In the Neighborhood

In that period between sleep and wakefulness, during the very first moments of early morning, the mind seems to quickly stash all its nighttime thoughts into various compartments and deep folds around the dark edges, while slowly bringing forth the real, clear issues of a new day. What I heard, and it didn’t quite make sense to me, sounded like, “Foos hopping ay.” The words were echoing, “Foos hopping ay,” coming closer and clearer as they worked their way to the front of my consciousness. “Foos hopping ay.” Aha, it filled my entire brain now, near and wide, “Food shopping day!”

I must go food shopping today, the thought front and center now, crowding all the other pressing topics to the side. Nothing about the ongoing dealings with the damn mortgage bank trying to modify our damn mortgage, which was a frustrating and daily battle, nor any pending work, nor prepping the house for sale – nope, none of that; I have to go food shopping today.

I’m grasping the idea of being fully awake now. The girls were visiting from North Carolina and while they’ve been up here for a few weeks already, they’ve been staying at this cousin’s or that one’s, but they would be staying here, with me, this week. Every year they come up to New Jersey, and contrary to seemingly every other North Carolinian’s sentiments, they love it. In fact when school lets out every year in early summer down in Kill Devil Hills, they both start countdown calendars for when the day arrives that they leave for the Garden State. They both live with their single mother on the Outer Banks and come up to the South Jersey Pinelands for four or five weeks each summer, and have been ever since they were small. They are young women now, eleven and twelve years old, and the yankee air or lifestyle one, must agree with them – because they eat like football players when they’re here.

I sat up and pulled my clothes on, trudged to the small bedroom down the hall that doubled as my office and stared at the computer screen sitting there on my desk like I always do first thing every morning. Check for email and wait for something to show itself that might devour my day, or at least turn it in another direction. Splendid, today’s all clear.

The bathroom is occupied by Linda, who has a ritual that requires hours in there every single weekday, in order to ready herself for work. Not just showering and the usual maintenance, no sir, she takes her novels and cell phone and iPad in there with her, whereupon she holds court with her sisters and co-workers or settles in with Danielle Steel’s latest novel. Anyhow, I know better than to try to get into the bathroom, even for a few minutes, not for at least a couple hours. Usually I go down and make tea, watch Sports Center, and wait her out.

Going to the food store is not so bad, although I understand most people hate it. I find if you have a list and try to stick to it, you can breeze through and then the only hangup is avoiding the checkout line with the woman buying a months worth of groceries for her twelve-member family. That’s bad, but what’s worse is that there is no other register open. You can look around, try to make eye contact with any of the store employees that are standing, slouching along the periphery, with that pleading look that says, “please open another register?” It never works, however, they always look away, right before that fiendish smile breaks out and curls up the corner of their mouths. They know they have the power, and they wield it unmercifully.

But, like I say, ever since I took over the chores of food shopping and cooking dinners for the family, it has never bothered me. But, I don’t go unless I’m prepared. A list of items to buy is critical to my success. Based on what quantities dictated by the number of people I’m feeding and what meals and recipes are planned. Often times you have to be flexible, especially if you find a sale on say, chicken or chops in quantity, then that becomes the multiple entree of the week. You need to think fast too, serving the same main dish twice requires different recipes to keep the complaints down, so your list starts to look like a baseball manager’s scorecard in extra innings, lots of crossing out and inserting new names. I recommend a number two pencil, American FaberCastell with a clean eraser.

We have a corner market locally where most items are available, although at slightly higher prices. It’s ok for a few last-minute pickups, but the supermarket on the other side of town is where the bargains are for full-on family shopping and with a noticeably better selection. This was one of those days, I was headed across town to food shop for the girls. Ashley is the older one and very much like her mother, independent, quiet, polite, pretty and a fussy eater. Kayla, on the other hand, is more the free spirit and loves to talk, try new things and will eat you out of house and home if you don’t put a muzzle on her. Yet, to look at them, two healthy, proportionately weighted, happy, smiling young women, you’d never think you had to buy the same quantity of food as the varsity football program. And not just for meals, they are like scavenging sharks always on the prowl for snacks, or treats, making the rounds from fridge to cabinets to storage areas, constantly eating, nibbling, drinking something or gathering stuff to throw in the blender to make smoothies. Another good reason to cross town today, for the bigger selection at the supermarket.

Upstairs I hear the phone conversation move into another room, a signal the bathroom is open, however tentatively. I take the steps upstairs three at a time and slip into the still damp air from Linda’s shower and sling open the medicine cabinet door, grab the toothbrush and cleansing paste, brush my teeth, throw a little water on my face, a dab some aftershave on my neck to tease the young mothers at the cucumber bin – just kidding! Back into my tiny office to make up the indispensable food list. I hear the phone conversation moving downstairs, another sister on the line. Linda can talk on the phone for hours, only she can’t do anything else while she’s talking other than walk to another room. This contributes greatly to her get-ready time in the morning, which approaches four hours on some days. It’s not the showering, the hair, the makeup, the day’s wardrobe, it’s the library time and the phone circle that goes on amongst her sisters and the girls she works with. I have to wait for an lull in the constant chatter if ever I have a question in the morning. Some days there are no openings, she talks all the way out the door to the driveway, into the car and off to work. Today, I need to know how many meals the petite North Carolina linebackers will be attending here this week. Their days are densely planned, chocked full of activities by Linda and her sisters, with all the girl’s cousins included, so you can’t take for granted that because they are here this week, that they will actually be here for meals any of those days or that some of their little cousins will be joining them as well. In other words, I need a head count, especially for dinners before I go to the food store.

“What days are the kids here for dinner this week, Lyn,” I said as she walked past me into another room. She was holding the phone at waist level, so I thought I might have a chance of a short audience with one of the master planners of daily activities.

“Wait! Can’t you see I’m on the phone!” She shot me a quick, disgusted look like I’m old enough to know better than to interrupt someone’s conversation. The look that puts you right back in elementary school, with the teacher staring at you, displaying that same scolding frown.

But, this wasn’t my first dance, I pretended like I didn’t hear her. This was a tactic that sometimes worked. When it didn’t there was hell to pay, but I was taking that chance.

“How many days are the kids here for dinner this week?” I begged.

“Hold on, Betty. What?” She put her hand over the phone and dropped both arms down to her sides, and looked at me impatiently.

“I’m going to the supermarket and I need to know how much stuff to buy. How many days will the kids be here for dinner this week. Please just give me a number and I’m out of here, no more interruptions, I swear.” I gave her the “pleading” look with my eyes.

“Well, Monday they will be here, Tuesday they are going over to Lauren’s for an early visit, then to the zoo with Aunt Sharon… ” My eyes glazed over, I wasn’t going to get a number like four, or five, no I was in for the entire week’s itinerary from start to finish with every little twist turn.

“On Thursday, Aunt Lisa is picking them up, then… ” Linda was on a roll.

“Hold it, hold it!” I said raising my voice. “Please, how many dinners will they be here this week”

“Aren’t you listening?” She gave me that disgusted look again.
“Lyn, please, a number. Just give me a number!” My voice was firming up and she sensed it. “Three. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday.” She said flatly.
“Thank you,” I said, smiled and turned away.
Behind me, I heard Linda say, “So, Betty, let me call you back okay, I still have to do my hair.” And she padded back up the stairs to her bathroom lair.

Now ShopRite, the supermarket across town, is usually busy, crowded with shoppers from all the surrounding townships and parking is always at a premium. Several lanes that extend away from the store, accommodate about a hundred cars each. Parking close to the store is usually not available, ever, no matter what day of the week or time it is that you’re there and desperately cruising for an empty spot. Halfway down each lane is a canopy occupying one of the parking slots that you can return shopping carts to once you’ve unloaded your groceries into your car, saving you a trip all the way back to the store entrance. Plus it removes the carts from being parking obstacles, which would be left scattered all over the place, especially in the far reaches of the lot. There are attendants that monitor the return canopies and run them all back to the store whenever they pile up in the parking lanes. A very neat and tidy arrangement.

The people who take these jobs are grateful to have them, they are mentally challenged males for the most part. Several of the local grocery stores use this arrangement as well. It’s an opportunity for the handicapped to be gainfully employed and it shows the food stores care about the communities in which they do business by hiring these otherwise unemployable unfortunates.

This day, it was unusually easy to find parking, several openings were in first row of slots closest to the store. To my amazement, I thought, “This must be my lucky day!”

A morning shower left the blacktop shiny and smoking in the summer sun, now bright and hot, and getting hotter. On days like this I place the food in the back seat instead of the trunk, where the air conditioning can keep the perishables cool. The trunk, I imagined, may just poach everything in it before I get home.

I was walking towards the store, passing a shopping cart return station and I noticed a young man standing nearby with a traffic safety vest on. He was standing in the hot sun just to the side of the canopy’s shadow which protected the few carts underneath.

“How you doing today?” I greeted the slightly chubby fellow who appeared to have a slight Down Syndrome condition. He was squinting in the bright heat, no sunglasses, no hat. I gave him a smile.

“Okay,” he said uninterested.
“You ought to get out of the sun,” I said, “it’s gonna be a hot one today.”
He looked at me hard, made strong eye contact and replied, “They don’t pay me enough!”

I looked away, I didn’t understand his response. “What?” I said to myself. He was standing not more than three feet away from the canopy, cool shade, relief from the scorching sun beating down on him like a bug under a magnifying glass. Yet, he defiantly refused to use the store- provided shade, like it was a trap to ensnare an unsuspecting union activist or somehow ShopRite wanted to torture the best of it’s own employees with sun protection for some sinister reason. I tried to look at it from his perspective. Perhaps he thought that’s what he should say, be an anti worker, like on tv or the movies. Did he think it was “cool” to say that? Or was it his way of communicating solidarity with me in some strange way? I gave up, he probably didn’t understand what he said, I surmised. Was I being condescending? Huh oh, I was going down one of those sensitivity roads that turns into a furious mental tug of war, and undoubtedly leads to a temple-to- temple headache before too long. Okay, I’ve got food shopping to do. He’ll work it out, I’m sure.

From the store entrance I looked back, and my friend was still standing in the direct sun, staring straight ahead. I hoped the carts would fill fast, so that he would be forced into action. The whole episode, trying to be friendly, brighten someone less fortunate’s day, had turned into a worrisome exercise in guilt. Damn. “Ah, he’ll be okay,” my inner voice rationalized, and I wanted to believe it.

The food store was cool, and in the produce section, each bin was sprayed down with a water mist that made them look unreal, like an oil painting of waxed and oiled fruit and vegetables, as if they had an extra dimension of lusciousness. I picked up a few things on my list, and moved on to the next section. From produce, I passed the cheese counter and all the cheeses were wrapped in a plastic blanket. “How odd,” I thought, what’s this all about? I followed the counter around the corner where a girl was tucking in more plastic over the wedges of cheese.

“What’s happened here?” I asked.

“We lost power, it’s back now but the refrigeration is slow coming to temperature.” She said, happy to stop tucking and talk.

I must have looked confused, after all the lights were on, nothing seemed different inside the store. “Oh…” I finally said.

“Usually when we lose power it comes back on in a few minutes, but this outage was over an hour. The generators kicked on, but power didn’t come right back on until later. We trying to save as much as we can until everything normalizes again.” She stood there smiling at me, waiting for my next question.

“Oh…” I nodded my head. I was thinking, no wonder it was easy to find parking. I wonder if it’s safe to shop here right now? “Well, looks like you have everything under control,” I offered. She throw her hip to one side and placed a hand on it, she was digging in for a full-fledged conversation. I panicked. I looked away and immediately started rolling my cart towards the deli section. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her frown. “Sorry, I can’t hang, gotta go” I didn’t say this to her, but I thought it.

The deli counter people were all milling around too, customers looking at them from the other side. Guess they’re not open yet either.

The next section was meats, chicken, pork, beef in all sorts of cuts. This was the main reason I come to this store, great selection and low prices. And the food moves out so quickly from the huge amount of shoppers here, you know what you’re buying is fresh. Approaching the meat section, one of the largest section in the store, I noticed a gaggle of employees knotted together in the middle. Next to them were several multi-tiered rolling trays filled with packaged meats. I looked and the shelves were bare. Every single sub section, chicken breasts, wings, thighs drumsticks, whole fryers, etc were missing. It looked like a scene from the Great Depression, the shelves were bare, nothing, nada, zip, zilch. I looked down the meat section, row after row of empty display cases. No pork chops, pork shoulder, no pork ribs or hams. The beef display was bare too, no steaks, roasts, hamburger. Very erie.

I tapped a worker on the shoulder, “Lost power, eh?”

She looked at me wearily, “Yeah, lost power and no sooner got everything off the shelves and packed in dry ice when the power came back.” She kept working as she spoke, returning meat products back to their respective places in the rack coolers.

“Figures.” I commiserated with her.
She look back over her shoulder at me, her face looked tired, “I know, right.”

I wanted to give her a hug, she looked cute in her butcher’s outfit, but on second thought, with that tall tray between us, that might be slightly awkward and probably very inappropriate. Okay, nothing I can do here for awhile, I started for the seafood counter. Turning my cart, more meat trays were rolling out from storage, filled high with all sorts of cuts. Many of the workers were office types it appeared, wearing skirts and blouses or suits and ties, sliding meats from the trays onto the display shelves. Guess this was a “all hands on deck” emergency.

One burly man was standing back up after emptying an armful of chops, a sweat was breaking out on his forehead. He was wearing a tie, obviously a buyer or accountant pressed into work.

“Say, you have any ribs out yet?” I asked him.

Mr. Burly man looked at me, momentarily pausing his shuffling of bloody meats and said, “Ah no, not yet, but soon.” He started to turn his back on me, they as if he remembered the customer code he was hastily told about before being pressed into duty as a meat person, he said, “Why don’t you do the rest of your shopping and come back later, I’m sure we’ll have what you’re looking for out here by then.” He gave the type of smile that said, “we are done with this little chat, okay bud?”

“Okay, thanks.” What else could I say? I spun my cart around and headed to seafood.

The store layout guides shoppers, by design, through all the major food divisions in order to, I suppose, maximize impulse buying. For that very reason, I don’t shop without a list. It’s so easy to run astray, stock up with goodies, then comes the double shock; at checkout, “I spent how much?!” and once home, finding room for all the junk food you bought, realizing you need to go food shopping again the next day for real stuff. Anyway, situated in one of the funnel areas, where everyone in that part of the store has to pass in order to get to the rest of the store sections, is where the seafood counter is located. Seafood is expensive, even though we live less than an hour from the ocean, consequently I rarely buy anything not on sale. Lately, I’ve been making a Baha-style fish taco dinner that the family loves, with fresh tilapia filets. It’s rare to find a new dish everyone likes, when I do I immediately insert that dish into the weekly rotation until either it goes out of season or the family tires of it. On sale, fresh fish tacos are a very economical and tasty meal. I use a beer batter with fresh salsa topping and guacamole, with sour cream on stone- ground corn tortillas. And a tasty habanero pepper sauce, of course – to make it “mo betta.”

Twenty feet out, I see the counter is somewhat darkened, not all the lights are on. I wonder if it’s closed? Fresh seafood is certainly perishable, and probably the first to go bad. I began to caution myself. I arrived at the see-through glass cases and was relieved to see that all of the fish filets and shrimp, clams, oysters were all comfortably resting on mounds of clean crisp ice shavings. Okay, that looks safe enough to me. But where are the counter people, nobody is here? I look back into the display, yes, there they are, tilapia filets, perfect. I look around, and off to the side, slipping around the corner and behind the display cases is a boy with an apron on.

“Hi, can I help you?” Young kid, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old. Smiling, looking eager.

“Power outage, eh?” I thought I’d open with the topic at hand.
“Yeah, went out for quite a while this time,” he said.
I just came from the meat section, they’re trying to get everything back out onto the shelves. They don’t look happy about it either.” I gave him my “you lucked out, didn’t you?” look.

He moved forward, towards me, his chest meeting the display counter top, and moved both elbows onto the top of the case and settled in to tell me the story of the current power outage. And when I thought, “okay that’s enough, my friend, I’ve got more shopping to do” he launched into the history of all the power outages he’s experienced since he began working here.

All the while I feigned interest, wondering how come people can’t work while they talk? Not unlike Linda, they must concentrate so hard on what they’re saying, they can not do anything else until their conversation is finished. Couple with the fact that patience is not my long suite, I began to feel like I must do something rude if he doesn’t wrap up this monotonous tale of woe very soon.

“Do you remember when we lost power about a month ago?” He looked at me and I had to quickly rewind the conversation in my mind to see if he said something I was supposed to respond to. I was relieved when he continued, “Do you live in Medford or the Lakes?”

“The Lakes,” I said supplying an answer with the fewest possible words so as not to encourage him.

“Well, you must remember when we lost power last month then?” He waited for me to say something.

A memory formed in my mind, hot and humid afternoon, no air conditioning, no baseball on tv. “The one that lasted about five hours?” I said.

“Six hours,” he corrected me. We didn’t get power back unto like two-thirty in the morning”

“Yes I do remember that one,” he had me, I was warming to the subject, “I had to sleep downstairs on the couch, the attic fan was off and it was a thousand degrees up in the bedroom. I remember reading by candle light. It was so hot and muggy that night. Very uncomfortable.”

“Yes, that’s the one I’m talking about,” he said. “You live in the Lakes? So do I. It was brutal. Where do you live?”

“On Lenape Trail,” I said wondering where this was going.
He looked at me, hesitated a moment and said, “Yeah, me too. I live on Lenape Trail.” We both stood there, on opposite sides of the counter, momentary silence between us. “How’s the tilapia,” I asked
“Oh everything is good, I put extra ice on as soon as we lost power, I’m used to the routine now.” He pushed off the counter top and scanned the case for the tilapia filets. “How much do you want?”

“Ah, give me a pound, please.” I said.

He reached in, grabbed a few long chunky pieces, tore off a piece of waxed paper from a huge roll behind him, slid the wrapping paper onto the scale and slapped the fish down on top. “About a pound and a quarter,” he said, “that okay?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, “make that two pounds, please.” I just remembered the girls, I was ordering for Linda and I, as I usually do. “Sorry about that.”

“No problem,” he said and reached into the display case for more fish. He looked up at me and asked, “Where on Lenape do you live?”

“On the corner of Lenape and Cheyenne Trail.” I said.

He stopped moving, froze for an instant, like someone asked him to answer a complicated math question. He put the extra fish down on the scale and moved back. “So do I,” he said hesitantly.

Okay, I know this boy doesn’t live at my house, so I begin to think back on the conversation to see where this all went wrong.

“Seriously, mister, I live on the corner of Lenape and Cheyenne too.” We looked at each other quizzically. “What corner,” he asked.

“I’m in the log home,” relieved that there are four properties at every intersection. How dumb, not to realize that. This wasn’t going to be a real life Twilight Zone episode, after all. Knowing I’m the only log home on Lenape Trail in that area, I felt fairly certain he must know which corner I’m on. And it’s impossible for him to spook me out again and say, “me too.”

“Ha, I live right across the street from you, I’m your neighbor in the brown house.” He said this with a big smile, like we’re connected, almost family.

How odd, I thought, that I’ve been in this house for seventeen years and don’t know my neighbor. That’s not natural, I felt embarrassed. He looked about the age of my son, So I asked where he went to school. Maybe he was a transfer, only just arrived in the Lakes.

“I went to Shawnee High School,” he said moving back to the scale to resume the business of selling fish.

I said, “So did my son, how old are you?”
He said “I’m twenty two. What sports did your son play?
“He played ice hockey and lacrosse, but he’s a couple years older,” I answered.
“I played baseball and football. What’s his name?”
I told him and he said he didn’t recognize the name, but that his sister was a couple years older than he was, went to Shawnee too, and that they probably knew each other. A lot of thoughts went through my mind, I mentally checked the other two corners from my property and realized that I only barely knew one of those families. We must be a neighborhood of recluses, how can that be? When I grew up, everyone it seemed, knew everyone else. Block parties, school mates, little league baseball, we were always running into our neighbors. I supposed it has to do with the multitude of youth activities, parents in tow, forced to mingle.

He wrapped up the fish, handed it over the counter with his left hand, and extended his right hand out, “Here you go, neighbor, two pounds of tilapia.” He had a smile as wide as his face.

And, so did I. “Well, thankee kindly, neighbor!” I grasped his hand firmly. “See you around town.” The two of us shook our heads, chuckled, and I begrudgingly headed off down the aisle to finish my shopping. What a happy coincidence!

I wanted to call my son up and relate this chance meeting. I wanted to say “it’s a small world, isn’t it,” but that doesn’t exactly fit here, does it, he wouldn’t know the boy either? We live no more than a hundred yards apart from each other for all these years, seemed baffling to me. Much the same as the conversation with the shopping cart attendant that didn’t quite make sense, I was having a problem compartmentalizing this one too. Maybe it’s me, not everyone else, that’s a little off today?

Published by James Calore

James Calore, a freelance writer was born in Philadelphia and raised in Southern New Jersey, where he currently resides in the midst of the Pine Barrens with his wife, Linda, and their pet boxer, Tyson.

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