I went shopping at Fine Fare on Lenox Avenue, before the real cold set in. It's a large supermarket near a massive block of public housing, halfway between home and Central Park. I find some decent fresh produce there, organic milk and eggs, housekeeping supplies.
There were unusually long lines at each check out point. Maybe eight people deep. I bought vegetables - a fat turnip and beets with stems and leaves attached, parsnips, rutabaga, carrots, sweet potato - winter stuff. Rosemary to roast them on. And four different kinds of local apples; Fine Fare has an incongruous - and welcome - section of organic fruit. I found some JK's Scrumpy cider, and a roll of paper towels, and then I joined a line and waited.
It moved slowly. I had time to study the nearby baskets and carts. The bearded young guy in front me had a basket: Several Campbells soup cans (steak and vegetable, chicken and noodle), three packets of instant noodles, Pilon coffee, a small milk, peanut butter and Smuckers jelly, and then a treat, to cheer him up, of fancy chocolate ice cream.
To my left was a couple with only a trolley in common - he was flatfooted and swaddled in hi tech and voluminous insulation, spoke with a Northern Plains accent and had a broad, whiskery face. She was tall and severe and Caribbean with long red false eyelashes, and dressed in head to toe knitted tan wool, with high heels. They discussed cooking hamburgers. He led the conversation, chaffing her on. She was reluctant, but was drawn out on the subject of killing germs with heat. To my right was a woman with a cart loaded to the top. The top layer was ground meat in a mega tray, and canned peas, canned beans, canned corn, and vegetable oil in a huge bottle. Behind her was a woman with a large tray of chicken pieces and another large bottle of oil.
I asked the man behind me, Is it always this busy on a Monday evening. It was around 5pm. Yes, he said, with a slight smile. And then added, But also social security and pension checks come in, then.
Then it was my turn. Campbells soup guy whizzed through. The cashier was a young man, boy, really - big silver rings on fingers, taciturn, no greeting, no eye contact. My paper towels, hazelnut oil, garlic, and rosemary all went through fine. The apples held things up a little, because I'd put them all in one bag, and they had different prices. When we got to the sour oranges I'd found in the section with the interesting stuff in it (plantains, cassava, taro), he paused, looking at them. Sour oranges, I said. Not taking my word for it, he turned to cashier behind him. Sour oranges, said that cashier.
Sour oranges. Three for $2. Yes.
Then the parsnips arrived. This time he engaged me, with some annoyance. What are these? Parsnips, I said. He scanned his price sheet painstakingly. Parsley, he asked? No. Parsnips. A minute rolled by. The line waited. He found the parsnips. Then came the lone turnip. He held it up, eyebrows raised.
Turnip, I said.
Turnip, he said. He scanned his list. I packed my cloth bag, slowly, trying not to look at the screen to see what progress we were making, because there was none. Another minute. Found it at last. Turnip. He handed it to me.
Last, the bunch of beetroot. He held it, then he looked at me, smiled in surrender, and said, I never seen this before.
Beets, I said, quietly. Almost sorry I had chosen them.
Beets, he said. And found them at last on his list.
I had packed my bag very well. For once, I had had enough time. All the heavy stuff was neatly on the bottom, the light stuff on top. I pulled my hogskin gloves back on, Made in London, and headed for the door, turned right and walked home in the cold night.
The man behind me, who'd told me about the pension checks and social security, only had a bag of peanuts in their shells and some tortilla chips. I had not noticed. I should have let him go first.