Midnight. A cold and rainy night. We’ve been walking the streets for hours and need a little inspiration. Plus, we’re hungry too. So, we, Sandra and Susan, two slick Yale Daily News reporters, duck into the only establishment still open at this hour: Gourmet Heaven. We scope out the scene. Our eyes are dazzled by the garish lights and the shiny packages that line the shelves. The bizarre juxtaposition of odors — freshly sliced pineapple next to simmering sesame noodles — is a little too much to bear. Oh, and the prices. Four bucks for a bag of chips? So why is it that despite the exorbitant fares and odd merchandise (spinach crisps, anyone?), this establishment is so popular among Yalies? We spent an hour inside the walls of Gourmet Heaven to find out who comes here in the middle of the night, what they buy, and why.
12:05 a.m. After Susan heads upstairs, I peruse the aisles for something to spark my interest and notice an acquaintance of mine eyeing the wall o’ chips. I approach her and conversation ensues:
Sandra: Hey Lisa, whatcha buyin’?
Lisa: Soy Crisps. Salt and Vinegar.
Sandra: Blech. Why?
Lisa: Because they combine the extreme, emotional, down ‘n’ dirty experience of salt and vinegar chips with the subtle novelty of soy.
Lisa: It’s like putting Asia and Great Britain together for only $2.99 a bag.*
12:07 a.m. Meanwhile, upstairs — After leaving Sandra to stake out the main floor, I run upstairs and meet Michael Bolinski, a New Haven resident on his way home from work who admits that Gourmet Heaven’s convenience is what draws him. “If this was a 7-Eleven, I would still shop here.”
I approach a group of studious Yalies in an attempt to find out their GH fetish, only to be cruelly rebuffed by their icy glances. Ready to flee in shame, I recover when I spy an empty Au Bon Pain cup on their table: these are not GH regulars but ABP rejects.
12:08 a.m. Back downstairs — Sandra approaches the deli counter.
Ahmed, the guy behind the counter, is hacking beef. A girl requests a “Buffalo Bob wrap.” Shyly, she gives me her name, Erica, and upon my asking why she finds herself in Gourmet Heaven at this time of night, she responds, “Because it’s on the way home.” So it is.
Two tall guys brush past me on the way to the refrigerators at the back of the store. I follow.
Sandra: What are you looking for?
Guy No. 1: I’m looking for Tropicana Pure Premium Orange Juice. No Pulp.
Sandra: With Calcium?
Guy No. 1: Calcium? I dunno man. It’s juice. (He looks at the side of the carton.) This one has 2 percent calcium.
Sandra: So, why the affinity for Tropicana?
Guy No. 1: This is my childhood, you know?*
Sandra: Do you guys come here often?
Guy No. 1: I try to avoid it. I don’t like this place. It’s expensive. But if it’s open, it’s open.
I follow Guy No. 1 (whose name, it turns out, is Jason) and his mute friend to the register where he pays for his purchase. As we wait for Ahmed — who has moved from the deli to the cash — to ring up the price for the juice, I eye a black-and-white cookie on the counter. It is large, round, and coated half with white icing and half with black.
Sandra: Say, Jason, what do you think of the black-and-white cookie? Do you find it makes an inherent comment about racial segregation?
Jason: (picks up the cookie and examines it carefully) I don’t see any inherent racial segregation. It’s more of a flavor segregation.*
12:13 a.m. Back upstairs — Susan quickly discovers GH’s secret allure.
It should be more aptly named after the middle school party game “60 Seconds in Heaven,” as there are alarming numbers of couples on the second floor. What more could you want — food and a secluded nook in which to feed it to your one and only. Am suddenly overwhelmed by cozy-coffeehouse-Nora-Ephron-film-feeling as “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” plays on speakers and couples begin to cuddle. Nausea prevails, but alas, I must remain at my post.
12:18 a.m. Downstairs Sandra spots two New Haven police officers entering the store — billy clubs (or beatin’ sticks as we like to call ’em), badges and all.
I wonder if they have guns. I immediately accost them, explaining my purpose.
Sandra: Are you looking for anything in particular?
Officer No. 1: We just came on duty and we’re looking for caffeine to hold us over.
Though I interrogate them further, they apologize, claiming they cannot talk to the press. I leave them to their Diet Cokes and move on.
Garland Jackson enters, walks past the cops and heads for the refrigerator at the back of the store. (Garland Jackson, if you’re reading this, we know you’re not a Yale student because we facebooked you. But that doesn’t change anything between us! We had a moment, and I still think you look like Lenny Kravitz.)
Sandra: What are you shopping for?
Garland: Soda. And iced tea.
After scanning the shelf, Garland chooses “Olde Philadelphia Black Cherry Iced Tea.”
Sandra: Garland, I see you have chosen “Olde Philadelphia Black Cherry Iced Tea.” Why this choice?
Garland: I was sold by the label. With Ben Franklin. Maybe if I drink it I’ll be smart like Ben Franklin.*
12:24 a.m. Back upstairs, Susan becomes increasingly agitated by the lovers —
Still nauseous. What time is it already? I’ve tried glancing away, coughing, clearing my throat, and shooting spitballs with my straw. Nothing works. And Sandra’s down there chatting up the next Lenny Kravitz.
12:30 a.m. Downstairs, Sandra observes that business is dwindling.
Business is slowing down a bit, so I head over to the register to talk to another employee, Muhammed.
Sandra: Muhammed, why is everything here so goddamn expensive?
Muhammed: It’s not. Only the important stuff. Baci from Italy. Fresh fruit. Other stuff not expensive.
Sandra: What, in your opinion, is the best seller?
Muhammed: The deli. The deli is the best seller.
A girl enters and heads for the chip wall. I follow. She introduces herself as Elizabeth from Morse. We discuss rice cakes.
Sandra: Do you have a preferred brand of rice cake?
Elizabeth from Morse: I tried the cheddar cheese. That’s really the best thing.
Sandra: Is it just me, or do you find Gourmet Heaven to be obscenely expensive?
Elizabeth from Morse: It is really expensive. But they have no competition. And the proximity. That’s why I come. I am well aware that I am being ripped off.
Elizabeth from Morse chooses her rice cakes and exits, leaving me to ponder the wall of snack food. The snacks range from the banal Quaker rice cakes to the more perverse “Dirty” potato chips.
12:40 a.m. Back upstairs, Susan is catatonic — Bad ’80s music on top of horrendous PDA is inciting stomach pain. Must leave. Downstairs, Sandra plays with juice.
I’m playing with the juice blasters in the juice aisle. These, if you haven’t already seen them, are bottles of juice with plastic caps in the shape of popular television characters such as Spiderman, the Powderpuff Girls, and Lisa Simpson. Henry from Pierson saunters by.
Sandra: Can I ask you a personal question?
Sandra: Who do you think would win in a fight? (I pull out two juice blasters) Spiderman or the Red Power Ranger?
Henry: (eyeing the bottles critically) Spiderman. He’s got arms. (This is true. The Spiderman bottle is equipped with long, bendy, plastic arms.)
Sandra: OK. Stupid question. How about, the Red Power Ranger and Taz?
Henry: Hmm — probably Taz. He’d go at him with his teeth. (Hen
ry pokes at the Taz’s snarling face)
Sandra: Good point. So, what are you looking for, Henry?
Henry: Something nourishing and vaguely healthy. Some kind of noodle.
Sandra: Do you often come to Gourmet Heaven for noodles?
Henry: It’s a big draw.
Sandra: Why not Ivy Noodle?
Henry: The noodles at Ivy Noodle are more flaccid. Here, they’ve got that sitting-around-for-a-long-time quality — which is good, at like, midnight.
At the cash register, I eye the black-and-white cookies again.
Sandra: Henry, what is your opinion of the black-and-white cookie?
Henry: Well, I used to prefer the black side, but now I find I prefer the white. But I only ever feel complete when I take a bite of both. But I am a little concerned that recently I’m liking the white side more.*
12:50 a.m. Susan joins Sandra on the main floor and they challenge each other to find the oddest product on the shelves. They meet up in five minutes.
Susan: Best Stick Glue Mouse Traps — complete with illustration of a dead mouse next to the “Best Stick” logo. Two for 99 cents. Beat that!
Sandra: Spinach Veggie Stix Chips. With 30 percent less fat than regular chips! All for a cool $3.59.
1:00 a.m. With their time finally up, Susan and Sandra are hungry. Like so many Yalies at stupid o’clock at night, they sell out for sugar.
Susan: Those Cinnamon Apple Soy Rice Cakes don’t sound so bad. Look — a whole day’s worth of isoflavones!
Sandra: Um — what are isoflavones? Sounds like a stylin’ drink.
Susan: I don’t know but it sounds healthy.
Sandra: Ahmed, I’ll have one of those black-and-white cookies.
Ahmed: That’s $1.50.
Sandra: (whipping out cash) Right. Say, Ahmed, do you think there’s any inherent symbolism in the black-and-white cookie?
Sandra takes a bite out of her racially segregated pastry as Ahmed eyes her strangely and shakes his head.
Ahmed: No. Just cookie.