Easy Street

From precut fruit to robotic vacuums, people find all kinds of ways to save time

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Illustration by Anne Bentley.

Consider the orange. The orange I’m thinking of is the product that Whole Foods Market sold a few years back: pre-peeled, then repackaged in a clear plastic clamshell container and sold for $5.99 a pound.

The internet blew up. Critics excoriated Whole Foods for removing the natural, biodegradable container every orange enters this world with—the peel—only to replace it with a plastic container and jack up the price. Tweeters, understandably, raged at the prospect of more plastic tossed into our oceans; they decried the plight of desperate dolphins swimming around with orange-scented plastic containers stuck to their snouts. The Twitter world seemed shocked that the upscale grocer viewed its customers as so spoiled, stupid, privileged and impatient that they’d want to buy oranges pre-peeled. Whole Foods promptly apologized and pulled pre-peeled oranges from its shelves.

That was in 2016. Two years later, I’m thinking that we as a culture don’t know ourselves very well. One way or another, we all want our oranges peeled.

“Busy, spoiled, lazy.” Those are the first words out of Casey Harris’ mouth when I remind her of the orange fiasco and ask what Whole Foods had revealed about its customers’ inclinations. Harris and her husband prefer to support local mom-and-pop businesses, she says. But these days they buy groceries from Whole Foods through Amazon—and get them delivered to their home in Bethesda.

She says this sheepishly even though the couple has a really good excuse: an infant daughter. “I’ve got major baby brain right now,” Harris, 33, says as she pushes her daughter in a stroller near downtown Bethesda. “This is the first time I’ve been out of the house in a week.

“Convenience trumps everything right now,” she says. “It’s a click of a button on my phone and it’s done.”

That’s probably not going to change anytime soon for Harris and a lot of other people who can afford to spend a little money to buy time. I met Susan Brown while walking around downtown Bethesda one recent weekend. Brown, 53, of Bethesda, is a teacher with Montgomery County Public Schools. She packs her own two children’s school lunch bags with little packets of preportioned cookies because that’s so much easier than opening a big package of sweets, putting a few cookies in small baggies, then resealing the big cookie bag. She’s never calculated how much extra money it costs to buy the individual kid-size cookie packets. She doesn’t have the time.

Manisha Katsnelson, 36, of Silver Spring wouldn’t dream of buying a whole watermelon for her two kids. That would entail washing it, cutting it up, throwing away the rind and cleaning up the mess. It’s so much more pleasant to buy precut watermelon, says Katsnelson, who works for a nonprofit freight company that transfers humanitarian aid supplies. When one of her kids wants a quick snack, she says, “I can just pop a little piece of watermelon in their mouth.”

Katsnelson grew up in a Maryland household where she and her four siblings did chores and her parents wouldn’t buy anything unless it was on sale and/or they had a coupon for it, she says. Now she and her husband do something her parents never would have: They pay someone to cut their lawn twice weekly in the growing season.

I was walking in Bethesda’s Edgemoor neighborhood this past spring when I stopped suddenly and wished I’d brought a camera with a wide-angle lens. Up and down both sides of the block and around the cul-de-sac, every property was busy with work crews. There were construction crews, house painters, landscapers and a mobile car detailer. In the coming weeks, work crews all around the area will be doing what used to be a fun family activity: decorating the front yard for the holidays. I always wonder where the family is while strangers are festooning their property, installing giant plastic menorahs, blowing up snowmen or wrapping red tinsel around white columns to make candy stripes. The family might well be inside binge-watching Game of Thrones.

Barbara Clapman, 73, doesn’t believe people are as busy as they think they are. Clapman and her husband moved to Bethesda two years ago to be near two adult children and four grandchildren. “People have lost touch with how to do things for themselves,” she says. “Even things that are simple seem to take too long.” She blames the internet—from nonstop emails to the nonstop streaming of entertainment. “It’s very seductive, and it cuts into time for real life,” she says.

I’ve lost track of how many British mysteries my husband and I have watched this year on Amazon or Netflix. I’ve also lost track of how much money I’ve spent on disposable Swiffer cleaning products—dusters, expandable duster wands, floor wipes. Whizzing around my house waving the duster hardly feels like work, and sometimes I think it’s hardly working. It occurred to me recently that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gotten down on my hands and knees and used a scrub brush and bucket to scour the natural stone tiles of my master bathroom floor. So I did it. I spent three hours scrubbing every inch of the bathroom floor, walls and shower. The bathroom looked great. The experience was dreadful. I’m not giving up my Swiffer floor wipes ever.

Seema Takiya, Katsnelson’s childhood friend, says she realized how lazy the culture has become when scooters, owned by a company named Bird, arrived in the District early this year. People just grab a scooter, pay Bird through a phone app, then drop off the scooter wherever they want. “That is such a perfect business model,” Takiya, a defense contractor, says gleefully. “People are too lazy to walk now. I told my sister we need to come up with a business model based on people’s laziness.”

On Amazon Prime Day this year, Takiya purchased a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner. At first, she was leery of the contraption. She’d turn it on, then follow it around to make sure it didn’t pull down her curtains or yank out cable cords. She still won’t turn on her Roomba and leave it home alone cleaning. That would be creepy.

“You don’t trust your Roomba,” Katsnelson teases her.

“No,” Takiya says, laughing. But she wouldn’t dream of giving it up. “I can turn it on and it cleans while I’m taking a shower,” she says. That gives her more time to do fun things, like walking around downtown Bethesda with her friend while drinking a $3 cup of coffee.

 

April Witt is a former Washington Post writer who lives in Bethesda.

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