Postcard from New York VII: The Village Grocer

Some mornings, you wake and it is as if the air holds a secret - all is crystalline and bright, the overlapping edges of past and present sanded smooth as sea-glass. Other days, the sky is forced ajar. Normal pleasures - conversation, music, food - barely impact, they are flimsy panaceas from the dull lag, points on a surly clock face. You want to just crawl back under the covers and disappear. You want to be 6 years old again, warm, sleepy and safe. Or failing that, you want to be numb. When the night falls, it gets easier. Candles are lit, glow worms populating the room. Tea comforts. There is a surrender that comes easier during these hours. I have rituals on days like these, to try and impose some kind of order; one is a visit to the Village Grocery. There are about ten similar shops a stone's throw from my apartment, and maybe it's an odd criteria for choosing a place to buy food (price, quality and hygiene come lower on the list) but me, I spend my dollar at the friendliest store. At the counter is a young Chinese girl dressed in a fleece and an apron, who like a charming dictator bosses around the small Mexican men who work on the shop floor. 'Gustavo! You need to water the lettuce, it droop again!' 'Anastacio, where are frijoles?'. She's obviously smart and sweet but has a wry air about her that makes her 25 going on 60. I see her one day as an exacting university lecturer, whopping her lazy student's asses. "Are you sure you want this tomato/avocado/banana?" she always asks, furrowing her brow at a bruise or an over-ripe spot that went totally unnoticed by me. She also likes to precisely sort my purchases into different sized paper bags, leaving aside the most delicate items for last. I would not want to work for her.

'Do you ever get a day off?' I asked her this evening. I couldn't think of a time that I hadn't seen her there. She explained she was in the middle of paying her enormous college loans, but yes, Saturday was her one day off. 'I disappear! You don't see me for dust!' We'd said our goodbyes and I was just heading out of the door when she suddenly spoke: 'Thank you for asking though...I really do appreciate it'. Sadness brushed her face, then she said sincerely, 'Nobody does ask that, and well...I am happy you did'. It was unexpected and touching. I temporarily stepped out of the shadows of my own life and into a stranger's, whose sorrows are little known, only partly divulged. And whilst sadness still aches and stings, in the moment it appears as something that is common to us all it is also shorn in that same moment of the painful, personal versions we hold so tightly to our chests. I left with my collar high to keep the brisk wind out, heavy and lopsided with carefully packed shopping but a little lighter than before.