March 1, 2009

Freedom From Choice


Being a person of steady, even predictable tastes can make daily life much simpler and more efficient in many ways. I know what I’m having for dinner, I can go to the grocery store without a list, and if I can’t find something in one of the stores I frequent, the employees often know what I’m looking for without my asking. In some cases they even anticipate what I’m going to get the moment I walk in the door.

            That’s the case when it comes to buying smokes. As with my beer purchases, I tend to divide my cigarette purchases between several different stores under the foolish delusion that I’m actually fooling someone. Still, the moment I step foot in one particular bodega, the guy behind the register will see me and slap three packs down on the counter, no matter how busy things may be at the time, I’ll hand him the exact change, and that’s that. More often than not, these transactions transpire without a single word being exchanged. It’s quick, easy, efficient, and I’m in and out of the store in a matter of seconds.

            The problem with this tidy little system, however, arises when my tastes change.

            For most people, if they want to try something different it’s simple. They go into the store, grab this new thing off the shelf, and there you go. The clerk doesn’t know you’re trying something new, and what’s more he doesn’t care. It’s just not that big a deal. But in my case, as with most everything else it seems, this simple exchange can become an ordeal.

            After bouncing around from brand to brand willy-nilly in my younger days, I settled on Kools some twenty years ago. There was something about the mentholation that didn’t give me a pounding headache the way every other brand did. They also packed a more powerful nicotine punch. I’ve stuck with them ever since. Various bans and anti-smoking legislation didn’t stop me. Insane and punitive taxes didn’t stop me. A shift in public attitudes (toward the whiny and sanctimonious) didn’t stop me. Damning medical reports and an increasing shortness of breath didn’t stop me. Through it all, I continued inhaling Kools. I can be an awfully stubborn asshole that way.

            But recently, I dunno, something about the smell just started to turn on me. A sickly sweet odor that lodged n my nostrils. So I figured what the hell? I’d give some other fine tobacco company a chance.

            This is where the trouble started.

            My first stop was at a bodega I’d never patronized before, thinking that might ease the transition. I stepped up to the raised counter and said “Pack of Camels, please.” I’d only smoked Camels briefly back in Philly, but I figured I’d give them a shot. But when I was in Philly there weren’t thirty varieties of Camel cigarettes to choose from. You asked for Camels, they gave you Camels.

            “Lights?” the clerk asked, plopping a pack on the counter.

            “Ummm . . . no. No—do you just have, y’know, regulars?”

            He gave me a look, grabbed another pack, and dropped that one on the counter. “These?”

            Not being able to read the packaging, I simply assumed he’d given me what I was looking for. I paid for it and left the store. Only when I got home did I see he’d given me, not Lights, but Ultra Lights. What in the fuck is even the point of such a product? Might as well just pretend—it’s cheaper and I’d get more out of it.

            The next day I tried the same thing at another bodega I never patronize.

            “Lights?” the man behind the counter asked when I requested a pack of Camels.

            “No,” I insisted. “Just . . . plain. You got plain?”

            That seemed to work, and I left the store with a pack of normal, non-pointless Camels. Feeling emboldened by this small victory and wanting to test out a fair sampling before making any rash decisions, I took a chance and stopped into one of my regular places. This is where I was reminded (yet again) how much New York can be like Sheboygan.

            Before I turned to face the counter, the clerk had the Kools out, stacked and waiting. I’d expected that. The same guy’s been selling me Kools for sixteen years. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “but could I get Pall Malls today?”

            “What?!” the clerk bellowed. “No—these are yours,” he said, tapping the packs already on the counter.

            “I know that—but I was just interested in trying something different, is all.”

            He gave me a look, sighed, replaced the Kools in the rack, grabbed a ladder and climbed up a few steps, snatching the Pall Malls from overhead.

            “These?” he asked, thrusting a pack toward me.

            “Yeah, that’s fine,” I said. I still couldn’t see the packaging, but the way things were going he might slug me if I asked him for something else.

            “I don’t get this,” he muttered, climbing down off the ladder. “You get Kools. These cost more.”

            “That’s okay. I’m just trying a few things,”

            Needless to say, he didn’t cut me my usual discount that day, and it was only after I got home that I discovered they were straights. But that was all right. Hell of a lot better than Ultra Light anything, I’ll tell you that.

            Things only got worse after that. When I returned to the same store two days later, the clerk greeted me with a less-than-cheery, “What do you want now?” And when I named yet another brand, he glared at me with such open disgust that I thought he was going to spit on me.

            At another one of my regular cigarette outlets I received a nearly identical response. I have to wonder, is this really necessary? Are these people really that discombobulated and morally outraged because I’m finally exercising my freedom of choice after all these years?

            It occurred to me that it was entirely possible that in their home countries, they didn’t have forty-five kinds of everything to choose from; they didn’t have entire grocery store aisles devoted to breakfast cereal or salad dressing. They had what they had and they were happy with it. This was just another expression of shameless American decadence (which, of course, it is).

            Or maybe when they came to this country they gleaned from watching the television or flipping through magazines that brand loyalty was on a par with religious belief and patriotism—which is easy to understand, I suppose. People have been known to kill each other because a brand was wrong. Maybe they see a long-time user switching brands as a potentially dangerous kind of heresy. And if that is the case, maybe it only makes sense that I’d turn heretic eventually.

            Or maybe all these years I’d simply made things as easy for them as I had for myself, and now they’d have to put in a little more effort.

            I’ll keep going back to those little bodegas, though, in spite of the disbelieving stares and the open contempt, if only because after stepping away from it, I found the hostility pretty funny, in an annoying sort of way.


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