What We Lose by Hiring Someone to Pick Up Our Avocados for Us

For the past few years I have made a habit of going to a particular Starbucks in Brooklyn after I drop my son off at school, a ritual that has given me pleasure way out of proportion to its ordinariness.

What began as a means of procrastination developed into the practice of social efficiency. Inevitably I would run into someone I know — a fellow parent from my child’s class, the friend I have been trying and failing to see since the last eclipse, the neighborhood honcho who knows what’s happening with the expressway, Eddie from three doors down.

Standing on line for a grande skim chai — I like that the baristas expect that order from me — I have been brought up to speed on divorces, restaurants, dermatologists, scandalous potlucks, third-grade bullies, the worst squash parents and the most absurd acts of social climbing. Lately, though, I find myself alone.

The incursion of technology into every aspect of consumption has meant that only the indolent or pathologically tolerant wait for things.

Starbucks seems to prioritize mobile orders. So if you choose to order in person, you might find yourself walking straight to the cashier and then lingering for a bafflingly long time as one drink after another — none of them yours — lands in the mobile pickup area, waiting for whatever very busy person made an advance purchase he is late to claim.

At the same time that physical retail culture remains ostensibly in crisis, it seems to create fewer reasons to engage with it. For decades, grocery stores in New York were comparatively small — there wasn’t room for much on the scale of Publix.

But as the city’s vacant industrial landscape was given over to commerce during the last decade or so, the stores that sprang up became enormous — venues for “destination shopping” in the marketer’s parlance, which suggests a kind of leisure the experience never provides.

The arrival of Wegmans in the Brooklyn Navy Yard a few months ago occasioned the excitement of a museum opening, if you can remember a time when people were excited about museum openings.

To shop at Wegmans on a Sunday afternoon is to realize that you really ought to have some kind of vehicle license not yet created for the purchase of bulk produce. At 74,000 square feet, there should theoretically be room to comfortably accommodate everyone, and yet it is all too easy to imagine yourself run over, flattened out.

As you weave a cart the size of Bermuda from the plant-based-meats section to the detergents aisle, you must work to avoid collision not merely with other shoppers of the civilian class but also with the overwhelming number of Instacart employees — independent contractors who are picking out ripe avocados at Wegmans for people doing something less combative on a Sunday.

Founded eight years ago by an Amazon alumnus, Instacart is an app-based grocery service that will deliver within two hours and sometimes as quickly as an hour. I had imagined that Instacart operated only in a small number of cities that were not heavily car-reliant — who else would need it?

But it turns out that Instacart is everywhere. I stopped counting the number of locations listed on the company’s website when I got to Timnath, Colo., population: 3,295.

Last spring, Pay Up, an organization of Instacart’s gig workers campaigning for better compensation, published a report titled, “Delivering Inequality.” Using 1,400 samples of data supplied by workers across the country, the study found that the average Instacart shopper makes just $7.66 an hour, once the costs of mileage and additional payroll tax are accounted for.

On a recent morning at the Whole Foods in Gowanus, Brooklyn, most of the other shoppers around were also professional grade and nearly all were young people of color. A bank of refrigerators in the front of the store contained full paper bags with the Amazon logo on them: You can now get whatever it is you buy at Whole Foods delivered to you via Amazon Prime.

Sociologists, beginning perhaps most prominently with Ray Oldenburg in the 1980s, in his book, “The Great Good Place,” have analyzed the importance of the “third place’’ in the urban world. Home is the first place, and work is the second place. But it is this additional realm, he argues, of informal sociality, that is so crucial to the maintenance of civic engagement and just civility.

Cafes, butcher shops, bakeries, gyms, bookstores and churches are all third places. In more recent years, another sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, has written about their position in the social infrastructure of cities, the “set of physical places and organizations that shape our interactions,” and that when neglected or lost, can foster a dangerous strain of isolation.

The act of turning grocery shopping into an occupation threatens something larger — we are losing a way to bridge differences in a world already collapsing from its stratification. The guy who walks into a Starbucks to pick up his pre-ordered flat white as he conference calls into his AirPods doesn’t have to exchange a single word with the worker behind the counter or really even acknowledge her. He grabs his drink and gets on with it.

It is surely true that Instacart offers a valuable service — to those who are housebound, to single parents, to others paralyzingly constrained by time.

But the Instacart workers themselves barely have the luxury of looking up because the orders they are fulfilling are all on their phones and the faster they complete them, the more orders they can fulfill — in many cases, undoubtedly for someone at home rewatching “Succession.”

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