Lies, deception and betrayal at Trader Joe’s

Trader Joe’s is a Southern California-based grocery store chain that specializes in gourmet, organic and specialty foods. Maybe you have one near you. Maybe you don’t. How the hell would I know? Answer: I wouldn’t.I tend to go to Trader Joe’s when I want to purchase food and drink for special occasions. On this particular evening, I planned on watching the conclusion of season three of “The Wire” on DVD. The only proper way to conclude one of the greatest seasons in television history, I thought, was with a bottle of Napa red and a flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta cheese. Did I mention I don’t have a girlfriend? What gave it away? Answer: Everything.

The checkout girl was the usual sort you find at Trader Joe’s – cute and friendly and chatty. If Trader Joe’s employs ugly, silent brooders – the type with a score to settle – they’re not in front with the public. They’re kept in the back with the raw meats. Up front it’s all talk-talk-talk and nicey-nice and “have a great day, sir.” In the back, if I had to guess, they’re sawing off shotguns, drawing on maps and worshipping Santeria. Do I have proof of this? No. Why do I think it’s true? Answer: There must be balance.

Death of a President movie My checkout girl – we’ll call her Betsy – picked up my delicious flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta and scanned it. Then she made a bold move – a move she would soon and forever regret. “This is one of my favorites,” she said. I immediately responded, “What side dishes would you recommend?” I’m big on side dishes. Side dishes and dipping sauces. Is variety the spice of life? Yes. If variety is not the spice of life, then why is there so much variety? Answer: Exactly.

Betsy blinked. It was a silent blink of epic proportions. She had been caught in a lie. We both knew it. She couldn’t think of what side dish she had enjoyed with her delicious flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta because she had never eaten said brand of delicious flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta. Or had she just imagined it, like Hillary with the sniper fire? Who lies about delicious flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta? What did Betsy stand to gain? Answer: Me. I’m one cool bowl of spumoni. In a way, I could not blame her. But in a different way, I could.

Betsy finally mumbled “baked potato” before looking down and away in childlike shame. She knew the harsh truth. She had destroyed whatever trust there was between us. She had broken the sacred code of the checkout girl. You know the code. When a customer buys a quart of whiskey, a box of prophylactics, Jell-O and a mop, you keep your damn trap shut. Same goes for an innocent order of delicious flank steak stuffed with spinach and feta. If you have a comment, you keep it to yourself. Take whatever thoughts are rattling around in that Betsy head of yours home and blog them or journal them or drink them off. I don’t want to hear it. Why? Answer: We both know what the Jell-O is for. But you’ll never guess what the mop is for, so don’t even try.

I haven’t been back to Trader Joe’s since. There is a taint upon that store, and you can interpret that to mean any type of taint you please. I no longer associate Trader Joe’s with spicy hummus or pineapple salsa or joy. Now when I think of Trader Joe’s, it’s all lies and betrayals and truth-rape. There is a Vons grocery store across the street. It’s not as flashy, but the employees are discreet. And that’s all a man can ask for these days. Is that really all a man can ask for these days? Answer: That really is all a man can ask for these days.

(To hear Mike, Sean, guest Ed Galvez and me talk about this column on The Second Column podcast on iTunes, click here.)

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Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles

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  • silver

    Oh my god Joe, no. No Joe, you’re wrong. This poor girl can’t afford side dishes, will never enjoy a side dish, and in order to protect herself from the cruelty of the world has never even considered the possibility of side dishes.

    The very reason she buys the stuffed steak is because her subconscious reptilian brain knows that it has its side-dishes built-in Joe. It is one of her favorites because it satisfies her in a way that she doesn’t fully understand. Indeed, this stuffed steak rewards her in a way that no plain steak alone on the plate and redly weeping possibly could.

    And you, Joe, you with a short casual question, what seemed like the barest hint of innocent curiosity to you, must have felt like the cruelest torturer’s interrogation to this girl. That blink was not a blink of panic at being trapped in a lie, it was the blink of realizing too late that by working at an establishment that sells delicious side dishes she was standing on the edge of a crumbling precipice.

    Did you see her face whiten, and think it shame? That was not shame, but the terror at feeling one’s foundation swept from beneath them and sensing nothing but the desperate gasping abyss below. That was a woman who had no inkling of her life’s emptiness, confronted with a man who epitomized the grandeur and resplendence that she would never attain. She wasn’t suggesting you try a baked potato, Joe. Where you once stood, her fractured mind substituted a baked potato. And you stood there, expectant, delicious, tempting, cruel.

    She probably cried herself to sleep that night, her basest desires laid bare, raw, and open. And by a complete stranger, no less. And all because you couldn’t go one single shopping trip without bringing up side dishes. Side dishes.

    Baked potato indeed.

    Oh, also: very funny column! Great as always! :)

  • Anonymous

    The real name of the store is ‘Traitor Joe’s.’ Coincidence?!?!? I think not! =)


    Steve, once again you have destroyed my central premise like so many color dots. You bastard.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Joe,

    We went to elementary school together!!! I used to be a vegetarian, but now I like meat and I heard flank steak is yummy! Can you guess who I am? I’m not Chelsea, Brenda or Devon.

  • Jimmy McNulty

    Tomato Basil Couscous… How hard was that? Makes me wonder if she has ever really tasted her food or if it is something she just puts into her body to survive?


    To my so-called anonymous grade school chum, I do not believe you. Your spelling is too good. Reveal yourself, impostor.

    To McNulty … you are real police.

  • silver

    Sorry Joe, but what can I say? I just hate premises.


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