Monthly Archives: November 2011

Would you like a shopping cart with that?

Walmart shopping carts

These are not the actual shopping carts but you get the picture (literally)

I thought I was going to stay away from temptation this Black Friday, but like a drug addict drawn to the red-light district, I found myself wandering over to the local mall as if by accident. Okay, I’m lying. In actual fact, the whole shopping thing was pretty well rehearsed. My mother had cut out the Macy’s coupons from the paper, and we knew exactly where we were headed, even though we didn’t have to vocalize it to each other. There are unspoken signals which seasoned shoppers can communicate, and I know this language well; an anthropologist should really study this one day. The point of this nonverbal communication is that it makes you feel less guilty about what you are going to do, which is to spend money.

As someone who has spent more than my fair share of time at the mall, I thought there were no surprises left. But things have changed considerably in the 15 years since I left the United States. Since this is one of the biggest shopping days of the year – if not the biggest – the mall was crammed full of people looking for bargains. So far so predictable. The real surprise was the method people were using to cart around their precious finds. I guess shopping bags are now passe. The new way to get around is on wheels.

Of course I’ve seen shopping carts (shopping trolleys for my British friends) at the local supermarket – and I’m well acquainted with them. And I’ve even seen them inside malls, because some have huge Walmart’s, like the one we were in today. But in my 30-something years of shopping at department stores, I’d not seen a shopping cart inside Macy’s – until today. These Black Friday shoppers had abandoned any sense of decorum and were brazenly walking around all the shops inside the Parkway Westfield mall, such as Macy’s, the Express, JCPenney’s, et al, with Walmart shopping carts loaded full of televisions, toys, clothes and even toilet paper. It was, to put it mildly, surreal.

The entire mall was one huge parking lot for these trolleys, which were absolutely everywhere. I even saw a baby sleeping inside a Walmart cart, where his parents had very thoughtfully placed a blanket so that he wouldn’t be punctured by the metal bars. Another parent had decided to put their huge baby seat inside, with the infant too. Arranged around the child were their purchases.

I’m not entirely sure why Walmart allows people to just walk off with these carts. I suppose they can’t control where they go. But why would a department store like Macy’s allow people to wander freely through their overcrowded aisles with these huge shopping carts? I’d ban them. It did make for an amusing afternoon, though. The people who won’t be amused are the poor Walmart employees who will have to locate all these AWOL shopping carts all over the mall in the wee hours of the night.

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Thanksgiving traditions

Thanksgiving 2011

The kids show off their Thanksgiving artwork

A prologue

The English Husband and I don’t have that many festive traditions, apart from eating fish at Christmas. The holiday decorations are usually bought brand new every single year from somewhere like Woolworths before it went bust. The tree, during one particularly spartan Christmas, didn’t even make an appearance. We don’t go on long walks on Boxing Day with the same group of relatives, or dig out the same grease-stained, hand-written recipes for Christmas Day lunch. Our meals were usually assembled with Waitrose ingredients and whatever recipes we could find on the internet at the last minute. It was then we’d discover that we were missing some sort of critical kitchen appliance or something as simple as an oven-proof dish.

The one tradition I remember having as newlyweds was celebrating Thanksgiving. Being an American, I couldn’t give up on the one holiday I loved above others for its simplicity – sharing a meal with family and friends and giving thanks for what you have. Because the holiday always falls on a Thursday,  we’d usually end up with nothing more gastronomically exciting than a store-bought nut roast, some seasonal vegetables and a frozen apple pie. In latter years, this tradition did start to fall by the wayside. Perhaps it was the passing of more than a decade in a country outside the United States or the fact that we’d become parents and slightly overcome by early evening exhaustion, but neither of us could rouse ourselves to cook a meal that required more than two pots on a weeknight.

This year I am finally in the United States for a proper Thanksgiving meal – and I don’t have to lift a finger in the kitchen. Every year, my mother goes to her cousin’s house for a frighteningly large, loud, frenetic family gathering that leaves you thankful that you don’t have to do any washing-up.

Thanksgiving 2011

After the feast comes the dishes

The main event

Thanksgiving Day dawns like many of the other mornings of the last four months: my brother is glued to the television and the sofa, wearing a Kappa tracksuit bought in Italy (he wanted me to add in this small geographical detail) in 1999; I am still in my pajamas and it’s nearly 11am, while the kids are upstairs in my mother’s room, mercifully entertained by Sesame Street. I am dragging out my ritual of drinking coffee and glancing at the newspaper delivered to our door. Today, it’s a monstrosity of a paper, but not because of the thrilling, well-written editorial content. No, the paper – wrapped in a huge plastic sleeve and looking a bit like a turkey in its shrink wrap – is weighed down by about 10lbs of magazines and advertisements for Black Friday deals. The first magazine to fall out of the newspaper is Walmart’s, conveniently rolled up right at the front, ahead of the front page. Whatever they paid for this privilege, the megastore will be sure to recoup the horrendous amount they have spent on advertising.

Thanksgiving 2011

Do you want a coupon with your morning newspaper?

According to Newsweek, there will be 195 million Black Friday shoppers this year, the population of Brazil. Last year, 4.8 million people visited Target’s website on Black Monday, and this year’s Black Friday online sales is expected to top $800m. This kind of shopping is not without its dangers. In 2008, a seasonal Walmart employee was trampled to death by a frenzied horde of shoppers waiting for the store to open; two other people were killed in separate Black Friday incidents that year.

The big American department stores are only too aware of how much money they can make from overtired, sozzled holiday shoppers in a daze from too much turkey, so they have started opening earlier and earlier. Toys ‘R’ Us will open at 9pm on Thanksgiving Day, with Walmart close on its heels at 10pm; Macy’s, Kohl’s and Target will all open at 12am, with Kohl’s staying open for 24 hours on Friday. My 27-year-old cousin – in what is one of her Thanksgiving traditions – is trying to convince me to head to Urban Outfitters at 3am, to take advantage of 50% off all merchandise. I’m still trying to decide whether I should experience this kind of capitalist insanity once in a lifetime – it could make for a good blog entry but it would probably be bad for my soul.

An epilogue

Just back from the family Thanksgiving meal. It was, as expected, a raucous affair with what I would guess was about 40 very loud people speaking in different languages. We had lots of food – traditional Thanksgiving fare that wasn’t bought ready-made. I’m always impressed by people’s efforts in the kitchen, since I can hardly be bothered to make anything more complicated than a salad for dinner most nights. Sometimes I will just settle for some bread and cheese.

Thanksgiving 2011

I am thankful for ... a moment of peace

Thanksgiving 2011

The Chatterbox flashes her winning smile

My cousin and I have also decided to skip the Urban Outfitters early morning shopping frenzy. This is one experience I figure I could die without ever doing. I think if I was perhaps 10 years younger and with more money, I might have been tempted to try it for a laugh; but I just can’t see the sense of standing outside a store in the freezing cold to buy clothes I don’t really need but simply want because they are cheap. I’d be better off just getting some sleep. I hope the worst fate that befalls any of those early morning shoppers is fighting over a sweater or a seriously discounted television.

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Child’s play

Coronado playground

The steps are the most dangerous thing at this playground

Sunday morning. The day stretches ahead of me like an ocean I need to navigate with just a dinghy and a paddle. My mother has been in Palm Springs all weekend and I’ve been left alone with the kids for three agonizingly long days. I have had glimpses into being a single parent during these months on my own and it’s a terrifying, sobering prospect.

Ironically, the first thing I think about this morning over the din of screaming, illogical children is whether 10am is too early to indulge in some vodka, maybe thrown casually into my coffee. It’s only a fleeting thought. While the children run wild through the house, disassembling my mother’s sofa for the umpteenth time, I think about what I could possibly do to distract them from destruction for a few hours. It’s cloudy and cool and there is a good chance of rain. In London, this wouldn’t have put me off. I generally lived my life trying to decipher cloud formations that changed every 10 minutes; outwitting the rain was a constant preoccupation. Here, in southern California, I’ve quickly got used to perennially warm sunshine, so a few clouds and precipitation suddenly paralyze me into indecision and idleness.

I decide to chance it and take the kids to Coronado, a beautiful, affluent peninsula close to downtown San Diego, and a location made famous by Marilyn Monroe’s Some Like It Hot, filmed partly at the Hotel Del Coronado. It’s a great place for kids and people watching and it has an amazing stretch of pristine beach. Unsurprisingly, the real estate is shockingly expensive, even by London standards, and I would put the average age of the city’s 26,000 residents at about 70. The retired rich are the only ones who can probably afford it.

Playground antics

Today, because of the weather, I change tactics and head to the playground instead of the beach/bay. In the years since becoming a mother I’ve had a great deal of time to contemplate playgrounds. I’ve probably spent more hours in playgrounds than I have behind a desk, which no doubt explains why my bank account is now in such a dire state. Since moving to California I’ve noticed that playgrounds are not what they are in London. Generally speaking, the playgrounds I’ve visited here are almost always quiet, even on sunny days. My mother’s house backs onto a small playground that is inexplicably empty at all hours. Occasionally I’ll hear a child, but it’s so rare that I’ll peek over the fence to check who might be playing out there.

Playground at mother's house

Our 'backyard' on a Sunday - it's always deserted

The playgrounds in London were chaotic and full of overexcited children, especially at the weekends. Even in the middle of winter, people would brave the park for a short while. I can vividly recall days when stinging-cold wind would slap my face, but still I persisted out there like a masochist. These days, anything below 64 degrees feels brave.

But the biggest difference is reserved for the playground equipment. For a reason that remains unknown, playgrounds in California are nothing more than a jumble of plastic slides and swings with a springy ground. There is no see-saw or merry-go-round anywhere, never mind a zip line like the one at our local park in Crouch End. Believe me, I’ve tried to find a playground that has this kind of thing and it just doesn’t exist. Yet, as a child in San Diego, I remember playing on the merry-go-round and feeling that dizzy sickness after one too many turns. There were see-saws too. I’m assuming these no longer exist because of America’s litigation culture. It seems that even swings aren’t safe from extinction. One of Coronado’s playgrounds near the bay no longer has swings, although they’d been there the year before. There is no sign to explain why they have been dismantled, just a stretch of empty sand where the structure stood.

Slide at Coronado

The Raging Bull risks the slide

The Raging Bull and the Chatterbox don’t notice these absences, only I do. I feel a bit sad, though, that this play equipment has been taken away. They were part of my childhood and, in London, I would gleefully take to the see-saw with both children. It was a moment of release and happiness. I’m not saying that playgrounds aren’t dangerous places; they can be – and that is part of the fun. It’s as children that we learn how danger and fun are the oldest of companions, separated only by the thinnest of invisible lines. It’s the danger that can make an experience incredibly exhilarating. Not every mother may agree with me, but I’d rather gamble on an injury than take the experience away altogether.

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The difficulty of saying ‘no’

The Raging Bull

The Raging Bull doesn't mince her words

When you are two years old, saying no is one of the easiest things in the world. The Raging Bull spent several months emphatically answering ‘no’ to every single question I put to her. It was her first word and still one of her favorites. But when you are an adult, saying no can be considerably harder – and so it was with me.

If you read or even glanced at my post about finding a job, you will know that I traveled all the way to Atlanta for a job interview with a great company called WebMD. They are a health/medicine/wellness website with a ton of information and are very well known in the United States. In fact, they proudly told me at the interview that the company is the number 1 health information website in America. They are expanding into Europe and wanted someone with UK experience to help them tailor their newsletters to the British audience. It was perfect for someone like me – but it was also in Atlanta.

I miraculously got an offer, but I decided to decline it. This didn’t come without a fair amount of stress, anguish, soul searching, tears, you name it. I went through a gamut of emotions but, rather tellingly, I never felt totally elated about getting the job because of the location. Ultimately, it was the location that swung it. After a series of long-distance Skype conversations with the English Husband, we decided that we just couldn’t see ourselves there. It did seem rather pointless to travel all the way to the United States, to supposedly be closer to family and friends, and end up in a city five hours away by plane and also where we don’t know a single soul.

So I am back to square one on the old job search. In the last two weeks I have applied for a job at the fashion retailer Forever 21 as a writer for their clothing website (they’ve already rejected me); a job as a writer for a university in La Jolla (UCSD) that pays very little but I think might offer some decent perks; a job with a luxury magazine in San Diego that wanted someone with local contacts, so landing this one would be like getting told that I’ve won the lottery when I’ve never played; and a job to edit features at Weight Watchers (this one is in London). Not sure about that last one. I wonder if they will end up rejecting me because I’ve never had any major issues with my weight. But, hey, you’ve got try everything, people tell me.

A reason to cheer? – new figures on jobless claims

According to the United States Department of Labor, weekly claims for jobless benefits have fallen to their lowest level since last April. The number of people claiming unemployment dropped by 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 388,000, the Associated Press reported today. It was the fourth drop in five weeks. Economists say that a level below 400,000 could lead to more companies hiring, but this is still only speculation. Meanwhile, I heard a segment on NPR (National Public Radio) this morning about a college graduate with an accounting degree who has spent the last 10 months looking for work – and found nothing. He has now taken to the streets of San Francisco wearing a placard saying ‘Hire Me’. It has got him plenty of attention but no job yet.

This kind of desperation is not just reserved for the United States, however. The New York Times reported yesterday that the total unemployment in Britain has gone up to its highest level in 15 years; it has risen by 129,000 to 2.62m in the third quarter of this year, bringing it to 8.3 percent. Youth unemployment in Britain (defined as those out of work between 16 and 24 years of age) has now risen above one million, the highest level since 1992, according to the same New York Times article.

I am not 24 years old – and don’t I know it – but I am competing in a shrinking job market, in a very competitive sector. I don’t have the guts to wear a placard to walk the streets of downtown San Diego, in the hope that a bit of aggressive guerrilla marketing might do something my resume can’t. I would rather hide behind my computer and do anonymous job searches on the internet. This is both time consuming and frustrating. Maybe soon I will need to think about ramping it up a little.

My lack of progress makes me wonder if I will eventually regret saying no to the one and only job offer I’ve had. While the Raging Bull may not know what she screams ‘no’ to most of the time, I know only too well how close I got to something good.


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A posh dinner

Nine-Ten Thanksgiving menu

You didn't think I was going to show you the bill, right?

Since having the Chatterbox and Raging Bull, dinner has become an event that I tend to approach with some dread and trepidation. The whole process – a fraught, stressful 30 minutes – usually involves some screaming, threats, bribery, flying food and the ritual humiliation of kneeling on the ground and retrieving vegetables that have been smashed into the floor, interspersed with some swearing. There was a time when dinner used to signify relaxation and conversation. But the person who used to enjoy these things didn’t think she’d end up trying to scrub crayon out of walls with baby wipes.

So, when there is a chance to actually do something once-familiar and civilized, such as going out to dinner without the kids, I grab the opportunity like it’s the last bottle of water on earth after an apocalypse. Since moving to San Diego, these opportunities have not come along frequently. Maybe it’s the lack of car (I share it with my mother, who has a more active social life than I do) or the fact that I don’t seem to have a steady stream of single friends with ample time on their hands or it could be the lack of funds since leaving the job, but dining out has dwindled.

Imagine my excitement, then, when an old friend suggests going out for a fancy, slap-up meal, and getting dressed up for the occasion. On the night in question, I drag out one of my only little black dresses and madly rush around trying to get the kids ready for bed. Then it’s off to meet a group of friends, and I’m only running about 20 minutes late (kind of the average these days).

Our destination is a restaurant called Nine-Ten in La Jolla, a coastal part of San Diego with a very high percentage of rich, retired people who discuss plastic surgeons with the kind of fervor you see in fanatical football fans at a World Cup final. I’m excited because this restaurant has had some good reviews and, so far, my experiences of eating out in the city have been mostly disappointing. I’m still scarred from a singularly bad dinner with the husband before he went back to London at an American interpretation of a gastropub. I remember having a bunch of grilled vegetables with cold, tasteless polenta. Here’s a chef, I thought, who barely tolerates vegetarians.

Me

I'm feeling a tad bloated but happy

With Nine-Ten’s menu, I am glad to say, there is plenty of inspiration. I choose a starter called ‘Anson Mills Green Faro’, a type of grain mixed with apples, celery root, roasted onions, chanterelle mushrooms and rocket salad. It was delicious – rich and both sweet and savory; it tasted like autumn on a plate. The grain inexplicably had the flavor of bacon, as the waiter said it would. Being a rather unimaginative, lazy cook, I suspect the closest I’ll ever get to faro again is badly cooked couscous, so I linger over every morsel. My main course was red snapper (excellent) and, after two glasses of wine, I got greedy and ordered half-baked chocolate cake and coffee. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night after so much food and a late-night coffee. After the husband sees the credit card bill, he might not sleep well either.

Remains of dinner

The end

All of my close friends know that I tend to be a glass-half-empty person. But if I had to say that there was an upside to kids who kill your social life, it’s that these nights out are exciting. If you’re always eating out and seeing friends and, you know, have cash to splash, I suppose an evening at a nice restaurant might not exactly thrill you. I spent a lot of time thinking about my night out and, for that reason alone, it was worth every cent.

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A life viewed through television

Nielsen diaries

These surveys test your definition of honesty

The average American spends 20 percent of their day watching television.This revealing fact comes courtesy of Nielsen, a global company that carefully analyzes what consumers watch and buy. In the UK it’s a company called Barb which analyzes TV viewing. According to a report published by Barb earlier this year, individuals in the UK watched television for an average of 4 hours a day in 2010. Women in the UK spend more time than men in front of the box: a total of four and half hours a day compared to about 3.9.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my television viewing habits because it so happens that our household is taking part in a Nielsen survey that asks us to fill out a diary of what we watch every day for a week, for each television in the house. The Nielsen people have expended a lot of effort on this rather archaic paper diary that feels like a throwback to 1995. Not only did they spend time interviewing me on the phone before the diary arrived, they also sent me $30 in cash as a thank you for participating. We also got a postcard reminding us to fill it out and a follow-up phone call. These people aren’t taking any chances that I’ll forget about it and throw it away.

Inside Nielsen diary

My scribblings - worth $30?

I hope my scribblings are worth the $30 they paid. Paying the money up front is clearly a psychological tactic designed to make you feel responsible for providing accurate information. Here’s the problem, though, with any survey that relies on the honesty of the participants: humans have a tendency to lie, or simply exaggerate or downplay what they do. Television viewing is no exception. I am slightly embarrassed by our viewing habits as a household, because I feel like we collectively watch far more than is healthy. Ergo, I’m likely to lie about it a little.

Frankly, we’re hardly a typical household at the moment anyway. There’s my sixty-something mother, a thirty-something brother camped out in the formal dining room, me (nearly 40) and the two kids (5 and 2). Of all these people, only one works full time, i.e. we have a lot of time to fill and not a huge amount of money between us. Since becoming unemployed and moving into my mother’s house in a neighborhood where I have no friends, I’ve learned that filling time is something of an art form you can perfect. My trick is to drag certain tasks out for as long as possible, such as making coffee and reading the newspaper, or learning to get excited about something as mundane as eating lunch. My brother’s tactic is to watch as much television as possible.

Living-room television

Our old television has put in the hours and is probably ready for retirement

There are two televisions in the house (less than the average in America, which hovers around 3 per household) and at least one of them tends to be on for most of the day. So here’s the dilemma: do I tell the Nielsen people that we are walking zombies of useless information or do I just disguise this unappetizing fact and casually omit a few viewing hours here and there, to make myself feel better? I’ve erred on the side of truth, but where the kids are concerned I have felt incredibly guilty about the rainy day when they watched back-to-back television for hours, or the Saturday when I didn’t exactly jump out of bed and got the television to babysit them in the morning. So, um, I kind of lied about this. And because my brother switches channels every five minutes – and there are about 300 of them – I kind of got bored of asking him what he watched and just started copying previous pages.

As a little sidebar to this, the programs we tend to watch most are: Dancing with the Stars (Strictly Come Dancing in the UK), Survivor (my mother is addicted to this crap), Celebrity Ghost Stories (slightly unhinged ‘celebrities’ talk about their brushes with the paranormal), The First 48 (generally, a depressing dissection of how you catch a bumbling, callous murderer), Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (a British chef with a swearing problem and anger-management issues screams at a bunch of dimwits), The Good Wife (a show I never fully understand because it deals with some complicated law things) and a steady diet of shows about property. I’m partly to blame for our addiction to property shows. Since I don’t have a house of my own, I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with watching people look for their dream properties, often in far-flung international locations, which only makes me feel worse.

Despite the slight cheating on the diaries, I still think the Nielsen people will get a good snapshot of how low our society has sunk in terms of actually communicating to one another over the dinner table. One of the saddest things I’ve noticed is that we hardly ever turn the television off in the evenings and actually try to talk to one another without the distraction of noise. The last time I remember sitting around without the television was when we had the massive blackout in California in September. Instead, my mother, brother and I played Scrabble by candlelight outside. As inconvenient as the blackout was, I remember thinking how much pleasure can be derived from something so simple.

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Guess who’s in the neighborhood

Fresh & Easy branding

My local Fresh & Easy signage - better than Tesco's rather conventional UK image

The words ‘Tesco’ and ‘failure’ are not generally synonymous with one another. In fact, Tesco is one of Britain’s great success stories. Being rather guarded about great, runaway success, many Brits don’t like Tesco and there have been plenty of people willing to lump them into a category which I will call ‘ the great evil spawned by unbridled capitalism’.

A little aside for my friends in the United States: Tesco is to supermarkets what Starbucks is to coffee. Yes, there is a Tesco on just about every corner in London and further afield, in other UK towns and cities. It has led to people bemoaning the death of the traditional high street shops such as the butcher, the fishmonger, the bakery and maybe even the pharmacy. So great is their buying power that they can negotiate better rates than their small competitors, and many people no longer have the time to traipse from one place to another to do their weekly food shopping.

Like many companies with a huge financial portfolio, Tesco wants to expand. They are not content to sit idly on their profits in the UK – profits so big that they could probably single-handedly solve the Greek debt crisis – and so have their eyes on the greatest consumer prize in the world, the United States. They opened a chain of small, neighborhood supermarkets called Fresh and Easy in 2007 and, guess what, there is one literally 10 minutes from where I live in Spring Valley. Because you drive everywhere around here, I have never actually passed my local Fresh and Easy on foot, but I have heard plenty about it from my mother, who tells me: ‘I think you will like it. It’s really cute.’

I decide to check out this ‘cute’ British outpost in what is a bizarre, down-at-heel location near a freeway. I am pleasantly surprised despite the surroundings. While American supermarkets can be intimidatingly huge upon entering, this feels more like what I’m used to from my days in London. Had I been talking about clothes, I would venture to say that this feels more like a boutique than a department store. It also feels like a hybrid of M&S and Tesco, but the prices are reasonable. I negotiate the small isles with a tiny shopping basket, not a massive trolley, and feel like I could almost be back in Crouch End with other middle-class metro shoppers.

Some of Fresh & Easy’s neighbors
Spring Valley businesses

Fancy a hamburger?

Spring Valley businesses

Or what about some chicken?

Spring Valley businesses
A great American car wash

The shopping experience

Even the tills are similar. You have to scan the items yourself – a concept which must be totally alien to most Americans – and then put them into bags. I don’t think I’ve ever had to bag my groceries in America before. There is always some spotty teenager to do it, and all the big American supermarkets provide a full check-out service.

Of course, I like this supermarket concept because it’s what I have got used to and I will be going back, but I take it that Fresh and Easy has not had an ‘easy’ time of it, as the name might suggest.

According to a Guardian article from August this year, the chain in the United States lost 186m pounds last year. In April the FT reported that Tesco has sunk 800m pounds into the venture and has not broken even – it was expected to break even in 2010, but this has been postponed to 2012-2013. This has led Tesco to tweak the concept and instead focus on opening ‘express’ stores with in-store bakeries and fresh coffee – the first of these opened in Los Angeles, on La Cienega Blvd, this week.

Fresh & Easy coupons

You can't get into America and not offer coupons

I hope Fresh and Easy makes it. The Fresh and Easy in my neighborhood was previously a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), a bureaucratic monstrosity of a place that would suck hours from your life if you were unfortunate enough to have to renew your driver’s license there. And because the neighborhood is (cough) a bit shabby, I suspect the large building will lie neglected and abandoned for a long time if Fresh and Easy shuts. Then again, maybe this could pave the way for a Starbucks coffeeshop with a huge drive-thru for all the people getting on the freeway.

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