Coming out of the bathroom in the toiletry section (appropriately enough) of Whole foods, I was informed today that I had violated sanctified “Team Member” space. Customers apparently must walk the football field length of the store to use the bathroom at the other end. Of course, there were no signs indicating this was not a restroom for customers and, on a previous occasion, I’d been pointed toward this bathroom by a kindly “Team Member.” Moreover, what’s the use of informing me on my way out? Needless to say, the person policing me was not your classic über-friendly Whole Foods “Team Member.”

Tacitly, of course, I was not being told that this restroom isn’t for customers, but rather that a restroom frequented by customers is not good enough for “Team Members.” Indeed, there is a striking difference in cleanliness between the two.

What’s noteworthy about this banal incident, though, is its place in the larger class struggle for toilet access. It is probably not the most well known subsection of Das Kapital, however the struggle of the proletariat to use the bathroom and the clever efforts of the bourgeoisie to keep the bathroom all to itself constitute a significant dimension of the general battle that subtends and defines the entire socio-economic fabric. Nowhere is this more evident than in New York.

New York is a city where literally millions of people walk the narrow sidewalks everyday, often packed shoulder to shoulder. And yet, I can honestly say that in five years of living here I have never seen a public restroom. Not a single one. No doubt they exist, somewhere. I even believe someone published a guide book to their locations. But come on, if you need a guide (of one sort or another), it means the existing bathrooms are not plentiful enough to be useful.

This paucity of public places, for the tired masses to relieve the pressures of daily life, means that when one does find oneself out in the big city, far from home, feeling the need, one must engage in the usually awkward and often abasing effort to find a sympathetic bathroom patron, who will allow you to traverse his or her private restaurant or bookstore and use the precious facilities sequestered therein. (Or you can just go in, use it, and risk being policed by something like the Whole Foods surveillance apparatus.) From a social perspective, the message is clear. Bathrooms are for people who have money. If you can’t afford to enter a paying place of business (or wouldn’t be admitted to one), then why did you become a biological organism in the first place?

The correlation of money to bathroom access reveals itself most clearly in the corridors of New York’s polished and towering office structures. Whereas, on the street the everyman or woman struggles to find a usually ill-cleaned restroom in a semi-public business that will admit him or her, once one is permitted past the security of an office building lobby, shining porcelain cathedrals abound. Expansive, empty, and more or less spotless restrooms veritably litter New York’s skyline. Of course, the nicer the building and the higher the security, the better the dens of urinary repose.

So while people duke it out to pee at Starbucks, the ethnically cleansed corridors of Corporate Headquarters U.S.A. have more toilets than they know what to do with. I have never been in a bathroom on any floor of a large office building in New York and had it be anywhere close to fully used. Which leads me to the conclusion that (effectively) the corporate rich are hoarding the toilets.

One frequently adopted solution to the lack of public restrooms (at least by men) is to pee in the street. You see it a lot. In broad daylight. Street pee-ers seem to fall into two or three categories. The very same self-entitled fraternity of corporate crusaders, who have already hoarded all the nicest toilets for themselves at their places of work. Homeless people (understandably). Drunks (more often than not members of the first group). And members of the tired and downtrodden masses who lack much of an option. There also seems to be a significant subset of people who simply enjoy peeing in the street or think that it’s perfectly normal. And a friend of mine instructs me that I should include people with small bladders (who also lack much of an option). Lastly perhaps there are a one or two people who just want to try it.

One particular member of one of these groups occasionally takes it upon himself to pee on my bicycle chain lock (when I’m not using my bike, it lives 24/7 on the street, locked to a lamppost). Since it could not be easier to aim a few inches in any other direction, I can only assume this urination crime is perpetrated on purpose, for reasons that are difficult to fathom. Does my chipped and rusting bike represent something that someone hates? Or is this just another instance of that pervasive American narcissism where, in this instance, someone can’t even be bothered to consider that this bicycle lock probably belongs to another person and is not just part of nature?

Whatever the case, I do believe that the general desultory state of the street-peeing masses (young elite pee-ers notwithstanding) is a result of how the wealthy top ten percent will take anything from the rest of us and keep it all to themselves, even the right to urinate with dignity.

And so, at long last, I find myself making the call to revolution. It is time for people to rise up, overthrow the Wall Street and Midtown overlords, in their skyscraper fortresses, and assert the inalienable right of all people to relieve their bladders in a manner befitting a great democracy.

I call upon you, my reader, to ask yourself: if you do not act, are you free?

What…? Hello…?

April 28, 2007

An ad for the Samsung Helio cell phone, prominently displayed across the street from the Whole Foods second story cafeteria windows, on Houston Street, says, “Don’t Call It a Phone.” I find myself thinking: I won’t.

Presumably Samsung is referring to the multitude of non-calling related features that make the Helio device so much more than a phone. Nokia similarly wants consumers these days to think of its phones as “multimedia computers.” Indeed, the cell phone has truly become the Swiss Army knife of the 21st century. Packed with a surprising array of capabilities (screw driver, saw, scissors, shoulder launchable surface to air missile), but somehow not so great at any of these functions.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, there have been no advancements in the call quality of cell phones in the last ten years and no one seems to care. (I recently discovered that my Ericsson T28z, from 1999, has better call quality than Nokia’s flagship $750 N95 slider cell phone, with the latest in Symbian OS, wifi, and a 5-megapixel autofocus camera.)

The willingness of people to tolerate and, even more, their tendency not to notice poor call quality is especially strange in a place like New York, where we all limit our time at home due to the tiny size of our apartments. A friend of mine here likes to say, “the city is your living room.” No doubt. And many of us, from the early 20th century until the 1990s, when cell phones began to be widely adopted, have become accustomed to having phone conversations in our living rooms.

Yet, by any measure I can think of (call clarity, call volume, sensitivity of the microphone), the venerable old analog land line far exceeds the cell phone in its ability to reproduce the speaking human voice in a pleasant and comprehensible manner. Indeed, not only is the call quality on cell phones worse than land lines, and stagnating, but cell phones have introduced new problems (dropped calls, over amplifying background noise, brain tumors).

Why do we accept this? All the while demanding ever more versatile teeny tiny web browsers and well animated golf games. Could it be that we never really wanted to talk to each other anyway?

I once wrote to the editors of GSMArena, one of the more serious web sites for the cell phone geekerati, asking them to pay more attention in their phone reviews to call quality. Most reviews on their site and others (see also, for example, contain perhaps one or two sentences, often none at all, about call quality. This in reviews that can go on for twelve pages. A kindly editor at GSMArena wrote back to me, saying that there are so many features in current cell phones they cannot always cover everything.

Let’s think about this for a minute. On a device which is nominally a “phone” (though Samsung and Nokia seem a little anxious about whether the word actually applies), the functionality of the so-called “phone,” as a phone, is not always a relevant “feature.”

I will now engage in my inaugural use of a currently popular phrase: WTF?

In my personal struggle to find a phone which works okay in the noisy city, I have actually found a great deal of variation from model to model and manufacturer to manufacturer and so I consider the “phone” feature of the phone worthy of review.

Phones tend to have two significant problems. First, although they can blast out megaphone style in speakerphone mode, they very often do not have enough volume in the earpiece to be heard while walking down the street or in other noisy places. Second, cell phones these days tend to assume fairly small sizes, frequently placing the microphone a couple inches away from the mouth. This means that the microphone has to be more sensitive to pick up what you’re saying, which in turn means that it amplifies all background noise just as loud as your voice, and in yet another turn can tend to drive someone like, say, your mother crazy, who then drives you crazy, asking you over and over to repeat every word you say.

The solution? Not easy. There seems to be no consistency amongst phones for call quality, regardless of price, and not enough consistency with a given manufacturer to count on any particular phone they release working at least decently.

I do have a working hypothesis that flip phones are better for the microphone/background noise issue, because they place the microphone closer to the mouth. Steve, at Steve’s Southern Ontario Cell Phone Page, confirms this, in over a decade of reviews that actually focus on what he calls the “core functionality” of a phone (like, you know, how it works as a phone). But don’t jump to conclusions. Any particular model may well be terrible. For example, the classy Nokia 6133 and 6126 flip phones are utter crap, because the microphone is located, strangely, under the hinge. It must be a whimsical lot of engineers there in Finland, they’ll put a microphone just about anywhere.

I have also found that Nokias in general tend to be the worst phones for picking up every bit of background noise and making it as clear and loud as a bell (I tested a bunch of Nokia phones at their flagship store on 57th Street and have owned a couple). The aforementioned Steve confirms my observation about Nokia. Apparently Sony-Ericssons have the best noise canceling technology and some Motorolas are good.

But really, even when you try, it’s hard to find a cell phone that gets every element of call quality right. So in the end, I guess I have to agree with Samsung and Nokia. I won’t call it a phone.

What is Cynicism?

April 26, 2007

In my last post, I claimed, amongst other things, that when businesses like Crest or Whole Foods employ green brand strategies, they care little whether their products and business practices actually have a positive impact on the environment and people’s bodies. It occurred to me later that many people would be quick to label such an assertion cynical.

This sort of knee jerk use of the term “cynical” reflects the incredibly broad and general misunderstanding of what cynicism is (and it drives me up the wall). Indeed, it’s a term so popularly misused by journalists, politicians, and people in everyday conversation, that dictionaries now offer the popular incorrect meaning of the word as its primary definition.

Of course, that’s how languages change and shift over time. And dictionaries at best can only be indexes of a language according to its conventional use. But in the process, the actual meaning of cynicism is being lost, so that no word, least of all “cynicism,” applies to what it more usefully might mean.

Popularly, cynics are understood to be people who tend to ascribe selfish and dishonest motives to the actions of others. In this view, “cynicism” labels not the questionable actions of the party being subject to scrutiny (for some reason this party is always given the benefit of the doubt), but rather it describes the negative attitude of he or she who is presumed to imagine disreputableness everywhere.

So, for example, if I were to suggest that the real motive, behind the ongoing military debacle in Iraq, is the Bush administration’s desire to assure that either the U.S. profits from Iraqi oil or no one does. And what’s more, I might continue suggesting, Bush, Cheney, et. al., want to prevent Iraqi participation in an Iranian oil exchange, which will trade oil in euros rather than dollars. For, they worry, if Iraqi participation in this Iranian oil exchange were to take place, it might upset the U.S. dominance of the global economy by undermining the predominant adoption of the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency. If I were to suggest this, as merely an example, I might well be called cynical.

Could Bush, Cheney, et. al., really prefer a military debacle in Iraq over pulling out, as at least a second best choice to an ever elusive victory? Only someone who thinks the worst of other people would propose such an argument! Cynic!

And so the cynic (wrongly) becomes he or she who perceives nefarious motives on the part of others. What’s lost in this is the possibility that maybe Bush and Cheney are indeed sneaky fellows. Maybe they aren’t even as good as their word. As usual, the person who perceives the problem is called the problem.

In point of fact, there’s a lot of controversy about the dollar/oil argument I just presented. But the strange thing is, I’d be called cynical not because the argument might be incorrect, but rather just for considering it at all. What does that say about the willingness of people to, oh, I don’t know, think?

The Cynics (the original ancient Greek ones), interestingly enough, believed above all in self-discipline and virtue, through actions, rather than ideas. They tended to lead monk-like lives, eschewing ordinary pleasures. So the Cynic, way back when, was far from the bitter and paranoid curmudgeon we imagine today.

I would suggest, then, that those who critique the darker side of contemporary culture and politics are not cynical at all. They are skeptical and analytical. The true cynic, if the term must maintain its contemporary negative connotation (and it likely will), is the person whom the skeptic critiques. The cynic is the politician or business person who has so much contempt for other people, that he or she says whatever it takes to accomplish their narrowly interested ends. Moreover it is a sort of person who usually exclaims virtue, while exploiting the good will of others. That’s cynical. Yet strangely, in contemporary culture, it tends to be the person who points out this sort of behavior who gets labeled cynical.

This, of course, is all part of a larger issue. Americans do not like to admit that there could be anything not-nice about our wealth and power. So in the U.S. we tend to label any claim about our less than admirable motives, hidden beneath the surface, as paranoid or a conspiracy theory, or just plain cynical. It is part of our long tradition of anti-intellectualism. Ignorance, it turns out, (willful, happy, Pollyannaish ignorance) is a privilege of power.

A couple nights ago, I was wandering the aisles of my local Rite Aid, on the corner of Grand and Clinton Streets. Flooded with fluorescent light, organized into extremely regular rows, on brand, this Rite Aid is very much an antithesis to the Whole Foods now three quarters of a mile away.

I always find this particular Rite Aid to be a bit curious. It occupies a very large and presumably valuable piece of real estate. And yet, it’s perpetually understocked, strewn with unpacked deliveries in generic plastic blue containers, fairly devoid of customers, and watched over by rarely more than one cashier.

At the same time, in sheer square feet, it is more the sort of drug store one would expect to find in a suburban mall, than in Manhattan. (But then, the whole area south of Delancey and east of Bowery is a strange world unto itself. More or less abandoned by the subway, this neighborhood operates at its own special pace, all the while poised within walking distance of Wall Street.)

So I was surprised to find, in a store which can hardly lay claim to keeping up on the latest products (or showing any indication of caring), that Crest has a new toothpaste called Nature’s Expressions. There it was, leaf motif and all, where I least expected to discover nature.

What a tell tale sign of the popularization of “natural” products.

It is even more striking, to me, that a brand as venerable, main stream, and All-American as Crest, feels the need to slap a leaf on its classic product. Something is up. I feel the continents shifting. If Coke follows suitorganic Coke anyone?–we’ll know nature has moved to the center of American socio-political culture. (After all, McDonald’s and, especially, Wal-Mart have already begun to go this direction.)

Still, if I may paraphrase something that Freud never said anyway, a leaf is not always just a leaf. Companies like Crest and Wal-mart (and no doubt Whole Foods as well) want to capitalize very literally on the rhetoric of environmentalism and organics. That is, they want to turn the idea of nature and the environment into capital.

It is neither here nor there, for these companies, whether their products and their business practices have any actual positive impact on the environment or your body. In some instances they might have a positive impact (and what a nice confluence of interests! they’ll say, perhaps even believing themselves). But as Crest’s new product Nature’s Expressions shows, it’s probably cheaper and easier to just run with an idea.

It is true, of course, that Crest’s new toothpaste comes in three natural-ish flavors, Citrus Clean Mint, Pure Peppermint Fresh, and Mint + Green Tea Extract. It is also true that these flavors are naturally sourced. (Meaning that they actually come from natural ingredients.) It is even true that there are leaves and lemon twists pictured on the packaging. And above all it’s true that the home page of the Crest web site features a Flash animation of little birds gently delivering a tube of each new flavor to a picturesque window sill, while bucolic scenery expands happily into the background on the other side of the window.

Curiously, though, given the way the window is oriented, the scenery appears on what ought to be the inside of the window, as if tacitly admitting that something is not right here.

And indeed, things are not quite as they seem. For Crest’s Nature’s Expressions toothpaste takes great care to “express” “nature” not only through dabs of pure mint oil and extracts of green tea, but also by including: Sorbitol, Hydrated Silica, Tetrasodium Pyrophosphate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Disodium Pyrophosphate, Flavor (includes peppermint & anise oil and menthol), Xantham gum, Polyethylene, Sodium Saccharin, Carbomer 956, Poloxamer 407, Titanium Dioxide.

I find it fascinating that the flavor of Crest’s Nature’s Expressions is only partly derived from natural sources. The rest is derived, by an apparent tautology of chemistry, from “flavor.” Another especially interesting ingredient here, to me, is polyethylene, which as far as I can tell is plastic. Apparently it serves as an abrasive in commercial toothpastes. Nothing like petroleum products on your toothbrush!

To be fair, sorbitol and hydrated silica can be found in at least one other “natural” toothpaste, made by Tom’s of Maine. But Tom’s of Maine was recently purchased by Colgate-Palmolive, so it seems a little dubious where their commitments lie.

What can be taken away from all this? The fight for nature is on. Who will own the image of nature? That’s the question. Nature per se, I suspect, is yesterday’s news. As another blog I ran across aptly suggests, nature has become a form of kitsch. I wonder personally if nature ever really existed in the first place? Perhaps it was never more than an afterthought of civilization. Perhaps always an idea. Perhaps it’s one of those words, like “reality,” which has little meaning unless put in quotes. Whatever the case, nature is an idea with legs and a bank account now.

Day 3, Pashmina

April 4, 2007

On the third day after Whole Foods opened on Houston Street, its first Saturday, a Pashmina Silk stand appeared on the sidewalk in front. The new foot traffic justified it. Quite a three day transformation for a block which used to be an extended no-man’s-land.

Not really part of any neighborhood, this block of Houston between Bowery and Chrystie was an inexplicably enormous empty lot for years. If you’re curious, it still appears as an empty lot, with a few cars parked on it, in Google Maps’ satellite imagery. The wrangling about what to do with the site, and other sites in the area, goes back to at least 1970–all this time caught up in the vying interests of the city, neighborhood groups, and development companies. These are the sort of battles that can render some of the most valuable real estate in the world useless.

Lower Manhattan is full of strangely weed grown lots, abutting one thousand dollar a square foot homes and offices. For example, the block my overpriced tenement apartment sits on has no less than three empty lots and an abandoned building. The tides seem to be shifting though. Lately a startling number of these lots have sprouted new construction. Whole Foods and its building seems to have lead the way.

In actual fact, it took a Virginia based real estate trust, with over five billion dollars in assets, to cut through the red tape. The story of how it all worked out has been recounted by austere publications like The New York Times and by the city as a happy (enough) settling of differences between the parties concerned. I find myself wondering how much it was money that talked.

Many of the even newer buildings going up now are twenty story behemoths, dwarfing the historical six story tenements that define the neighborhood. These giants feel more like Uptown Manhattan, than the Lower East Side. I’ve seen fliers in the neighborhood calling on long time residents to organize against the battalions of concrete and glass. But given the rate of construction, the battle would appear to be over before the alarm was sounded.

Which gives us the Pashmina stand, on Houston Street, near the corner of Bowery, in front of the new Whole Foods. Even after the building was completed and occupied by residents, the store front remained empty for a long time, leaving the block cold, windy, and lifeless. So the coming of the Pashmina stand in no less than three days shows how fast Whole Foods can change the tenor of the street.

Indeed, in über-fashionable Nolita, it took years before sidewalk stands ventured from Soho, across Broadway, and began to line the brick wall surrounding St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Standing there, then, locking up my bike, I looked at the Pashmina stand with a disheartened feeling. A long time ago these type of stands would have been peopled by hippies selling ceramics or puppets, which they’d made themselves. It was the scrappy bastion of artisans. Now the stands are much more likely to offer knock off sun glasses, slightly flawed Nikes, or mass produced socks. Where there was once the chance to get something hand made and that you didn’t expect (albeit often crappy in its own way, but certainly not always), now you get the absolute commercialization of every square inch of public space possible. Should there be no limits?

As if responding to my sense of dismay, a phalanx of emergency vehicles began arriving down Houston street going the wrong direction. Then other sirens arrived from other directions.

At Houston and Mulberry, more than twenty emergency vehicles crowded around a three story building, on the corner, which had collapsed. Fifteen minutes prior, I’d biked by that intersection on my way up to Astor Place. It was as quiet as a New York intersection can proverbially be. Now half the building had tumbled into the vacant lot next door (another one of those inexplicable empty lots). No one was inside.

The corner deli in that building closed about six months earlier and was boarded up. They had good prices on fresh squeezed juice. It was your run of the mill, time-standing-still, New York corner deli, plopped down in the heart of an “it” neighborhood and right across the street from the venerable Puck building. It seemed like more than a sign of the times when the deli closed and amazing that it held on as long as it did. It was everything that Whole Foods is not: unkempt, small, on-brand, resisting change, signifying nothing.

Perhaps the building finally gave way in the face of the gusts of perfectly air-conditioned produce blowing down from Whole Foods’ corner. As Walter Benjamin wrote, in an oft quoted passage from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Day 1, A Polemic

April 1, 2007

A Whole Foods store opened in my neighborhood yesterday, in downtown New York. It’s situated in a former no-man’s-land along Houston Street, between Nolita, the very up and coming Bowery, the East Village, the Lower East Side, and not far from Chinatown. It makes me feel the churning gears of change grinding away at Manhattan, more palpably than ever.

New Yorkers took the appearance of the new store in stride, either because New Yorkers can never show that something fazes them, because it’s not the first Whole Foods in New York, or, more likely, because for the new downtown demographic the coming of an eco-yuppie food Shangrila is a sine qua non. And really, it’s remarkable it’s taken this long.

I moved to New York five and half years ago from Oakland, California. But I’m really a native of Berkeley. My Berkeley upbringing was once a point of pride, but now when I look at what Berkeley has become it’s a bit of an embarrassment. I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s. Free love, The People’s Republic, etc. It was fun. Today, Berkeley’s becoming ever more of an exclusive bourgeois suburb.

Moving to New York, I’ve come full circle, in a manner. I live blocks away from where my grandfather was born in 1905, in the Lower East Side, on Henry Street. (He never left New York during his ninety-eight years.) And I’m equally close to where my great-grandmother and her parents lived on Suffolk Street (now there’s nothing there but a parking lot).

So Whole Foods has arrived. Not in New York, but in the heart of the downtown scene. I am certainly part of the transformation of this area, even if I lay claim to roots that go pretty far back. Let me proclaim my hypocrisy up front, then, as a sort of moral cleanser. I’m part of what’s changing here, but I don’t like it.

What’s striking to me about Whole Foods, not just the new one on Houston, but in New York in general, and what makes Whole Foods a telling sign of a new New York, to come, is how utterly lacking the city was for truly modern upscale grocery markets before Whole Foods got here. This, I’ve come to realize, is a bigger question than simply one about grocery stores.

When Whole Foods first came to Berkeley years and years ago, it was like an afterthought. It was a corporatized version of what we’d already had for a long time (and I imagine a long since cleaned up and polished version of what began in Austin, Texas, in 1980). We already had great produce (go to the Berkeley Bowl someday and your mind will be transformed way beyond anything you see at Whole Foods). We also had high polish boutique style grocery shopping with a moral edge (Andronico’s). We didn’t need Whole Foods. And so old time Berkeley residents looked down their noses at its arrival.

Then I moved to New York in 2001. New York turned out to be a strange land full of small grocery stores with really outdated shelving and not very healthy (or good) food. For all the money and glamor in New York, you’d think people would have moved beyond dried pasta, canned soup, “fresh” bread, and a token Gouda. It was like returning to the most mainstream grocery stores of my childhood.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually liked New York’s atavistic grocery store status quo. But it didn’t make sense. How could New York’s moneyed elite be so far behind the bourgeois and a bit dull suburbs of the west coast?

You might object, what about Zabar’s and Fairway? I’d say, they do what New York does best, create the impression (emphasis on “impression”) that New York is a place that has everything. They don’t have what markets in Berkeley and especially these days what Whole Foods has in spades. The embodiment of a entire lifestyle. How about Dean and DeLuca then? After all, it puts glitz and attitude together in grocery shopping. But, Dean and DeLuca is more of another type of age old New York thing. Like the city’s restaurants, it caters to fine taste. None of these places embody a lifestyle. That’s a California move par excellence and Whole Foods is here to show New York what it means.

So if you wanted to you could insist that Whole Foods is just the Upper West Side coming to annex downtown or it’s just part of the eastward expansion of Soho. And that’s all true, as far as it goes. But it is much more than that.

Whole Foods is an aesthetic and ethic intertwined from the corporate structure down to the bananas. When you go to Whole Foods you are buying a way of being. It’s local. It’s global. It’s good to its employees. It’s good for the environment. It’s nice, clean, well lit, friendly, and open to everyone. At the same time, it’s sumptuous, expensive, beautiful, and only for the discerning. And above all it’s human. (Or so they want you to believe.) It raises food to a way of life and in the process it makes you a better person, just by going grocery shopping.

Berkeley has been rushing headlong into this sort of pseudo-liberal save the people and the planet through socially conscious (yet strangely luxurious) consumerism since the early 90s. That was a moment in time (when I graduated from college and came back to Berkeley) which really marks the end of the Berkeley I grew up in and the beginning of the new cleaner richer, more self-satisfied, less wacky Berkeley.

Surprisingly, more than ten years later this sort of eco-grocery consumer fashion-politics is only beginning to establish a real foothold in New York–and by extension help establish a whole host of other modes of consumption.

You can tell how conspicuously absent businesses like Whole Foods have been from New York, just by walking into the Whole Foods on Union Square. The entire front of the first floor is taken up by rows and rows of cash registers. About thirty six in all. It is like a machine for processing people and their money. As far as I know, the Whole Foods stores outside of New York are not like this. Certainly the store in Berkeley isn’t. And I’ve been to Whole Foods stores in L.A. that aren’t. They just have the standard row of ten or so registers up front. In fact, I can’t think of a single other business in New York where so many registers take up such a large portion of the store.

It all offers a naked and instructive display of how vulnerable New Yorkers are to the aesthetic/ethic of the Whole Foods affair. When it came, there was nothing else like it and New Yorkers stampeded towards it. For those used to being amongst the cultural elite, it’s peculiar novelty was irresistible. It filled a void in a city homogenizing, by imperceptible increments, due to its own wealth. And so Whole Foods had to create a bank of registers that dominates the Union Square store, the likes of which even it’s own other outlets did not know. It is a bank of registers that works so efficiently you can literally see it sucking money from people and handing them back their souls. For New York, and I’m guessing nowhere else in quite the same way, Whole Foods is an unprecedented, cataclysmic, success.

What finally makes me marvel at all this and think there’s something more to it than just a new version of yuppie wealth, is how far it’s brought me from my early (and even later) days in Berkeley. A store that in Berkeley seemed like a cheap version of what we already did so much better, in New York seems like a bright shining light.

It’s the eerie combination of New York and Whole Foods together. Like it’s all somehow fresh and new, even though it’s actually terribly familiar. It’s the combination of the things New York oddly lacks and how these lacks are coming to be filled in, with the fact that New York at once represents the cultural pinnacle of America and the heart of the mainstream (where it all begins and gets filtered–or rather sold–back to everyone else).

But now, New York seems primed, strangely enough, to be subsumed under what is ultimately a west coast aesthetic and ethic, because for once New York may have missed the boat on the cultural trends.

I’m left thinking: Is the cultural ascendancy of the west coast upon us? (Just when I thought I’d left.) Is the slow spreading of Whole Foods through New York City more of a watershed than anyone can see? Can something as cheesy as Whole Foods (California cleaned up and corporatized via Texas) really be the harbinger of what’s to come for New York? Perhaps this is one of the lasting effects of the 90s economy, when so many people (especially the young elite) moved to San Francisco to be part of the Internet start ups and then moved back. With their return, the tsunamis of the Pacific washed further east than anyone would have begun to imagine. And in the aftermath, the Internet pilgrims brought back sustainable souls.

Will the Empire City at long last be slouching towards Bethlehem?