In Queens, we tend to travel together. If you ride the 7 train, it is a regular thing to see clumps of friends squished on the cramped seats of the subway. Sometimes we are so tired, we are talking to each other with our eyes closed. In especially significant parts of a story, we will open them.
We carry each other’s bags, we lean on each other’s shoulder, we push pieces of food from what we have brought along into a friend’s hand.
It was odd that I was at the grocery store alone. Normally, my friend Mary and I take the train to Jackson Heights for the Patel Brothers. We grab one cart and then fight about whose is what at the check out. Then we break for bryani before we go to one more shop for $2 for 2 samosas with a green coconut chutney to take back home. But Mary is visiting her mom in the South of India. So I took the 7 the opposite direction to Times Square, because I would miss her too much to go Jackson Heights without her.
I changed for the 2 train and got off at 72nd for Fairway. It could have been the hour, about 3 pm. That time when old people rush out to do an errand before it gets dark at 8:24.
As soon I got in the door, I could hear two different, very loud, very personal conversations happening on the phone. Two women, one poking her way through the soft tomatoes, squeezing them and dropping them in search for something that wasn’t there and the other at the fresh peas. She had a wireless, which left both hands free to split and eat them. Loads of them. I couldn’t believe it. I looked at her over my glasses the way you do when you are trying to get people to regain control or at least decorum, but she looked right at me and could have cared less.
Another one came wheeling towards me. Tiniest bit of grey roots showing, but the rest of it was the exact jet black of the stripes in her jumpsuit.
She had glasses on too. “You would think,” she said, that someone could have this kind of conversation at home.”
I thought that maybe she had mistaken me for someone else. She definitely didn’t look familiar, but she came closer and it was me she was talking to, without a doubt. She demanded my attention, so I gave it to her. I nodded. I could see the mascara she had put on, possibly the night before. She took a pea, looking at the phone talker. “They should have banned those things,” she said. Not quietly, either. I smiled and put peas in a bag to try and break the tension, and encourage paying for the food. She was quiet for a minute, tried another pea, forgot about me, started to walk away, and then came back, hand in the air. As if I were a manager refusing to log a complaint or her daughter. “She has been on that thing since she got here; why do they think we want to hear what they have to say?” I lifted my eyebrows. I find a wordless response to be the most diplomatic sometimes.
She left me.
Another one shoved her cart in the six inches between me and the vegetables and stood in front me, groping the eggplant.
It was a whole different kind of shopping.
They were alone and stayed alone. They talked as if they were alone, stole as if they were alone, and tried to grab things from a top shelf when they stood no more than 5 feet in heels without even looking around to see if there were any tall people.
A twenty year old huffed at me for blocking the aisle.
I laughed and joked about my wide load and she rolled her eyes.
Then it happened to me. Walking along, adrift in the choice of chickens—it is not like that at Costco—I lifted a teeny, tiny bird. A one pounder and to be clear, a chicken. The label said chicken. Not squab. Not quail. Not even organic. Seventeen dollars and fifty six cents. I waved the chicken around. “Did you see this”? I said. To nobody. “It is seventeen dollars and fifty six cents! Look at it! Look at the size of it! Who is buying this?”
The eye roller pushed past with her irises in full swing. The butcher didn’t even look up. He is too used to it.
I collected myself and threw the chicken in my cart. I chalked the whole thing up to osmosis and carried my bags back to Queens.
At least my roots weren’t showing.
On the menu:
Little Chicken al diavolo
meatballs in sauce
String beans with garlic and sea salt
Eggplant with something..haven’t figured it out