New York Times Article
By GLENN COLLINS
JAN. 30, 2009
The cantankerous placard on the far wall of the Fairway elevator — in black and white and olive-oil green — pretty much says it all: “This elevator is the pits. We know. Not a damn thing we or Obama can do about it. So stop bellyaching, and read or something.”
The elevator at the store, on Broadway at West 74th Street in Manhattan, is ponderously slow. It is famously cramped.
It is, in fact, a neighborhood institution that locals love to hate — and hate to love — “like an unruly dog that doesn’t come when it’s called,” said the cartoonist and playwright Jules Feiffer. He lives around the corner and has suffered the elevator’s displeasure for a decade.
“When it finally does come,” he added, “it moves at such a slow pace that, well, you have to bring food.”
And everyone does. Patrons in the bare-bones 24,000-square-foot grocery legend — known for competitively priced high-end food — loft their battered green carts and brimming baskets from the overpopulated ground-floor grocery aisles to the promised land: the less-overrun second floor.
Every day some 1,500 of the store’s 70,000 weekly customers take the 4-foot-by-6-foot elevator to a universe of organic produce and two cherished secrets. First, there are those seven little-known, and lightly used, checkout registers. Moreover, the store’s semi-hidden restrooms are up there, too, only a zig and a zag past the fragrant soap and herbal tea aisles.
The author of that blunt, cheeky sign — like all of those peppery signs in the produce department — is a senior manager, Steven Jenkins.
“I tell people, ‘I know you’re annoyed at how long it took to get upstairs, but just be glad you got there at all,’ ” he said with a sigh. “Our customers expect disaster at any given moment.”
Though a check of its inspection record shows the elevator is relatively clean of violations, its seemingly endless 16-second ride is slowed by insufficient electric power, Mr. Jenkins said. “We’d have to rewire the building to make it any faster,” he added. “And we can’t make the elevator any bigger because there’s no other place to put it.”
So there it is: a contraption eccentric enough to have been the subject of a “Seinfeld” episode, if only its writers had thought of it.
For those who have never navigated “Fairways,” as some longbeards call the original store — there are satellites in Harlem and Brooklyn and on Long Island, with another planned for New Jersey — it is a low-ceilinged warren under pitiless fluorescents.
Carts have been wielded as weapons. The swarming, narrow aisles reverberate with the incessant cries of “Esscuse meh, please!” from produce pushers navigating their pallets through clots of customers, some of whom wear hiking boots to protect their toes.
“It’s easier to cross Broadway safely than Fairway,” Mr. Jenkins said.
But the blatant anti-chic of the Fairway bedlam has for decades been a magnet for shrewd neighborhood shoppers, who seem perversely eager to put up with quite a lot. Perhaps Mr. Feiffer spoke for many, noting that the prices “and the quality and variety and convenience are enough to keep me coming back.”
It should be said that there is a narrow stairway to the second floor. However, it presents a barrier to carts overburdened with kale, arugula and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Not that the elevator is exactly convenient. Hidden across from the pasta shelves, it lurks behind a narrow gray door between the organic tortilla chip display and some candy shelves.
But if the store is a gladiatorial arena, the elevator is, surprisingly, “a haven — an oasis of civility,” said Bernice Price, a neighborhood resident and elevator veteran. “People make a quick assessment of the spatial restrictions, and they help each other. There is a lot of silent communication. People don’t seem to push.”
But first, customers in line must perform a balletic arabesque to punch the notoriously inaccessible ground-floor call button, now obscured by red tins of Ghirardelli valentine chocolates ($9.99).
“You have to be told where the button is,” said Carsten Siebert, an arts foundation executive who was lunging behind the Ghirardellis to push the button.
Once the elevator arrives, “the problem is that the door closes before the people can get out,” Mr. Siebert explained, as the next woman in line wordlessly leaped forward to brave the exiting wave of carts. She held the door open for Mr. Siebert and two other elevator-seekers.
A curious protocol has developed among elevator cognoscenti. “You have to know to dive in with your cart and turn right,” said Fred Plotkin, a Fairway elevator scientist and pedigreed foodie who is the author of “Italy for the Gourmet Traveler” and four Italian cookbooks.
The next person in line, he added, “has to know to drive straight in and stand to the right.”
Mr. Plotkin, also an opera consultant who is the author of “Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera,” described the lengthy wait for the elevator as Wagnerian. “It is the Siegfried of elevators,” he said. “A little slow on the uptake. You know, Siegfried is famously dopey.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Plotkin makes good use of his time there. “I chat people up,” he said, adding that he has limits: “I won’t talk to people if all they have in the cart is chips and nuts. And cheap oils.”