There's nothing like a vacation trip from New York City to visit
the United States.
A 1,900-mile drive earlier this month through seven states proved a
welcome reminder of the old adage about how one must cross the Hudson
River to find the real America. It's true that living and working in
Manhattan broadens your perspectives, but it narrows them at the same
That's because even as Gothamites expose themselves to all manner of
global experiences in everything from fashion and advertising to food
and retailing, they're cutting themselves off from how the rest of the
country shops and consumes and behaves.
So what's it like Out There? Well, religion certainly plays a bigger
role in people's lives, as evidenced by the trucks cruising along
several interstate highways emblazoned with advertisements for
OK, so the trucks are owned by a company called Guaranteed Overnight
Delivery, which paints them with both its full name and the initials.
But you haven't really experienced driving in America until you make it
through a bad traffic jam and are greeted by a G.O.D. truck passing on
the other side of the road.
It's almost like seeing an angel, or maybe Angel Soft bathroom
Angel Soft, and about a billion other brands, are on display in glorious
profusion in the humongous supermarkets that can be found just about
anywhere outside New York, even in smallish towns that seem barely to
qualify for traffic lights. What an eye-opener it is for an advertising
columnist to actually see for sale the products he writes about, most of
which are rarely available in the minuscule bodegas and grocery stores
that proliferate in Manhattan because of high prices for real
For instance, St Johnsbury, in the state of Vermont, boasts an outpost
of a supermarket chain called Price Chopper where shoppers can rent
videos, stock up on wine and liquor, buy flowers, fill their medicine
chests with health and beauty aids and procure enough bread and pastries
to open a bakery.
As for the packaged goods - the ostensible reason for the Price Chopper
being there in the first place - there seemed to be nothing smaller than
giant sizes, also amazing to a New Yorker whose itsy-bitsy stores are
able to stock soft drinks and beer only in three-packs. (An
exaggeration, but not by much.)
Never mind six-packs, in the real America the cans come in enormous
boxes of 24, even 30, and the Angel Soft comes in packages of four, six,
nine, 12, 16 and 24. And one variety of 16-pack is actually 16 "double
rolls" - the equivalent of 32 rolls in one massive plastic-wrapped
Despite all those super-duper supermarkets, most real Americans never
cook meals from the food they buy there. Instead, they patronise the
billions of fast-food joints that can be found clustered at every exit
of virtually every highway. So important are they deemed that most
states post signs at each exit that show the logos of nearby restaurants
- the equivalent of free advertising.
One diversion on the trip was stopping at McDonald's and playing the
latest version of the Monopoly promotional contest, collecting game
pieces redeemable for prizes. After the trip, news came that eight
people had been arrested for rigging the game by stealing the pieces
required to win the big prizes.
Maybe it's not so bad being on Manhattan after all: no games at the
Union Square Cafe, Pastis or the Gramercy Tavern.