First, take stock.
Grab an expired SALE price tag and a golf pencil. Jot down whatever’s running low: cranberries, pomegranates, bananas, green beans, satsumas. Get the handcart. Wrench open the door on the walk-in cooler. In through the clear heavy plastic insulating sheet, slit into clacking slices that slap you in the face and drag themselves over your clothes. Pull the string for the 40 watt light bulb. Step from wood slat to wood slat in the shadows, reading the waxy cartons: Golden Girl, Tru-Blu, VitaBee. If new cartons of stock got stacked on the older squashed cartons of the same item, you move the new shipment to one side, load the old shipment on to the handcart, move the new stock back to the floor, shove your shoulder into the door, duck through the clacky slats, and hang on to the handcart while it eases down the ramp. Watch you don’t tip the whole caboodle at the corner where the linoleum wore off the floor. Customers and their kids will stand right in front of the cart and won’t see you, no matter how much you say “Scuse me!” But if you sing it makes them nervous and they’ll move. “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” works fine. Put the handcart back for Jasper in Bulk.
Rake those green beans to one side and pour the new cold beans on to that green astroturf base, then pile the older beans on top. In the snow pea bin, pick out the green beans that strayed over, and put them back where they belong. Same drill with the other stock. When the cartons are empty, flatten them out for the loading dock.
Stack up the satsumas in a pyramid. Of course, when you’ve got the pyramid mounded all nice, that is when everybody wants to buy a satsuma. Then you’ll have to pile up more because everybody wants fruit from the freshly made pyramid, not the same exact fruit from a bin running low. If you’re too busy to pile the pyramid again, stand with your back to everyone and wave your hands over the bin. Same thing happens; customers will come right over to whatever bin you just paid attention to.
But that’s too much like fooling people. So just go get more satsumas.
Okay. Stocked up.
Now take the water bottle and spritz the leafy greens. Get some crushed ice from Mac the Knife in Butcher, and sprinkle it around the medium-fragile things like broccoli and peppers. Make sure the plastic bag dispensers have enough bags. Empty the garbage. Take out your box cutter and trim those brussels sprouts when you have a minute. Check the tubers and roots, because they get limp when they dry out. Tote them to the back room and drop them in the soak sinks until they perk up and you can put them out again.
Then, start all over. Take stock. Get the cart again from Jasper in Bulk.
At closing time, dunk the burlap cloths in the soak sink and load them in the bins and take them out front; tuck the burlap in all over the roots so they stay fresh until tomorrow. Then haul the delicate leaves and whatnot into the bins and stack them in the walk-in cooler. On the aisle, sweep off the rubber mats. Roll the mats out of the way. Push-broom the floor. Unroll the mats. Empty the drainage pans into the utility sink and scrub the slime out of them. Put the pans back under. Scatter some more crushed ice. Drag out and unroll the plastic drop cloths to cover the display bins, and you’re done.
General tip: Loose clothes in layers, because you’ll get too overheated and also too cold. Rubber gloves slow you down and get full of water anyway, but galoshes are good over shoes what with all the water from the soak sinks. These surplus khaki drawstring pants and khaki turtleneck are from Kenmore Army Navy, they’re $5. Calcutta Quality Wear has these long black tunic dresses full of pockets for box cutter, price cards, and pencils. The pushcart guy at the farmers’ market has these big thin white cotton shawls; I keep this one wrapped around my head and neck like Lawrence of Arabia so when you take cartons to the dumpster you can bite the edge and keep your teeth out of the wind chill.
Most of all, pay attention to the people. There’s all kinds, and they have stories going on in their lives and heads, and often all they want is a little attention.
Especially on a holiday like this. So thank you for lending a hand in Produce.
That was how I planned to talk to my assistant, in case I ever got one. I pictured somebody right alongside, helping out. Like the angels who helped St. Isidore with plowing, only instead of fields in Spain we had our basement with low ceiling and blinky fluorescents and a long staircase with the sparkly tarpaper treads coming loose and a street door going ka-slammo every ninety seconds.
This was a big night, full of shoppers. They weren’t your brisk serious cooks who showed up at opening time with shopping lists; those all came and went the week or two before. Tonight it was students and young couples and kids, and people of all ages who like me enjoyed having a place to go on a holiday. Shoppers were drifting around discussing what to eat, standing in separate aisles calling and waving merchandise (“Howzis?”), giving each other rides in shopping carts, helping themselves to seedless grapes. Sometimes couples joked to me about his terrible taste in food, or her using up every pot and pan in the house. These little foraging and nesting displays were fun to watch; but I did feel the contrast between them and my status of having nobody to forage with myself. That’s why I was working Christmas Eve, hoping to cheer up by serving each person who came my way.
At the next counter, sturdy Mack the Knife from Butcher with his long hair and sleek black bandana was coaching Peter from Dairy, our gentle bespectacled lacto-vegetarian.
Mack the Kn: Now to carve this here beef hunk…. Anything I need to know about you, Boy, before I hand you my sharpest cleaver?
Peter: Mm… you do kind of remind me of my stepdad.
Mack: I remind you of him? (Thoughtful pause) You’re getting this dull spoon instead. Now WHAT is that racket?
A customer seemed to be shouting for help.
I dropped the Brussels sprouts, closed the box cutter, dropped it in my pocket, and ran to the front. At the top of the stairs, our only passageway in or out of the store, there was a petite elderly lady in an old fur-trimmed coat and knitted leggings. “Is GRECH NAUGHT?” she called to us, gripping the bannister in the freezing wind. “GRRRECH NAAAUGHT.”
Mack got there first, wiping his hands on his apron. “The hell she say?! ‘Grape Nuts’?”
I stared at her, chafing my hands to get some feeling back. My brain ticked helpfully like a gambling machine in an old cartoon with fruit pictures spinning in the windows, until a row of linguistic lemons spelled a jackpot. “Greek,” I realized. “It’s Anglicized Russian. Grecheskie orekhi?” I hollered back at her. In Russian it means Greek Nuts. That’s “walnuts” to us.
“Grecheskie, grecheskie,” she sang out joyfully, waving her little knitted handbag as if her cruise ship were coming in to port. I ran up the stairs and stood a step beneath, letting her lean on my shoulder. It was a long painful walk down for her, step by gasping step on the loose sparkly stair treads. But she nestled into the circle of my arm, pouring out in Russian her relief and happiness at finding herself understood and in friendly company. I walked her across the store, steering around the missing linoleum, way over to Bulk. Jasper was on cigarette break (at least his combat boots were, pacing outside the cellar window), so I got her a plastic bag and a bin sticker for the cashier. She asked me to pour out exactly one single handful of walnuts and close the bag with a twisty-tie and price.
I wish now that I’d bagged the nuts and beelined to the cashier to buy them for her as a Christmas gift. But it didn’t occur to me; my wallet and knapsack were locked in the Manager’s office, the Manager with her office keys was on a ladder changing the blinkiest of the fluorescents, the line at all cash registers was 20 shoppers deep, and I was AWOL from my Brussels sprouts and frantic to get back to my post. So I handed her the nuts and wished her a good evening.
But wait: My Russian visitor could not quite see the bin label. How much were these nuts per pound? I read her the price.
“SKOL’KO? HOW much?” she cried. “For a handful of GREEKS? Why, Gristedes Neighbormart sells Greeks for 11 cents a pound LESS! You made me walk down all these stairs! You lured me in to trick me with outrageous prices. I could have broken my neck! And on a holiday!” In tears of vexation she slapped my hand from her elbow, threw the walnut packet on the counter, and charged up the stairs.
I beat a retreat to my peaceful cooler to sop and dredge the burlap.
By then, like the tubers and roots in need of soaking, my spirits and energy were starting to flag. A spontaneous single person’s prayer came to mind:
could You please let me not be
the loneliest person in this whole store.
Thank you Amen.”
Then with the burlap bins I got back to the floor.
Couples still frolicked with wagons of food and flowers and wine.
Our Manager screwed in the new light bulb, climbed down some shaky portable aluminum steps, and walked away with the ladder on her shoulder. Peter and Mack were still at their male bonding banter. Jasper and his combats boots flashed down the stairs and loped back to the bulk bins. Tinsel still glittered and waved on the acoustic ceiling tiles. Children scampered by gripping headless marshmallow Santas in red tin foil. The store DJ, Krista in Whole Body, changed the music CD to a hit from The Pogues.
“The boys of the NYPD choir /
Still singing ‘Galway Bay…'”
I scooped up the tubers and roots, bedded them on crushed ice, and wrapped them in wet burlap. I straightened my tunic, hitched up my belt, stretched out my spine, and blew on my hands and clamped them up under my arms to get some feeling back.
“Fashion accessory?” said a soft pleasant voice behind me. It was a tall fair handsome cleancut young man with bright eyes and a shy friendly smile. He was eyeing my belt; my brown wooden rosary had slipped out of my pocket and was hanging looped by its cross on the belt. “Punk rock style,” he explained.
“Not this rosary,” I laughed. “Strictly functional.”
“I’m glad,” he smiled. “So is mine.”
And so we talked, one of us with an armful of plastic bags of nuts and berries, and the other in galoshes dripping on the floor. We reminisced about Catholic things that made us happy as children: his first time as an altar boy serving at consecration, my happiness on each third week of Advent when the priest and the sanctuary are decked in pink, his Sodality of Mary boys’ club in Jesuit boarding school, my rare chance when the church was under renovation to come peek into the sacristy where girls don’t get to go.
Then in all quiet earnest he confided something. “Our Blessed Mother appeared to me.”
“She did?” I had a lifetime of practice being a courteous listener for perfect strangers who walked up and told me their life stories. I was also raised to see any and all attention from a man as a compliment. Besides, traditional Catholics will take at least a second look at even primitive naive reports of saintly apparitions. This man’s approach was unusual, but his story seemed quaint and nostalgic, and his behavior seemed friendly and polite.
“She appeared to me last night,” he assured me. “In a dream. She said she was sending me a godly modest wife this very day, for the feast of her Son. She said ‘You’ll recognize my handmaid because –‘”
“Mary in Produce. Come in, Mary in Produce,” Mack yelled over the loudspeaker. “Git yer crushed ice now afore I lock this joint up. Over & out.”
“Mack in Butcher — right away!” I hollered.
“Wait — your name is Mary?” asked my visitor.
“Yes, nice to meet you. Gosh, got to run and close up my aisle.”
“You take your time,” he said. “No rush. I’ll be waiting up front.”
At the utility sink I was scraping slime from the drainage pans when our Manager walked in after putting away the ladder. She was a willowy poised young woman with a radiant smile. She ran the coop with assurance and ease; like all good leaders she circulated among us, zeroing in on our problems and lending the right hand at the right time.
Standing at the utility sink, I told her half in humor and half in shyness about the Catholic shopper and his dream. Back then, I’d never heard of a man walking up to a strange woman and saying “Divine intervention has chosen you as my mate.” (Gavin de Becker writes books about overtures like this, and the safety precautions women can take in response.) I was sure that the Manager would laugh as part of our shop-closing banter.
But she dropped her smile and stood very still. “You say you’ve never seen this man before. But he’s waiting out there now, saying that you are his ideal spouse? Because of a dream?”
“About the Virgin Mary, yes. He’s at the front stairs. Tall, denim coat.”
She took a glance out the round porthole windows on the swinging doors. “Stay here. Right where you are.” She arrowed out and came back with Dairy Peter and Butcher Mack. “Mary and Peter. Out the dock. On the double.” She threw her van keys at Peter’s chest, and tossed me my knapsack and sweatshirt. “Take her straight home; see her in the door of her house. I’ll close up Produce tonight. Mack, you’re coming up front with me.”
Peter hustled me out of the cooler and back to the dock. Behind us, up front at our only customer door, there was a murmured voice of reason interrupted by a primal howl of panic. “My wife! Bring ME MY WIFE! She’s taking me home to her room tonight!”
“I’m doing what?” I whispered to Peter.
Peter was busy unlocking the loading dock. In one upsy-daisy he swung me on to the dark empty ramp. On the steep incline, with its rows of loose wheels set on edge like belly-dancer cymbals, I gripped the edges and hoisted myself along. With admirable strength and agility Peter flung himself up over the side of the chute, and shoved my ample frame up and away toward the planet surface. I emerged on my elbows, on to frozen pavement and cheeseburger wrappers and previously owned bubble gum. Peter stayed behind to padlock the dock after me, sprinted out the front and around the block with the van, saw me home and in my front door, and rushed back to Dairy.
At home, my sweet contemplative accountant roommate was back from visiting his fiancee and her family. Lying comfortably next to the radiator chewing spruce gum, he glanced up from his book, took a look at me, adjusted his glasses, took a second look, and said “Wha hoppened? Wash up; dry clothes. This is a job for COCOA.”
He bundled me in his car with two thermoses of hot chocolate, popcorn, and blankets. Scraping the windshield and turning on the heater he hit the road, singing Cindy Kallet’s “Marblehead Neck” at the top of his fine tenor voice. At a sheltered lakeside cove he parked the car. In our blankets we tapped ice bubbles with our shoes and listened to hissing phragmites and migrating voices crossing the midnight sky. He skipped flat rocks on the ice to chime and chime and chime in migratory voices of their own.
At first all I felt, other than cold, was that Christmas creche-to-crash letdown, the sense that one has Missed Out on the holiday that everybody else is celebrating. But at least my spontaneous prayer had been answered: clearly, I was not the loneliest person in the store that night. Besides, I had a boss and two trusty macho sidekicks on my side, plus a roommate who gave up a warm radiator and “Prairie Home Companion” to forge out in the cold and give me a nice drive. That was a lot to appreciate while munching the soft squeak of popcorn on molars snf hopping up and down in a blankie.
In rosary terms. Christmas is called a Joyful mystery, but not called a Happy one. Mary and Cousin Elizabeth expect miraculous babies, and Mary sings a Magnificat over it. They don’t know their babies will be arrested and put to death. They don’t know about Herod and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt, or Simeon’s prophecy about the sword in Mary’s heart. There’s her bridegroom who wants to “put her away privately” (where??), the unhappy people wandering around for taxes and censuses, the innkeeper overrun with customers, the tired donkey. It’s a disaster.
So in all that context of away in a manger, this up a down chute was a pretty traditional holiday after all. Maybe the Christmas story is all about people thrown together with their dreams and flaws, wandering to implausible places of strange appearances and stranger gifts. One soul journeys down to Hades, evades Greek-bearing giftors, and rises in triumph from Gristedes Neighbormart with nut bargain in hand. One awakens from his dreams to find his Virgin’s virgin. One sings along a beachfront (“… Marblehead Neck, by the ocean we’d go…”), chiming skip-rocks to ring on ice. One with visions of companionship strives with sackcloth and roots, and disappears out the cat door.
Night for marvels. Divinity in a child; bells in a thrown lake stone.