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Alone with AmazonFresh in the city

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Amazon's magic wand made me feel weird things about New York

Before I moved to New York, I was commuting to it in fitful stops and starts, often a victim of an inhumane 6AM United flight out of Chicago O’Hare that was always filled with the same suits. Lawyers probably, or investors. People whose business cards have texture and serif type. When we’d arrive at LaGuardia, you could see it on their faces: emptiness, the thousand-yard stares of middle-aged men who’ve been stripped of their ability to give a shit. I mean, sure, they were tired — we all were! — but the void ran deeper than that. The wide-eyed wonder of the city had been beaten out of them by years, perhaps decades of coach-class business trips.

I didn’t want that for myself. I moved, as all people who move to New York, I think, imagining my life as a much cooler version of a poster of Times Square: a life of largeness, entitled to an authentic feeling of superiority over all other places, but without the cruft and the Elmos and the tourist traps; a life where you tell a childhood friend that you live in New York and their eyes grow large and you instantly earn their respect and envy. That vision is, of course, a mirage, and it’s embarrassing to think that a man in his mid-30s can be duped into believing it. New York is a city of extremes, and unless you are a billionaire who helicopters into her penthouse on the Park for a few weeks a year, you are predestined to experience all of them.

New York is a city of extremes

But I’m not here to write the ten-millionth "let me tell you about my experience living in New York" essay. Before I moved, I recall a dinner with Paul Miller, who, as someone I’d known and worked with since my very first days of blogging, was a trusted confidant and someone who could authoritatively tell me about Living in the Big City. He said something that stuck with me — and I’m paraphrasing substantially for effect: "Fear not the small, crappy apartment, for all of New York City is your home."

There was something about it that put me at complete ease, the knowledge that no matter how horrible my living conditions might become in a city notorious for horrible living conditions, I can always step outside and, holy shit, I’m standing in New York City. There would be a twee coffee shop with a barista who knows my name, and a bodega whose owner knows what kind of apples I like, and a 24-hour Best Buy in Union Square should I find that I need an HDMI cable at 3 o’clock in the morning. And as long as I have my laptop with me, everything is going to be all right.

* * *

Manhattan, owing I suppose to its outlandish density and well-defined boundaries, is inevitably Patient Zero for new forms of on-demand services. Or if not Patient Zero, then certainly One, Two, or Three. Within an hour, I can have a single pair of Calvin Klein underwear delivered to my home for $21.36, plus $7.99 for delivery, plus a recommended tip of $5.00. There are multiple apps for having your dirty clothes picked up and delivered back to you the next morning, clean and folded, which means someone you have never met tossed your socks into an enormous industrial dryer on the outskirts of town in the middle of the night. There are at least two services I’m aware of that will pick up bins of literally whatever and return them to you when you press a button on your phone. (I don’t know where those bins go in the interim.) There are, of course, thousands of restaurants that will deliver directly to your door through a frenetic network of young men on scooters and makeshift electric bicycles — the original on-demand service, so ancient that neither the Valley nor the Bay can take credit for inventing it.

And now we have AmazonFresh. It isn’t the first grocery delivery service in Manhattan, nor is Manhattan its first market, but it still feels uniquely 21st-century isolationist Manhattan thanks to one feature in particular: a thing called the Dash, an odd doodad you leave on your kitchen counter that lets you reorder just by saying the name of an item or scanning its barcode. I speak at a white plastic stick and a man comes to my door with clear plastic bags filled with Babybels and toilet paper in total silence. No words are exchanged, although we do grunt at each other before he walks away.

Amazon Dash

We regularly joke — particularly here in New York — that the on-demand economy is rendering the simple act of going outside obsolete, but nothing has made that joke more real for me than AmazonFresh has. I find that there’s something uniquely ridiculous about the Dash-to-door workflow, and the almost infinite breadth of fresh, delicious items it can bring me. I can do more than merely survive as an urban hermit: I can live like a king. I can dangle a bunch of crisp grapes in front of my own face and leisurely nibble on them. (Nibbling grapes off a bunch that’s being dangled in front of your face is, I think, a universal and timeless symbol of high living.) I can buy parts of a cow or a chicken that died on a farm God-knows-how-far away. AmazonFresh delivers me meat, because I said "meat" to a magic wand in the privacy of my own home, even further obfuscating my relationship to a living animal that had to be killed.

Let them talk to the stick to get their gallon of milk

Anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that this has all gone very, very wrong. The city is my oyster — it’s our shared oyster, the place we go to escape our nightmarish and overpriced apartments, our disgusting roommates, our leaky roofs. (Paul Miller told me so.) Services of extreme convenience like AmazonFresh eventually come at the cost of our own sanity, because if we’re not living here for the city itself, I have absolutely no idea what we’re doing here.

The city would have no idea what we’re doing here, either. Manhattan and the outer boroughs, but particularly Manhattan, are being overrun by speculators with millions or billions in the bank whose limitless firehose of cash is washing the character clean out of the city. Pick up nearly any copy of the Times, and you’ll find that the grim news is daily and unrelenting: entire blocks of bodegas, bars, and diners are being demolished and replaced with gleaming, soulless residential towers whose cheapest units run into the tens of millions of dollars. AmazonFresh makes sense for these people. Let them talk to the stick to get their gallon of milk, because there’s certainly no deli on the corner, and even if there were, they’d have no interest in shlepping. New York City is not their oyster, it is mine and it is yours.

* * *

I have an AmazonFresh order coming. I couldn’t resist; I just got my Dash last week, and I wanted to try it. I’d like for this order to be my last. The notion of paying Jeff Bezos to take New York City away from me doesn’t have much appeal.

And yes, I do have a barista who knows my name.