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As I told you, we went to Pike Place Market in Seattle last weekend. It reminded me of an essay I wrote almost twenty years ago. So here, from the archives, is "To Market".
Grocery shopping. Oh Lord, deliver me from this torment…from the unmitigated assault upon my senses. “No honey, I’ll just stay home and clean out the garage, mow the lawn, and repaint the family room. You go ahead and do the grocery shopping.” I smile, pleased at the wonderful bargain I have made. Once again I am spared the rows of endless products stacked nearly to the ceiling, the hurry and jostle of overworked women with overtired children who push and threaten me with their wire grocery carts filled to overflowing with shrink-wrapped hamburger, cartons of ice cream, a month’s supply of toilet tissue and a myriad of life’s necessities. Once again I do not have to stare, dumb-founded in the cereal aisle at a procession of breakfast foods that promise to supply the RDA of nineteen vitamins or boxes which also enclose 3-D baseball cards. How can I ever choose just one box of cereal? Other shoppers hurry by and seem to have no problem nabbing the perfect variety. They glance at me with disdain as I examine first one, and then another. Finally I move on in frustration with my empty cart to the dairy case with the flashing neon light announcing the latest price of eggs.
There are no smells here. Everything is sanitized, sterilized and sanctified. Heaven forbid that I should smell the fish as I walk by their refrigerated case. There is no aroma of spices…they’re all hermitically sealed to ensure a three year shelf life. Even the smell of freshly ground coffee is whisked away by the powerful fans that exchange it with canned, filtered, stale air.
Over the intercom, a tired voice announces that Jerry is needed at check stand three. The voice is replaced by tired Musak that has been scientifically tested to make shoppers buy more.
I jostle for position in line at the check stand. I have more than eight items. Damn. It’s my turn. The checker chants, “How are you?” without looking up or waiting for an answer. He deftly propels my food across a scanner and neatly stacks it in a brown paper bag. A robotic voice announces the total. My money is taken; I grab my bag and run for the door. And I am free.
Pike Place Market.
Ah, what a feast for the senses. Yes, there are jostling crowds, but no one has metal grocery carts here. I don’t mind a bit of body contact; the clamor of marketers getting a little closer to get a better view of the giant strawberries that look so perfect they must be made of wax. These perfect strawberries are nestled in amongst the rows of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and fresh nuts that parade with endless colors along the sides of the market. Hand lettered signs are poked here and there announcing the lowest price to be found in the market.
But what is this? The stall across the aisle has red peppers for twenty cents less. Ah, but the little lady tells me confidentially, “My peppers are better…they are fresher…just picked. Don’t be deceived by a little less money. You will taste the difference. Mark my words.” And of course I buy the red peppers from the little lady knowing all the while I’m paying too much. But, I pay for the pleasure of the conversation and because I just adore her twinkling green eyes.
The fish monger shouts at me from his stall. “What can I get for you, ma’am? I can pack your fish to send anywhere in the world. I have the freshest fish in the market.” I believe him and I want to buy some fish to send to someone somewhere in the world. I settle for steamer clams to take home for a private feast. The fish monger throws my bag of clams to an equally noisy man behind the counter who deftly catches it and plunks it down on the scale. “That will be $7.60,” he thunders.
“Whose are these anyway? Not that I care. I just want the money.” I claim them and hand over my money with glee. Then I tuck my precious parcel wrapped in the daily newspaper in my bag and turn to survey the rest of the market. Let’s see, I have my peppers and I have my clams. What else do I feel like eating? I’m not planning for the week. I’m planning for the moment. My companion announces that we need some bread. We peruse the market. No, nothing strikes us as being just right. But there is some intriguing looking apple cider. Is it hard cider, we wonder? Instantly a voice behind the counter says, “I can answer that. No! But taste it.” We are given a wee sample of the “most popular kind.” And with the taste come memories of lazy summers spent in the shade of an ancient Mackintosh apple tree munching on its tart fruits. Yes, we will buy some apple cider. “Serve it well chilled,” our helpful friend tells us, “and it will keep three weeks in the refrigerator after opened. Enjoy.” We will.
Across the street we go to the French bakery. Here are baguettes that are just what we need. The boy stuffs the long, skinny thing into a paper bag that fits it like a glove, I tuck it under my arm, and off we go.
My companion, who is from Lebanon, spies a shop dealing solely in Middle Eastern foods. He almost dances through the door. And at the door we are met with delicious smells of spices and herbs and foods that are not prepackaged in hermitically sealed containers, but are placed in jars and bins for the entire world to see and smell and behold.
I can’t identify these smells, but by the look on my companion’s face, he has been transformed to his boyhood days in Beirut, just as I was transformed to lazy days beneath the apple tree a few moments ago. He sees za’atar, a spice that he has not tasted in years. “Two ounces, please,” he says to the little dark woman behind the counter, “and can you tell me what the English word for za’atar is?” We find out that there is no English word for za’atar. It is just za’atar. He opens his little brown paper bag of precious spice before we reach the street; he sticks his nose in the opening and breathes deeply. He breathes in the air of his childhood, he breathes in the air of a world that no longer exists, and sighs contentedly. Ah, yes.
We are done at the market. We have our dinner in our arms, yet we are filled before we eat.
Wait! On the way back to the car we see an intriguing import market. We pass its door, we turn back, and enter. I make a show of looking around, but I have seen a chair as I entered the door that I must have. “Would you mind,” I ask my companion, “if I bought a chair? Do you think we could carry it?” Slightly bemused, he nods. A hurried exchange of goods takes place. I take the bags of food (“careful, the apple juice might break”), and he lugs the chair back to the car. Our marketing, and our day, is complete.
It seems to me that there are basically two ways to approach our tenure on this planet. We can choose a sterile, sanitary, and safe existence. We can obtain life in pre-packaged units that satisfy our basic needs. We can pummel and beat and mould life into whatever we want.
Or we can choose to let life overtake us. We can ride the tide, appreciating our existence and the quirks and aromas and variety.
We can pick and choose as we please. But me?
I choose to market.