“IN THE LAND OF MANY KINDS OF APPLES”
by Jessica Kuzmier
It's not quite ten in the morning. But I'm already tired. First thing today, I cleaned out my entire refrigerator. It's a weekly ritual of clearing out burgeoning science experiments that once had lives as leftovers and fresh produce. This is done before I go food shopping. Now I'm in the grocery store, the next step of the rite, ready to collect the next generation of delectables To be exact, I'm in the produce section. It's only the beginning of the shopping trek. I'm already drooping like I haven't slept in six days.
I'm not alone in this suffering. A young stock boy is unloading bananas. His shoulders dip forward like he is ready to take a pike dive, even though by the rest of his body, it looks as though he's intending to stand up straight. I'm not sure if he is a college student with a part-time job, or if he went to work straight from high school. He looks like he's put in too many hours, even this early in the morning.
There is a woman in the store. She's on a mission. Moving like she's trying out for a Home Shopping Spree marathon, she maneuvers her cart with the agility of a NASCAR driver. Her short grey curly hair is a perfect circle around her face. She's dressed in casual slacks. But their informality doesn't match her style. It's easier to picture her in a business suit. She's looks like the kind of teacher in school that you were surprised to see in the movie theater on weekends. Like, she exists in normal life? Hence, this lady.
The woman marches up to the stock boy. "Are the bananas ripe this time?" she inquires. Her voice surprises me, given the persona I've created for her. It is almost a whisper. She smiles at him like she is the young man's mother, concerned that he left for work without eating breakfast.
As I reassess my perceptions of her, I forget for a second to eavesdrop on them. I want to eavesdrop because I'm interested in the bananas as well. Last week's bananas didn't work for me either. They're now in a bush in my backyard, posing as bird food. I only like my bananas yellow, thank you. I wonder I've missed his response trying to recollect my perceptions. I haven't.
The stock boy answers her without looking up from his work, though he slows down to concentrate on his reply. He sounds like he's encountered too much voice mail. "The bananas are better this time around," he says. The old batch never did ripen, he explains, not any of them. They had to dispose of the entire shipment. The woman sighs and gets her new bananas, which are already yellow. The stock boy changes his station to the Land of Many Kinds of Apples. Sometimes these things happen, and you have to replace the old with the new. What can you do but move on?
After I grab my share of yellow bananas, I move onto the grapes. I like the seedless type. I've been taking to eating the darker ones because I've heard they have more antioxidants than the lighter ones. I select a bag of black ones. Near me, there's a sign that announces "5 a Day", written in brilliantly colored letters. The brighter the color, the sign informs me, the more cancer it fights. A thin man that appears to be in his fifties walks by with his cart. He passes by the produce section and proceeds to the checkout line. His cart contains ginger ale, white bread, and a chocolate cake. He doesn't seem to notice the "5 a Day" sign.
I spend some time in the produce section filling up my cart. Being as exhausted as I am, it takes awhile. In the meantime, more people have entered the store, strolling and rolling past me. They look like the usual suspects, doing the usual chores, buying the usual things that are constituted as the usual staples in the American diet. Nothing special. After all, this is only a grocery store in the middle of working class America. It's not like this is going to the Ritz Carlton or something exotic. Just a day at the grocery store. Potatoes, bread, cold cuts and some obligatory green stuff fill up the bottoms of various carts. Then their new owners go pay for it, and leave. Just a chore to check off in the grocery list of Things To Do In Real Life. I am no different than they are. I'm looking forward to get this stuff over with so that I can go home and do other stuff. Nothing special.
I'm just packing up the last of my produce, a bag of cucumbers, when two people catch my eye. Two men are talking by the Land of Many Kinds of Apples. Or rather, one man is talking, while one is listening. The man talking appears to be in his sixties, his height nothing that would make him stand out in an American crowd. He gestures at the various bins of apples as he speaks. And he's smiling, unlike most of the people I've seen today. The second man could be about thirty. His skin is darker, the color of a luminescent night. He is shorter than the other man.
And he is listening. His attention zeroes in on the various apples being pointed out to him. For a brief moment he looks around him, taking in all the scenery. I've seen that look before. When I used to visit New York City, you could sometimes tell the first-time sojourners by the way they observed the buildings around them. They'd be looking up and around instead of the direction they were walking. It was like wow, I have really arrived. That is the look that is on this man, as he takes in the Land of Many Kinds of Apples, as well as the Tribute of Red, White, and Blue Potatoes. Not to mention the Organic Section, which is not to be confused with the Exotic Fruit Section. Mangoes can be found in both sections. Depends if you want to pay more to avoid sprays. Your choice.
I look with him, and suddenly see how much there is around me. And this is only the produce section. We haven't even gotten to the bakery section with the freshly baked rolls, bagels, and about twenty kinds of cake. There are shelves of bread waiting to be bought. Then the deli section. The fish section. And all the selections that go along with each category. You could spend all day shopping for food in this store. Not only that, there are two other supermarkets in the area that offer the same kind of bounty. And this is just another blue collar area of the United States.
Recently, I read in my daily paper about how a local church took in a family from Sudan, a married couple with two young children. The family were refugees from the fallout of the civil war there. The essay was a short piece, talking about the family's struggles to make a new life, and how volunteers from the church were helping them make the cultural shift. I wonder if the man listening by the Land of Many Kinds of Apples was the person featured in the article. But I don't ask. I resume shopping while the men continue their discussion in the produce section.
I think of the men as I move to the bakery section, and get the rolls I need. I remember a story I read about the Lost Boys. In the story, some young Sudanese men were sponsored by a Christian group to come and live in American homes. The group was trying to give the men a chance at a life of freedom. Men their age were being forcefully recruited as soldiers in a brutal war where nothing ruled but carnage. Food shortages ruled in the refugee camps they had spent days reaching. But then they were chosen, a few among many, to live in the United States. One of the most fascinating things the young men encountered when they reached their host country was the American grocery store. In particular, they were bowled over by the pet food section. The American pet had more choices in one day than their families had in a year.
I finish my grocery shopping about an hour later. I take my cart to the checkout counter. It is full of produce, meat, fish, rolls, canned soup, milk, and cheese. There are also paper towels, and plastic bags. Cans of Seafood Fillets for my cat. Bologna for my dog. Extras such as prepared entrees, potato chips, cereal bars, and cookies. Next week, I will be doing it all over again.
It's almost eleven o'clock now. It's still early in the day. People are coming in as I leave. The local bus drops off senior citizens, college students and other assorted people at the store so they can buy whatever they need. I'm done shopping for the day. I have enough. And I don't feel as tired anymore.