The Last Word: Too many choices can be hard, but bad ones, or none, are worse

When, in 2003, I first read about the restaurant in New York that served nothing but rice pudding, I was excited in a way that’s hard to understand 20 years later. I felt cheated that I didn’t live in New York, where I could go somewhere both so silly and amazing, and choose between “Fluent in French toast” rice pudding or “I got the panna cotta” rice pudding.

Polly Campbell
Polly Campbell

A few years later, I was in New York and I happened across it: Rice to Riches. I promptly went in and chose an 8-ounce cup of rice pudding, which cost $4.50. I don’t really remember the flavor or whether it was good. 

It was a preview of things to come, cupcakes and macaron bakeries, charcuterie boards and Walgreens-receipt-long selections of craft beer. Also, Facebook friends and endless scrolling and online dating and email advertising. The world started offering so many choices, everywhere, all the time. 

Choices are exciting, but choosing is hard and the result is often unsatisfying. The array of colors of cashmere sweaters makes me want to buy one, but one color separated from the rainbow isn’t as beautiful. I am excited by the lists of the kind of arty, serious movies I like on the Criterion Channel, but often wonder if the ones I didn’t pick would have been better than the one I did. I browse table lamps and am handed enough beautiful possibilities that I start thinking about throwing out the lamps I have so I can buy new ones. 

Sometimes, when overwhelmed by this modern, oversized menu of life, I remember an ad I saw when I was a child that I still remember puzzling over. It showed a little girl choosing ice cream, with the copy asking something like “How would you like it if you could only get butter pecan?” Of course, I pondered how terrible that would be, but also realized something was off about the ad, something propagandistic. I’m pretty sure it was created for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. An ad for capitalism, basically, which I didn’t realize needed advertising.

How wrong that ad was – at this point, I think I’d like to be offered just one flavor and no choice.

Also how right – but not for the reasons it meant.

Because a significantly large segment of the population often has only one flavor to choose from, so to speak. When you are poor, you always have fewer choices. There are people in Cincinnati whose stress does not come from deciding which foods to buy, but from having no grocery store in their neighborhood and no car. People whose choices are between bad child care or no child care or no job, between keeping aging parents at home or leaving them in understaffed and underfunded nursing homes.

Some people have to choose between medications and groceries, between paying the heating bill or school fees. Not which college to go to, but whether to go at all. Often, being poor puts them in tight corners where they’re left with no good choices at all, like owing money to a predatory check-cashing company. 

There are lots of trend stories about the paradoxical stress of too much choice. People with money see themselves reflected in the general chatter all the time. But a trend story about “Americans face less choice” is just as true. And maybe people like me are so busy picking out wallpaper or deciding where to go on vacation that we
don’t think about lives not like ours.

Think about how often COVID is summed up as that time we were bored and had to make sourdough bread and adopt pets and get on Zoom. Instead of how COVID was a health disaster that tore up people’s lives. That killed a million people, many of them dying alone. I don’t think we talk about those million people a lot. 

The dystopian future the free-enterprise advocates were so scared of is true. Not because the Communists took over and instituted a centrally planned economy, but because the growing forces of inequality in our economic and political system mean that choices have been taken from some people and showered on others. 

One choice each of us could make is how to be part of changing that. The organizations featured in this issue are doing the work. Read about them, their goals and missions and the problems they’re addressing. Any of them would be a good place to start. 

Oh, I saw Rice to Riches in the news again, shortly after I ate there. In 2005, the owner was arrested for running an illegal gambling empire. Somehow, the restaurant made more sense as a money-laundering front. But it’s still open, getting by in a high-rent neighborhood of Manhattan with something your grandmother used to make. In fact, a second location is opening, on the Lower East Side. Rice pudding is now $10 a cup. ν


Polly Campbell writes monthly on a variety of topics, and she welcomes your feedback and column suggestions at editor@moversmakers.org.


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