OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

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.