By Maria Yagoda
In an unusual turn of events, I had forgone my morning cereal. I’d heard tales of hearty, meal-sized samples — pasta, pie, bacon strips — and I wanted to be prepared.
Which is why I arrived at Costco, for the first time, hungry and deeply anxious.
I’d never been to Costco before because there was something wrong with me, or so I’d been told repeatedly. I grew up in Philadelphia around BJ’s, a similar warehouse store whose name inspired giggles, but I never shopped there, either. Why buy a membership to buy things?
The bulk-buying ethos puzzled me. What would I, a teen who made her income finding coins in the couch, need with a tray of 16 brioche buns? Could the savings be that good?
My fascination with Costco began in freshman year of college, when a roommate from Queens rolled up with a human-sized tub of hard pretzels. Now, living in Manhattan, Costco is like a cult, the main reason you’d have a car, or yearn for one.A few weeks ago, I shuffled into the massive Costco complex, on 116th by the East River, with my new boyfriend, Josh. We thought maybe buying exorbitant amounts of food would put a stop to our unsustainable take-out habits. I hoped our relationship would endure the adventure.
The first item I saw, stacked high like most things in Costco, was an umbrella. It was a real umbrella’s umbrella: sturdy, black, sleek. If I owned the ShedRain Ultimate Umbrella, I fantasized, I’d never forget it, or my keys. I’d be the kind of person who always had an umbrella when it rained, who never had to swipe them from buckets at Starbucks or devise comprehensive theories about all umbrellas being communal to justify my endless cycle of losing-stealing, losing-stealing them.
Heated blankets. iPads. Trash cans. The deals were good, practical and adult — adjectives I wanted for myself. This, I found, was the power of Costco. Everything becomes a metaphor.
Struck by hunger, I broke into a trot towards the vast food emporium in the rear. “Gotta. Get. Samples,” I called back to Josh, who had paused by a stack of Sherpa blankets, mesmerized.
The samples were fine: chicken soup, spinach artichoke dip, dinky cups of almond milk. They were also incredibly free. I’d snatch two at a time, huddle in a corner to devour them, and then casually walk back to the stand, as though I had a question.
Fortified, I approached a mammoth box of Special K. The box would last me — one human with standard cereal needs — about a month, I estimated. That is, if my cereal consumption remained the same. But shouldn’t this bother me? My routines? Such predictability? Then there was the issue of solitude. Do childless women get to buy family-sized packs of things? And what about freshness? Can a lone person go through a box bigger than her torso before it all turns stale? We split a jumbo hot dog and a jumbo soda, with free refills, for just $1.50. Now I was a little aroused.
It occurred to me why I’d wanted the umbrella so badly: Everything in Costco is an impulse buy because your state in Costco is an impulsive, deeply existential one. I wasn’t dealing with, say, a Walgreens, where the enemy is a $1.59 ChapStick, tempting by the register. Here, there was a very real possibility I’d buy a gallon of face wash, or a 12-can case of pinto beans. I don’t even wash my face or eat beans with any regularity. Costco impulse purchases have the power to change my life.
If I buy this lifetime supply of coffee, maybe I’ll be better about making coffee in the morning and waking up in general.
If I buy this 36-pack of Milky Ways, maybe I’ll start selling them on the street at an inflated price and eventually become a wildly successfully entrepreneur.
Sipping my fourth sample cup of chicken soup, I pondered the postmodern: Can the products I buy transform my habits, my identity, in a way that endures the timeline of twelve cans of pinto beans? A bucket of seafood bisque? Eleven pounds of pork loin?
The nagging existential doubt followed me all the way to a five-pack of deodorant. I was disturbed: I don’t know if I’ll be alive five deodorants from now.
Some time later, Josh and I miraculously rejoined by the toothpaste and drifted towards the checkout, stopping once for me to rest on an inviting, mattress-like display of paper towels.
I wasn’t hungry, but I needed the warm comfort of the Costco Food Court. I noticed that my nipples were still erect from the time I’d spent in the refrigerated produce room. It had to be the cold, because I was the farthest from aroused I’d ever been in my life.
We split a jumbo hot dog and a jumbo soda, with free refills, for just $1.50. Now I was a little aroused.
Exhausted, we hailed a taxi and I inspected our haul: beer, chicken, salmon, Himalayan sea salt, pesto and kale, among many other things — most of which were already giving me buyer’s remorse.
Except for a ginormous jar of pickles, the only item I’d insisted on. Why pickles? I wondered, gearing up to overanalyze what my pickle purchase said about me. But we were just about home, and outside of the Costco universe, 36 pickles were just 36 pickles.
I screwed open the jar. One down, 35 to go.