Center affected New Yorkers in different ways.

In general, when we weren’t working, we (except, of course, for Alan) were riffing on the customers, because letting off steam was a psychological life preserver.  It was the thing we all had in common and it bonded us more than other staffs in other stores.  We were at various times accused of being thieves and/or racists (black or white).  There were customers who passed out from lack of energy (or protein, because they didn’t know how to be vegetarians) or who were so angry they tried to start fistfights in or out of the store.  “Typicals” would buy something (excitedly believing in its providential potential) and then, losing faith, return it in a huff and take it out on us.

Prohibited by the 1990 California Organic Standards Act (as well as other laws and acts) we couldn’t definitively tell a customer that some item (usually Health and Body) would work on them, so we were sometimes treated like uneducated morons.  We rolled with it the best we could and tried to mellow them (and each other) out with humor (sometimes) and equanimity (eh).

But as with most jobs, the more authority a person had here, the smaller their sense of humor.  That is why I was thrilled when my sister-in-law Kathleen was hired as our personnel manager.  She balanced her own authority with a refusal to take the “opposing force” that was the customer seriously. For instance, many people (I’m still not exaggerating here) came into our store talking about their colons, more specifically, about their “intestinal transit time” (competitive by nature, maybe health food customers were racing one another to experience the biggest bowel movement in the shortest amount of time).

Kathleen suggested they use corn kernels as a tracking device (here she showed a prescience for the era of GPS that was just a few years away).  They either didn’t get it, or got it and took it seriously.  Either way, it was, to me, awesome.

Brooklyn Courthouse: lunch hangout for office workers and Perelandrans

She had a knack for articulating the disbelief we often felt while trying to help our typical customers.  One day while we were at lunch (feeding Chicken McNuggets to a crippled pigeon out near the fountain on Court Street), I tried to put this feeling to words when I told her we should put this on our receipts:

“Perelandra: We eat shit so you don’t have to.”

But she one upped me and cut to the heart of it by summing it all up with this phrase:

“Get laid and eat a cheeseburger, you pasty faced maggot.”

As personnel manager, she was tasked with not only firing (she tried to ease the hair-trigger tendencies of management, though our ad never did leave the Village Voice) but also with hiring.  She showed an ability to look past certain foibles (during what was a ridiculously lengthy interview process) if the person had a good character.

She hired a great guy named Maloney, who not only survived the first week, but also worked grocery for several years; even though his fly was all the way down during his interview.

But she declined to hire another guy who interviewed ok but was wearing a button that said “I wouldn’t fuck you with his dick.”  She saw the button right away but went through the whole interview anyway, adding one last question:

“So why do you think I would hire someone who is wearing that button?”

He called her a lesbian and stormed out.

When Kathleen wasn’t hiring, firing, or disciplining, she worked the vitamin counter.

With Alan.

Alan and me

Alan was (as I’ve already hinted) an atypical employee.  He didn’t smoke or drink or eat “crap” and was a self -described vegan.  He was tall and thin and had that unique combination of very high product knowledge but very low energy.  He was a native New Yorker who pronounced the ‘h’ in herbs with a hard ‘h’ that apparently impressed the customers but annoyed the hell out of Kathleen and I.

Balding and wan, he could often be found in the back stock area napping, conserving his energy.  Sometimes he had electrodes attached to his face and neck but neither Jimmy nor I (inspecting him while he slept) could find a measuring device.  Sometimes I thought he’d rise up suddenly, like in the movie “Nosferatu,” and scare the hell out of us.  When I told Kathleen of this she replied that though Nosferatu was a good name, his new name should really be “Nose for Tofu.”

He prescribed to an extreme ascetic diet; sometimes going up to 10 days at a time eating only steamed bok choy.  Like many of our customers who tended to take things to the extreme (picture a trembling person downing shots of wheat grass) Alan’s digestive system worked overtime to try to compensate.  And compensate it did NOT.

He had the worst gassy emissions that anyone who ever worked there had ever experienced.  There was an attached ladder behind the vitamin counter and often times he would be the one to slowly and deliberately ascend (sloth like) to get something for a customer (this very action seemed to produce a noxious fart).  Horribly and predictably, about three steps up he would let go a stinker that would release at eye level for anyone else there.  He quickly earned another nickname; “Charnel Butt” (thanks again Kathleen!).  A couple of times I would pass by and see Kathleen nearby (held prisoner behind the counter) spraying Air Scense Lavender right at his offensive but oblivious bottom.

To us fellow workers, this ongoing problem (so bad he was actually disciplined) made him a failed amb-ass-odor for natural foods.

Alan made this area Brooklyn’s Ground Zero

It seemed that though he worked with us, his hard core lifestyle should make him part of the “opposing force.”  But he could get annoyed too when confronted with someone who was even more out there than he was.  With all his quirks he kind of even fit in with us too, was one of us, if only at a distance.

Together we were really kind of united against the overly serious nature inherent to this business, it made us a little serious too but we usually had a great time doing our jobs (it was/is really hard work running a store) and having fun. And happily, over the years, the Natural Foods business DID become more accessible and nowadays I really don’t see that many people like those that frequented Perelandra in the ‘90s.

After 16 years, does that mean I’ve mellowed too, maybe let down my defenses?  Never surrender, I say!

Oh pardon me, not to get all “TMI” here, after all I would and could go on and on telling stories about health food fanatics and their crazy habits; but I’ve got to grab a stopwatch and head to the bathroom.  The radical colon cleanse protocol I’ve started has begun to kick in.

1 reply
  1. kathcom
    kathcom says:

    Dag, Bill! You just brought this all back to me as if it were yesterday–Steve’s deadly serious office meetings. You: “We sell FOOD!” I wish you could load an audio clip on here so everybody could get to hear you say it.

    The photos are awesome. And Alan-I forgot the way he said “herb”-I just got annoyed all over again. I remember us feeding chicken to the gimpy pigeon at Borough Hall. I also remember another thing you said when someone broke wind: “I resent taking something into my body that someone else’s ass rejected.” Sorry if I got the wording wrong.

    You reminded me how much fun it was to work there and you also made me sound pretty cool, which is always good. I wish we lived closer so I could work with you again. I’m not just blowing sunshine up your a** like Chester, the world’s angriest smiling man. I really mean it. It was a blast.

    Reply

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