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Adventures At Planet Coop: A Park Slope Essay

Photo by nancyscola

It was shaping up to be one of those enviable early summer Brooklyn evenings: a group of friends picnicking on quilts in Prospect Park with perfumed linden trees, twinkling fireflies and a Celebrate Brooklyn concert in the background—when my BFF, Pasha, the green-eyed, goateed, social-conscience eco-revolutionary Midwestern hippie—nearly spoiled it all by rolling those green eyes at the tub of hummus I had brought and once again entreated me to join the neighborhood FoodCoop.

“C’mon Michele, you know it’s not only the right, but righteous thing to do. I can’t believe you’ve lived in Brooklyn for so long and not joined. You like good food. You’re all into the community. Plus, it’s MAD CHEAP!”

I had heard this from him many times before and answered (as always), that while I did indeed like food (and very much so), it was now 2008, I had lived in said community for 20 years and been warned at regular intervals by friends and neighbors against subjecting myself to the will of those “militant sanctimonious fascist hippies.” He bristled in defense while our other friends laughed. But since we were, after all, BFFs, we agreed to disagree and turned to more pressing concerns: “Who needs more wine?” and “Keep an eye out for the cops!”

At summer’s end I was advised for health reasons to switch from using regular sugar to agave nectar, a commodity whose price at Whole Foods made me wonder if this were indeed liquid gold I’d be spooning into my coffee. And when I—quite innocently, I thought—asked Pasha if he could pick me up one teeny tiny little bottle at the FoodCoop the next time he went shopping, he unexpectedly and unequivocally refused.

“That’s against the rules. You’re not supposed to benefit from FoodCoop unless you work for FoodCoop. You wouldn’t want me to break the rules, would you?”

“Uh, yeah—you’re supposed to be my friend, you freaking hippie!” Although I had to admit he did have a moral (if inconvenient for me), point.

But then Pasha showed up at my apartment after his food shopping to cook me dinner. A dinner of red chard, blue potatoes and purple carrots with a yellow beet and goat cheese salad and the tastiest local microbrew I’d ever had. A dinner whose receipt showed cost a whopping twelve bucks and change—including the beer—which finally convinced me that maybe I finally needed to get over myself and join FoodCoop.

One week later, I arrived at the 7:30pm Orientation, and was surprised to see the door closing as I approached it. I wedged my black sneaker in the door and an opposing comfort-sandaled foot countered, pushing mine back, saying, “Orientation closes at 7:30. You’re late.” Luckily I was holding my cell phone and turned it toward the owner of the foot just as the LED numbers changed from 7:29 to 7:30.

“I beg to differ. I’m right on time,” I said, as I slipped into the room and slid into the one remaining seat.

The owner of the foot was a woman who embodied every FoodCoop stereotype I had ever heard—or imagined: long, straight silver hair wrapped with a dangling scarf, wearing diaphanous layers, abundant turquoise jewelry and redolent of a low-grade patchouli oil which didn’t quite mask a faint yet distinct undertone of un-neutered cat. She almost looked like an extra from the movie “The Banger Sisters,” except somehow I doubted she had banged anyone in a long, long time. She glared at me and locked the door from the inside. No one else was getting into this room—or, perhaps just as disturbingly—out. But that was OK, because I couldn’t wait to start shopping for multi-colored multi-cultural sustainable-farmed local organic MAD CHEAP food!

Two hours later I was still waiting. Full disclosure: I’ve never been in the military, lived behind an Iron Curtain or belonged to a religious cult. But I have endured the Indoctrination to FoodCoop: a totalitarian manifesto of endless Rules expounded in excruciating detail. Rules about Shopping: when to Shop, how to shop, with whom one can Shop and how much one can Shop. Rules about Working: the types of WorkShifts, signing up for WorkShifts, signing in for WorkShifts, changing WorkShifts and making up WorkShifts. And how infraction of the smallest, seemingly most insignificant Rule would result in immediate death—uh…suspension—if not complete expulsion. Thus, I learned the first rule of FoodCoop:

They who do not Work do not Eat.

Finally, I was handed a booklet (containing the Full List of Rules) and herded into an office where my photo was taken, a number given and I was assigned as a FreeAgent. As a FreeAgent, I would have the freedom to work on different Squads before choosing a permanent Shift. And then I saw the List of Squads a FreeAgent was allowed to work: most of which entailed cleaning, heavy lifting and/or pre-dawn arrival.

After Orientation, too exhausted to shop, I dragged myself home and to bed, pausing only to call Pasha and tell him I had successfully joined FoodCoop. I expected him to congratulate me.

What he said was, “Cool! Can you cover a shift for me? I gotta go to Boston this weekend.”

“Uh…okay. When?”

“Tomorrow morning. You’ll dig it. All you do is bag stuff for a couple hours.”

“Wait, you work in a FoodSquad? But I’m just a FreeAgent, they told us at Orientation it could take years before we’d qualify for a FoodSquad.”

“Yes, you can’t join a FoodSquad, but you can cover for one. Don’t worry. It’ll be fine.”

I arrived at FoodSquad a little early. A worker from the previous WorkShift greeted me, handed me a bandanna to cover my hair and explained how to measure, weigh and bag the FoodCoop’s multi-colored, multi-cultural sustainable-farmed array of dried fruits, nuts, spices, teas, cheeses, snacks and olives. I looked at the rows of bandannaed heads busily working and thought I had stepped inside a living 1930s Soviet Union propaganda poster. But then I saw a Worker step over to a mini-buffet of delectable tidbits laid out on a side table and thought, “Hey, maybe this FoodSquad isn’t gonna be so bad after all.”

As the previous shift exited (did I only imagine in single file?) I popped an organic multigrain-and-flaxseed cracker topped with a slice of unsulphured papaya and chunk of organic blue goat cheese in my mouth and heard an eerily familiar voice.

“Who is SHE and what is SHE doing here!”

I turned and saw the owner of the foot from the Orientation Meeting. She stared at me and I realized she had no recollection we had “met” less than 24 hours before.

The woman, who will now be known as “Comrade X,” asked if this was my regular squad.

“No,” I answered, “I’m a FreeAgent.”

“FreeAgent!” she cried. “FreeAgents are NOT allowed to work in FoodSquad. Do you know the waitlist to get this WorkShift? What’s your number?”

I dutifully gave Comrade X my number. She walked away for a moment and returned to say, “You’re not even in the System. You must leave. NOW!”

“But…I just joined and I’m covering my friend’s shift, he’ll be on Alert if someone doesn’t cover him…”

It was too late—she took off to find the SquadLeader. When they both appeared a moment later the SquadLeader said, “Yes, it’s ‘officially’ against The Rules. But we’re shorthanded this morning, so she stays.”

Comrade X joined the worktable, huffing and puffing under her breath how SHE had been a member of FoodCoop since blah-blah-blah and in HER day Rules MEANT something. I looked at the clock and couldn’t believe only a half-hour had gone by. There were still over two hours to go in this WorkShift. And just when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, the SquadLeader paired us in twos, and of course, I was stuck with HER.

We were given a list of organic nuts to bag. I followed Comrade X as she walked confidently through a labyrinth of aisles to a shelf of boxes stacked six feet high. “We’ll do cashews,” she said. And as I tentatively reached for a box, Comrade X revealed the second rule of FoodCoop:

Thou shalt not mix the Organic with the Non-organic—Ever!

“NO! Not that one. Do you want to ruin EVERYTHING???” 

I dropped the box back on the shelf. Comrade X picked another and we started bagging the cashews—during which she proceeded to criticize everything I did—from how many cashews I put into each bag, to how I tied it, to how I was rushing the work…

“Don’t scoop so roughly! You have to respect the nut.”

Yes, she actually said that.

As Comrade X went on, I noticed something. She had, inadvertently I’m sure, picked up her box from the same shelf I had put mine down. These weren’t organic cashews we were bagging at all. And she slapped on organic label after label as she continued her tirade of New Member Contempt.

Now, I had been a Brooklynite for 20 years, but I grew up in The Bronx. And what I had always held in contempt was a tattletale—a rat, a dime-dropper, a cheese-eater (previous irony noted). But I’ve never, I mean nevah wanted to narc on anyone as badly as Comrade X.

I began to excuse myself to go to the ladies’ room (and get the SquadLeader), but as I stood up, felt a cautionary twinge of guilt. Because the more I listened, really listened to Comrade X, the more I realized that most likely the only creatures she talked to (besides her cats) were those at FoodCoop. When I left this WorkShift, I’d be going back into the world. But when she left, she’d be leaving hers.

When the PA announced the WorkShift was at last over, Comrade X left quickly. I stayed behind and redid the labels. It didn’t take very long at all. As I left, unnoticed, I remembered she had never even once asked my name. I wondered what her reaction would have been had she known what I named her.

Over time I learned that FoodCoop Membership isn’t a Privilege or an Entitlement—it’s a Job. And just like at any other job, some people are chill, some aren’t and others… are just who they are. I’ve stayed with it because Pasha, my BFF was right: the food is amazing, it’s mad cheap and through my membership I support a community of fellow members and local sustainable farms. I haven’t run into Comrade X again, but then again there are over 15,000 Members…and I don’t think she’d remember me. But I’ll always remember her, because it was she who taught me the third and most important rule of FoodCoop:

No matter what, you have to Respect The Nut.


Michele Carlo has lived in Brooklyn since 1988. She is the author of Fish Out Of Agua: My life on neither side of the (subway) tracks (Citadel 2010), a memoir about growing up as a redheaded freckle-faced Puerto Rican in an Italian/Irish neighborhood in The Bronx back when a slice of pizza cost fifty cents. She would also like to state for the record that in her four years of FoodCoop Membership she has never been suspended, not even once. And that she, too, talks to her cats…both of them.

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