It began, as so many things do, with people who would not shut up.
After the pandemic began in March, the lines to get into a Trader Joe’s store in New York City became excessively long, with people queuing up before the store opened. And as they waited, they talked. Incessantly. Not to one another, but on their phones.
“Every day these people would wake us up,” said Kyle Luker, whose bedroom window sits just above the Trader Joe’s line. “At first, I was polite and asked them to please be quiet. Then after a few days I was shouting, and my husband was like: ‘Stop it! You can’t do that.’ ”
So Luker and his husband, Ash Fulk, took a different tack: With the help of several neighbors, they began jotting down some of the conversations they overheard, displaying snippets of them on signs hung outside their window.
The first sign came about a month into the long lines:
“Chad, We are so sorry your wife is leaving you. And we are sure the “Everything but the Bagel” Seasoning will help you. But … is this really the place to discuss it? Love, #TraderJoesLineUWS.” (The initials stand for the city’s Upper West Side.)
And so it began.
Some messages clearly reflected the frustration of Luker and his neighbors, including one that beseeched someone named Stacey to “shut up! No one cares you are getting more frozen berries for your epic smoothies.”
And even as another sign revealed a weak spot for Barry Manilow, it still asked Devin if he had to “blast him from your wagon!?”
The process has undergone some modifications. Luker, a talent manager, does not have the neatest handwriting, so Gabrielle LeMoullec, a neighbor with much more legible print, took over. Her husband, Max Gayle, who works in the events department for a record company, has added accompanying cartoons.
Another neighbor, Winnie Sabbat, who lives on the first floor, has the best listening vantage point, so she began to contribute more chunks of conversation. And Fulk, a chef, has provided his command of the names of various Trader Joe’s snacks.
“Claire, ... might we suggest you pick up the Reduced Guilt Spinach and Kale Greek Yogurt Dip? Xoxo.”
The names of those overheard are usually changed to protect the mouthy, but the conversations are real — a COVID-19 version of “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies,” a beloved 1970s and ’80s column in the Village Voice.
A joint effort
The project has brought the residents closer together.
“We all knew each other before, but not like this,” LeMoullec said. “We were all so secluded at the beginning of the pandemic. We just needed to see other people. We needed to talk.”
The group found that the partnership had other benefits: The neighbors began to do a bit of shopping for one another; when one went to the store, the rest could put in their orders.
The signs are sometimes sweet, sometimes sour and often an outlet for communal exasperation. Some signs touch upon relationships, often ones that went south.
“You know what Jaclyn!? I think he IS cheating on you.”
The signs, which are posted on Instagram under @traderjoeslineUWS, have attracted their own lines. People take selfies by them, and some Trader Joe’s customers even make reference to them as they pass by.
One day, Luker heard a woman tell someone on the phone that she had to hang up because she was too close to the building “where they listen and put what you say on a sign.” (Sure enough, that became a sign.)
Mostly, the signs have been well received. One day, a mail carrier knocked on Luker’s door to tell him how much she appreciated seeing the signs during a tough time. They discussed their food loves, and she mentioned brisket.
“Ash is the chef at Hill Country barbecue, so we gave her some brisket,” Luker recalled. “She was really happy.” She came back the next day and brought them two homemade masks.
All told, there have been more than 70 signs, although the postings are on hiatus because some of the building’s occupants have scattered for vacations. Luker said the signs will return; as long as there are long, annoying lines, there will assuredly be people to eavesdrop upon.
“We’re kind of proud of these signs,” Luker said, “We turned an annoyance into solidarity. Hard as all of this has been, and with all the things going on, we found a way to get together.”