Oh, Trader Joe’s. Is there another grocery store that can keep us coming back, week after week, to deal with the hellscape that is hundreds of people trying to buy kale and a spreadable form of Belgian cookies? There isn't, and so we return, perennially hopeful, only to find ourselves crushed.
We’ve heard whispers of Trader Joe’s in cities with lower population densities than New York (which is officially classified, we believe, as “cheek-to-jowl”) where lines are just one or two people long, and where you don’t have to offer your first born for the last artichoke dip. Until we see proof of such establishments, we regard them as urban legend, like alligators in subways and rats the size of subway alligators.
And, until that day, we put ourselves through the Nine Stages of Trader Joe’s: they may not yet be scientific law, but anyone who has endured the indignities and victories of searching for mango leather will recognize them. Join us as we recount the stages, below.
We collectively forget the pain of Trader Joe’s. How else could we explain returning — on purpose — so frequently, grocery list in hand, our shopping carts empty and expectations high? In the annals of “famous last words” resides the phrase, “running by Trader Joe’s to grab some stuff.” And yet we do, every week, so sure that this time it will be different. Oh, how wrong we are.
But before the crushing disappointment hits, there’s the excitement: What’s going to be the featured product this week? Will there be a new coffee? Has TJ's found a new way to sell and consume bacon? Anything could happen!
But then…whoops. The iced coffee concentrate is out of stock. There are only five avocados in the whole damn store, and they’re as hard as rocks. Plus, someone is on the phone in front of the dairy case, blocking all the cheese, asking someone else on the other line if they want pre-shredded Parmesan or block Feta. How can this conversation possibly last more than 10 seconds? But it does, and you are beginning to see red. The innocent dash by Trader Joe’s for some dinner stuff is already going horribly awry.
Time to check your grocery list. Or don’t, because you’ll just think of all the things you wanted — the guacamole! The kale salad! — that are slowly falling from your week’s meal plan as you are met, time and time again, by empty bins. That summer produce pizza? Hard to do without the pre-made dough (LOL at making it yourself). And how are you going to make cauliflower fried rice without the frozen riced cauliflower?
Have you ever looked at your cart at Trader Joe’s and wondered, Why did I get both low-fat and regular frozen mac and cheese? Have you ever noticed that you bought three ice cream flavors — but no breakfast food? What the hell are Butternut Squash Zig Zags, and why do you have five of them? Blame the stage of madness that takes over once despair is passed. If you can’t get frozen mahi mahi burgers, grab all the chocolate-covered nuts, because that makes total sense, right? It does when you're at this stage.
Just as all is lost, you see it: a ray of hope. A lighthouse in the stormy seas of low-priced hummus. A beacon in the dark, better known as free samples. Maybe it’s organic Bolivian coffee to sip, or mozzarella sticks plated ever-so-nicely with some of Joe’s own marinara sauce. Who cares? If you’re quick or charming, you might be able to get two. Pretend you have a boyfriend, get another one. You have found the samples table. The world isn’t such a dark place after all.
If only the fugue state of samples glee and grabbing every gummy in sight could last forever. But sadly, that weird, slightly unhinged euphoria can only last as long it takes you to get to the checkout line. (Which has inevitably looped back around to the very front of the store.) There is no escape. You must become a line zombie, kicking your basket ahead of you as you slump toward the registers. Don’t look too closely at the couple ahead of you, tag-teaming their grocery shopping. You don’t have anyone to hold your place in line for you as you run out to grab some of that crazy cheap olive oil you just remembered you had wanted to buy.
This is your life now. The food in your cart is what you have to live off of. Better hope you can barter the half-ton of peanut butter cups you grabbed with the guy ahead of you, who wisely got some actual vegetables. You just hope one day, future generations will tell your story. The legend of the woman who went to Trader Joe’s for a salad and never emerged, a cautionary tale for all those who dare enter.
And just when all hope is lost… you’re at the front of the line. A very friendly person in a very loud Hawaiian-print shirt waves you to a register with another very friendly person dressed for a luau, who asks you what you’re planning on doing with the five cheeses you’ve grabbed: “Having a party?!” You barely manage to stammer, “Uh… sure," partially because you’re re-acclimating yourself to human interaction again. But mostly it’s because that’s easier than explaining your plans to watch The Bachelorette alone with a wheel of Gouda and then have Mahon for dessert.
And then...you’re done. He hands you a receipt, your ticket to freedom. Before blinking at the blinding light of the outdoors (Seriously, how is it still light outside? You’ve been in there forever.) you look down and...
Wait, the total is how much?! That’s nothing! Really, all those groceries for just $30? Jeez, with all that money you saved maybe you can finally start saving for a vacation. This is the best, you think.
You can’t wait to come back next week.