Saturday, April 28, 2018

What's in a name? Sometimes not much

     The only plane I ever missed in my life was missed because of an Italian grocery store.
     Not just any Italian grocery store. Balducci's was a New York landmark for nearly 60 years, on 6th Avenue for the last 40 of those years. During those 6th Avenue years, when I visited the city, which I did a lot back then, to huddle with my agent and publisher and enjoy the sweet delusion that I had a career in books, I would traditionally end my visit by stocking up on rolls of cheese and pastry and pancetta, with elaborate tarts and thick, slightly sweet biscuits. Bottles of vodka infused with raspberries, and loaves of pate, crusty breads and other treats.
     I would bring a couple green, filled shopping bags home to Edie, and we would enjoy a taste of the Manhattan life.
     The time I missed the plane, it was around Christmas, the grocery was packed, and by the time I had taken a number and waited at the deli counter, and taken a number and waited at the bakery, and fought my way here, and decided whether to buy this or that, I had about 45 minutes to get to Newark for my flight and missed it.
     Leading to one of those stories I've repeated dozens of times, to illustrate the value of being nice.
     The woman in front of me had missed the same flight I had missed. She ranted and raged, threatened and demanded.
     "I'm sorry," the employee of the airline—"People Express Airline," a short-lived discount carrier, so this had to be in the early 1980s— behind the counter kept repeating. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. I'm sorry. I'm sorry." 
      The woman finally stormed off. 
      Now it was my turn.
      "I'm in exactly the same situation as that woman was in," I said, meekly, "only I realize it was entirely my fault and I appreciate anything you can do for me."
      "No problem," the clerk said briskly, "I can book you onto the next flight. It leaves in 60 minutes."
      True story.
      Despite this brush with inconvenience, I kept going to Balducci's, until it shut down in 2003 after 57 years in business. I tried not to think about it much. Nothing good lasts.
     Balducci's lingered in other spots in New York until 2009, but I never went to those outlets. For me, it was Sixth Avenue or nowhere.
     Then last month, I was in Philadelphia, during research at the Children's Hospital for my next Mosaic piece, to be published in early June. The storm socking the East Coast caused American Airlines to cancel the 11 a.m. to Chicago, compelling them, for reasons mysterious, to stick me on a flight to Cincinnati, which was immediately cancelled, moving me to a flight to Louisville, which was also cancelled, then brought back to life, and I was so happy to not be spending the night in the Philly airport that, frankly, the American Airlines clerk, who was not that helpful despite my being really, really polite, could have reached across the counter and slapped me full in the face and I would have thanked him if it meant I was getting on that plane. It was like the ending of "The Year of Living Dangerously."
     Things were far less nuts in Louisville, the sleepy airport so welcome I thought perhaps I should immediately relocate to some sylvan community and be done with people and news and business and crowded airports facing storms. I was exploring, looking to have lunch at a restaurant with a whiff of Kentucky—they had one, but it was a Chili's—and I came upon a store boldly labelled "Balducci's."
     My heart leapt. I walked into the store as if in a trance, expecting cases of cheeses and little twisted Italian cookies and intriguing loafs and enticing breads.
    Nope. A single Balducci's labelled product: cans of chocolate covered peanuts, which I didn't even remember from back in the day. And the cans were not the distinctive Balducci's green and white. Otherwise, the same sandwiches and chips and bags of M&Ms you'd find in any airport anywhere. They must have bought the name forgetting all the quality and wonder that went with the name. There's a lot of that going around.
     A bit of digging found this line from a New York Times story in 2009:
     "Some regulars said Balducci’s lost its soul after Sutton Place Gourmet bought the store for $26.5 million in 1999. The company closed the flagship location four years later, and then opened and rebranded other shops under the Balducci name."
     Ah, they thought they were buying something special. Turns out it wasn't the name that was special, but the spirit of quality behind it. Without that spirit, it's just another word. You'd think business folk would know that.


  1. That's a great metaphor for what's happening to the Republican Party.

  2. Your experience at the airport counter behind the ranting lady reminded me of the day I went to pick up my car from my mechanic of 37 years. It needed a belt or hose, some fairly minor thing. The customer in front of me was berating the proprieter for what she perceived as shoddy workmanship. This went on for nearly 5 minutes and he quietly endured her wrath . She finally left and when I asked what I owed him for the work, he said no charge I was confused. He said don't worry she's paying for it.

    1. My Dad always said "It doesn't cost anything to be nice", but obviously nasty comes with a higher price tag. Hope your mechanic wasn't just kidding.

  3. Wonderful life lesson and hilarious to boot. "Meekly" may not work all the time, but better than berating for sure.


  4. Brings to mind an occasion some years ago when I regularly visited New York on business and often returned with delicacies. As we were all boarding the Chicago flight the cabin was suddenly effused with an unmistakable odor and a familiar face belonging, if memory serves, to the comedian Morey Amsterdam, appeared in the doorway. The large bag he was clutching bore the logo "Carnegie Delicatessen," and I heard him tell a fellow passenger he never leaves Manhattan without a stock of pastrami. Couldn't happen that way today, as both Amsterdam and the Carnegie Deli have vanished the scene.


  5. Airline counter story...Was standing behind a really p.o.'d customer, waiting to be "rebooked" from a cancelled flight, when he yelled at the rez agent, "I hope you - or someone dear to you - gets cancer and dies..." I quite honestly was dumbfounded... and still remember it clearly today - 20 years on. Hateful.

  6. Racing against mountain snow and flat tires a friend got me to the airport curb almost exactly on my departure time. Of course that flight was on time and gone. Reno not the worst place to miss a flight so no big deal. Naturally being 2 hours early the next morning was rewarded with a broken airplane and a six hour delay. The airport, not as much fun as the MGM Grand.


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