Posts Tagged ‘New England’

A Haven of Mentschlichkeit*

Yesterday I had an experience that perfectly sums up why I love living in the White Mountains, and it has nothing to do with hiking, camping, or kayaking.

I traveled the 45 minutes to my “local” supermarket for my weekly shopping trip.  As I stood in line, there were four people ahead of me.  The first, an elderly person, had just received her receipt, which came with a separate tape that printed out a coupon: “Spend $75 on your order and get $5 off.”

The lady turned to the person next to her in line.  “Oh, why don’t you take this coupon and use it on your order?  I’m just a single person living alone, and there is no way I can spend $75 on my shopping.”

The man was delighted.  “Thanks!” he said.  But when the cashier totaled his order, he was many dollars short of the $75 to benefit from the coupon.  He certainly could have pocketed the coupon for use the following week.  But instead, he turned to the person next to him, and said, “Here, maybe you can use this coupon.”

The scene repeated itself.  The woman in line was delighted, but equally dismayed when her order also did not total $75 (I guess New Englanders are frugal food shoppers!).  That’s when she left the coupon for me.

Amazingly, and what was probably the first time in my life in the history of my shopping at any supermarket, my total was much less than the required $75 purchase.

I wish I could say I am a saint . . .  but frankly, under normal conditions, passing on the $5 coupon to someone else, especially a stranger, would simply not have crossed my mind.  Normally I would have stowed it in my wallet for future use.  But seeing this remarkable generosity and how good it made everyone feel about others and themselves was contagious.  One good deed truly does lead to another, or as we say in Jewish thought, “mitzvah goreret mitzvah.” That’s worth more than $5.

I passed it on.

*Mentschlichkeit: a good, honorable and noble person who exudes integrity, decency and kindness

 

 

 

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Where “Customer Service” Is Not An Oxymoron

The degree of mentschlichkeit by complete strangers (the art of being a nice, kind, decent and upstanding person) found in rural New England never fails to delight and surprise me.

Conversely, I am sorry to say that when I return to my hometown on the East Coast, I am frankly astounded not only by the huge number of rude and unhelpful and apathetic people; but also how nice, normal people living there seem to think “that’s just how things are” and that they’ve become complacent and put up with such bad behavior.  They feel dread and defeat before they even go into the store!  (Not to mention the fear of being mugged in the parking lot.)  I will spare you the ugliness of my daily shopping travails in my home town, but I do wish to relate what is more typical behavior in New Hampshire and in Maine.

When you walk into a store in rural New England, whether it’s a mom-and-pop hole-in-the-wall or a Big Box store, you are greeted with, “How can I help you today?”  The thing is, they really mean it.

Too many times to count, I’ve asked a Wal-Mart employee where a certain item might be located in the store.  They will never say, “In Aisle 10.”  The employee will take you by the hand, smile, and actually walk you to Aisle 10, even if it’s at the complete opposite end of the extremely vast store, and even if they were busy doing something else at the time you asked for assistance.  Even if you insist, “Oh, that’s okay, you can just tell me which aisle it’s in,” they will say, “Oh, it’s no problem!  Let me show you the way!”

At first I was taken aback – – do I really look that old and helpless?  But I noticed that neither age nor gender is a factor.  This is just what they do.  The customer comes first and so does his satisfaction, even if the employee leading you by the hand makes a measly minimum wage and his prospects for promotions or long-term employment in that store do not look particularly bright.  And it’s not just a particular Wal-Mart (or Home Depot or Lowes, supermarket chains, etc.) – – it’s every single Big Box store I’ve been to anywhere in Maine or New Hampshire.  If the item is not on the shelf, they will voluntarily go to the back of the store and try to locate it for you, and if they can’t find it, they will check their stock list for current inventory and find out when a new delivery is expected.

While at Wal-Mart I loaded up on cereal.  One type had a peel-off coupon on the box cover saying that the manufacturer was giving a free pound of bananas for every box of cereal bought that had the coupon sticker.  Unfortunately, however, I was unable to make use of this coupon since this particular Wal-Mart was not a “super” Wal-Mart and they did not carry any fresh produce.

Once my purchases were made, I headed to Hannafords, a pleasant supermarket chain that is found throughout Maine and New Hampshire.  I put some bananas into my cart, and went in search of goat’s milk, which I digest more easily than cow’s milk.  Unfortunately, they were out.

When I got to the checkout line, the cashier asked the question that every Hannafords employee is trained to ask:  “Did you find everything you needed today?”

I joked in a light tone of voice, “I guess this is just not my day.  You seem to be out of goat’s milk.  And I just came from Wal-Mart, where I got a coupon for free bananas with my cereal, but because it’s not a “super” Wal-Mart, I was unable to use the coupon since they don’t carry fresh produce.”

The cashier stopped and placed a call to the dairy department.  “I’ve got a customer here who says we’re out of goat’s milk.  Can you please check and see if you can find some?”

Alas, they really were out of goat’s milk.  But the cashier felt so bad, that he said, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.  I’m not going to charge you for those bananas in your cart.  I feel bad that we didn’t have what you wanted, and I hope that next time you will shop at Hannafords as your first choice, before you go to the ‘other’ store!”

Okay, the bananas were not worth more than $.57.  But that’s hardly the point.  It’s clear all of these stores value their customers, and wish to have an ongoing and loyal symbiotic relationship.

I told my “free bananas” story to many of my friends from my hometown and they were shocked.  “That would never happen here,” they unanimously agreed.

The thing is, once you’re away from an environment where bad behavior, cynicism and apathy are the norm in consumer relations, you begin to realize something:  you really don’t have to put up with it.  You do have a choice.  And if you can’t find a place where basic decency and respect reign, then it’s time to go elsewhere where people do act like mentschen.

Those places and the good people in them do exist everywhere, of course.   And yeah, I know what I’m about to say sounds harsh and snobby.  But it’s just so refreshing to not have to look very hard, and to live in a place where mentschlichkeit is the paradigm, and not the exception to the rule.

The Country Life, ca. 1938

Several years ago I was on a camping trip in West Virginia and we got stuck in a storm.  Since it wasn’t pleasant staying in our water-logged tent, and we couldn’t do much in the way of hiking, we decided to go to “town” where there was an old warehouse that rented its space to a variety of antique and junk dealers.  Browsing, I figured I might as well have some reading material to take back to my tent, so I bought some old Life Magazines from the 1940s (which, thrillingly, pictured the LCI ships that my father had commanded in the South Pacific during WWII) and some Readers Digests from the 1930s which provided a fascinating read about various uprisings and aggressions by Soviets (the evils of communism and Stalin terror), Germans (the occupation and annexation of Austria) and the Japanese (horrific accounts of the Rape of Nanking) which had not yet been officially declared “war.”  While the writing style is “chatty” as only Readers Digest can be, the contrast between the quality of writing from those days and the present is shocking.  If you ever need proof we’ve dumbed ourselves down over the years, read the common man’s journal of the 1930s versus the present!

Included in the October 1938 issue (“$.25 a copy, $3 a year”) is an essay entitled”Week-End Pioneers” by Ralph Haley, originally condensed from The Forum.  Mr. Haley and his wife were dreamers living in New York City, who bought some land in New England which included a derelict, rotting farmhouse.  For the next seven years, he would travel there every weekend and holiday in a never-ending quest of blood, sweat and tears, “painting and scraping and carpentering and digging and still have nothing but a decrepit old house and a few uncertain vegetables.”   What, Mr. Haley asks, “is the driving urge behind us back-to-the-landers?”  He writes:

In most cases it is the idea that, with a few acres and some sort of habitation, one’s future is somehow more secure.  If you had to, you could raise vegetables, keep a cow, . . .  and some chickens, and cut your fuel.  You could “get along” like the pioneers, without money.

This might be termed the grand delusion.  For in the state of not having money, you can starve and freeze and die of appendicitis in the country quite as effectively as anywhere else.

. . . There are, nevertheless, compensations and genuine satisfactions to offset the illusions.  For one thing, you have more room in the country, and space inevitably brings an expansion of the spirit.  You are more of an individual here among the broad, quiet fields; you develop curious ambitions and skills, become mildly eccentric, and enjoy the process very much.

. . . Of course in the country there is water to be pumped, wood to cut and carry, the stove to be cleaned and intricately adjusted, the garbage to be buried.  None of these tasks is pleasant in itself; yet it is not a misstatement to say that pleasure comes from doing them.

In our urban existence we have few real “chores” left; but we make up for it in mental strain.   Household tasks in the country are hard on muscles but easy on the mind.  Somehow, substituting a certain amount of muscle strain for mental strain seems to add up to happier living.

That, after all, is the secret bewitchment of rustic living.  You work with simple understandable things, which you can master, or you deal with the great natural forces of sun and rain and wind, which no man can master and before which it is a joy to be humble.  In either case there is enjoyment and self-realization.

What was true about Mr. Haley’s experience in 1938 is still applicable today.  Even 75 years later, I guess certain things have not changed.

Farm Stands and Shopping

My local pumpkin stand

I rely heavily on local farm stands for my produce, mostly because they are closer than the nearest supermarket, which is 45 minutes away; but also because the  farm stand food is truly fresher and tastes better and I like to give the locals my business.  This time of year some farms also offer hayrides and labyrinth corn mazes to explore.

In autumn there are tens of varieties of pumpkins (some kinds are better for pie, others for jack-0-lantern carving), gourds and squash (bumpy, smooth, multi-colored, sweet, mild, large and small) and apples (my hands-down favorite is Honeycrisp), but besides the more common varieties there are also “heirloom” or historical apples native to New England.  There is one farm stand that sells their own milk in old-fashioned glass bottles, as well as  fresh eggs,  honey, and homemade cheese (the cheese is unfortunately not kosher).

What makes the farm stands unique, however, is the way they sell the fruits of their labor.  Usually no one is around.  The  produce is sold by the peck  or the piece (i.e. 3/$1.00) rather than by weight.  You simply leave your money in a basket or cash box and make your own change with the money that’s already there.  The honor system is alive and well in the White Mountains of Maine and New Hampshire.

Yes, we do have supermarkets in rural Maine.  Hannafords is the name of the largest chain store and they are pretty well stocked.  My house sits halfway between two Hannafords:  45 minutes to the west, in New Hampshire; or 45 minutes to the east, in Maine.  Both of these locations also have Walmarts, including one Super Walmart which is also fully stocked with groceries.

Amazingly Hannafords does have a “kosher aisle” that consists of 8 packages of Kedem Vanilla Wafers, 3 jars of gefilte fish, 2 boxes of matzo, onion soup mix, and 4 yarzheit candles.  Yesterday I spoke to the the stock manager in charge of the wine department and asked if he could get kosher wine.  He said occasionally (meaning Pesach time) they get Manischevitz.  I asked if any other brands were available and he said once they got Baron Herzog, but in that understated Maine way of saying things, he said “it wasn’t a big seller.”  He assured me that if I wanted it he could get it, however, and he’d place an order for a few bottles which should be in on Friday’s truck.

In New Hampshire, where taxes are lower, alcohol is sold in State Liquor Stores which are run exclusively by the State.  Not only is liquor much cheaper there (many people come from other New England states to stock up), they occasionally get kosher wines  such as Bartenura, Herzog, and Recanati and the prices are more reasonable than in cities with a large Jewish population.  But the supply is random, tenuous, and you can’t place requests or an order for more.

So far we’ve been bringing up our own supply of hard cheeses and meat; I can get Empire chicken at Hannafords by special order for about $1 more per lb.  If one is willing to pay a premium, one can order virtually anything , including perishables, via the Internet at all sorts of kosher food websites.  The point is, we are not starving.

The long distance to major shopping, and with no neighbors to loan me a cup a sugar, ensure that I plan my menus carefully and that my pantry is well stocked with emergency supplies, especially in the event of really bad weather.

In fact, we see this as an opportunity to eat better.  The stresses of the last few years, plus having “treats” around when the grandchildren would visit resulted in a loss of self-control.  I’ve got 60 lbs to lose and that is one of the many goals I’ve set for myself in Maine.  We’ve gotten rid of all junk and snack foods, relying more on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and are exercising more.  I’m not doing anything drastic so the weight will come off slowly, but I hope to be a little bit thinner and feeling better about myself the next time I visit my “home town.”

As far as other types of shopping, we live about 45 minutes from a major outlet center in New Hampshire.  No sales tax!  While I’ve raided Children’s Place and TJMaxx a few times for my granddaughters, I haven’t really shopped for myself.  It’s funny, but once you live away from the city, you don’t really need much, and when you try to live with what you need versus what you want, shopping is not such a temptation.

There are two stores I love, however.  Reny’s is in Maine and it’s like an old-fashioned Woolworth’s department store.  The prices are great and it feels like I’m in a 60s time warp.  The other store is in New Hampshire and called Christmas Tree Shops.  I wonder how many Jewish tourists avoided this store because they thought it sold nothing but Xmas decorations? In fact it’s like a giant A to Z or Amazing Savings (or Pic ‘N Save if you’re from California).  You never know what you’ll find but it’s always cheap and fun.  I’ve found all sorts of Israeli food there (such as crackers with “Pas Yisroel” written in bold letters) and Elite chalav yisrael chocolate bars for $.89!

That said, the most-visited store when you live in Maine is the hardware store.  There are both a Lowes and Home Depot next to the outlet center in New Hampshire, but big-box building supply stores are shunned by locals, who resent all that they stand for.  Even though the prices at small hardware stores are necessarily higher, Mainers support them vigorously.  Rural hardware stores are crammed to the gills with anything and everything.  Only the proprietor can find what you need, which he does with dogged determination and helpfulness.