Senile Car Thieves and No Small Red Potatoes
February 1, 2000
A couple of Fridays back I set off to buy ingredients for a simple supper — a soup of small red potatoes, white beans, and fresh herbs, a side dish of roasted fennel and red onions, and whole-wheat bread. Nothing complicated there; nothing exotic about it. Unless you live in Riverdale, the Bronx.
From the outset the signs were ominous. I checked to see if we needed flour and found that what we had on hand was full of bugs. That right there should have told me something. We keep it in an airtight, one-gallon Calumet Baking Powder tin. Bugs could have gotten into it only if the shopping gods were messing with me.
I threw out the buggy flour and made a list. The first thing after whole-wheat flour was another sign. I’d need Parmesan cheese, and I was sure that the Parmesan I wanted — fresh Parmigiano Reggiano — was not available within a reasonable distance of the apartment. But I wasn’t about to go all the way into Manhattan just for that. I’d find something nearby that would serve. I still hadn’t heard the scary background music.
Rumor had it that there was an upscale supermarket in nearby Yonkers. Trouble was, I didn’t know its name or location. In the parking lot, I asked a neighbor about it.
“Whoa. Not me,” he said, throwing up his arms theatrically in a Yankee approximation of “me no Alamo.”
I have peculiar conversations with people in our building.
The other day, for example, I was coming out my door as the guy across the hall was coming out of his. He was carrying a medium-size box.
Not bothering with “good morning” or anything so insipid as that, he opened with, “You wouldn’t happen to work for UPS, would you?”
I sensed a trap. If I said no, he’d probably start a recruitment pitch. Good help is hard to find in these prosperous times. If I said yes, he’d tell about how the day before, a UPS truck had run over his dog and was I driving. I decided to take my chances with the truth.
“No,” I said.
“You sure?” he said. I hadn’t expected that.
So he’d get the impression that I was not tossing off the first response that popped into my head, I paused before answering and did my best to look like I was giving rigorous and exacting consideration to the matter. Then, I looked deep into his eyes and said slowly, enunciating carefully, “Yes.”
“Oh. My son’s in medical school.” On a previous occasion, he’d told me about the airbag being stolen from his car “right down in our own parking lot.” And another time the whole car had been stolen. “Lot of that around here,” he’d said. “It’s the nursing home across the street that’s the cause of it.” A horrific vision of thieves on Zimmer frames danced before my eyes.
I said I was in a dreadful hurry (suddenly, I was) and ran down seven flights of stairs before the guy got well into the part about his son, who was in medical school. Couldn’t risk getting stuck in the elevator with him.
Now, back to the neighbor in the parking lot who found my question about the Yonkers supermarket such a threat.
“What are you looking for?” The way he whined the question at me, I wondered if he might have a toothache. Or maybe his hemorrhoids were acting up. I marveled that my simple inquiry could have caused so much pain. I resisted the impulse to grab his labels and wallop him British-film style with, “Good God, man, get a grip.”
“Well, uh — groceries.” That was true, but it seemed a little abrupt. I searched for words to ameliorate my tone, lest I cause the man to have a total breakdown.
“The vegetables in the D’Agostino (the small neighborhood supermarket) are usually a little tired.” Like refugee camp rejects is what they are, but I didn’t say that.
“You from L.A?” he asked, one eyebrow arched and his head cocked to one side.
(See what I mean about having peculiar conversations with my neighbors?)
“No,” I said. I added quickly, “And I’m sure.”
“Oh. My friend in L.A. says, ‘you want fresh, I’ll show you fresh.’ He took me to a farmer’s market where the veggies still had dirt on them.” He paused and gazed off into space, no doubt reliving the wonder of that experience. After a moment, he sort of shook himself and returned to the there and then. “But I go to Foodville, that little shop down off Kappock.” Old Murray in Apt 8B had told me the same thing the day before.
I went to Foodville once. Let the word go out. There are at least two residents in my building who care not at all about the fully realized food experience. Foodville is 600 dimly lit square feet divided into three narrow aisles. It’s expensive. It’s dank and depressing and stuffed with slow moving people who prefer it to the slightly less unacceptable D’Agostino a few blocks away. Most are quite far gone in life’s eventide lethargy. And they’re deeply, awe-inspiringly querulous. If the New York kvetch was an Olympic sport, that depressing little store would be a medalists’ clubhouse.
About halfway to Yonkers is a supermarket I had not yet been to. I’d driven by, and it looked to be a little bigger and more promising than the D’Agustino, so I tried it. I strode through the automatic doors, list at the ready, my heart singing a song of hope. Silly me.
First — no small red potatoes. I settled on large white ones. (Large white potatoes are a poor substitute for small red ones.) Second, no scales to weigh out two pounds of them, which is what the recipe called for. I guessed. Third, no fresh rosemary or sage — just one package each of aging, dried-out thyme, oregano, and curly parsley.
I kept at it for about five more minutes, making one compromise after another and altering the recipe as I went. I visualized myself as Odysseus and tried my best to be clever, intrepid, and obdurate. But when I discovered whole-wheat flour was unavailable, I cracked. I turned my back on the shopping cart full of stuff, none of which was on my list, and walked away, never to touch it again. The way they run that store, it’s probably still right there by the dairy case, all covered with hairy, green mold. I may drive out one day and see.
Before leaving, I buttonholed the manager. His nametag said “Vinnie,” but out of embarrassment, he may have put on someone else’s badge. I was annoyed but not out of control. I could still speak. More disappointed than angry, really. I wanted to work it out. You let these things fester, you might go postal.
I outlined for Vinnie, or whoever he was, the various shortcomings of his store, then stepped back lest I might possibly have given offense. Nah.
Smiling, he said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”
I hate that question. I get it all the time. Why do people think it makes them superior that they’ve never been past the corner? That’s nothing to be proud of. At least Vinnie didn’t accuse me of being from L.A.
I went to the deli next door for a cup of coffee. A veteran waitress with hair of many colors slammed a plate bearing a partially eaten sandwich onto the counter of the service window. She shouted into the hole in a language not too dissimilar from English, “I told you, Manny, the customer wanted his corned beef from the fatty end.”
If one occasionally runs into grouchy people around here, it’s no wonder. The way they eat, it would be a medical miracle if they were not severely constipated. They’re backed up to their eyebrows.
I drove north into Yonkers, hoping I might just stumble onto the supermarket I’d heard about. I didn’t. I cruised for half an hour on streets lined with broken-down clapboard housing and broken-down buildings. It was a cloudy day, so everything was gray. Manmade structures blended into the sky with hardly any line of demarcation. Unseasonably warm too. Altogether unpleasant and unnatural. My impressions of the place were no doubt made darker by the darkness of the day, but even on the brightest day in spring, I’m pretty sure you’ll never hear anyone say, “My, isn’t Yonkers a pretty place.”
I tucked my tail between my legs and drove to the much-recommended Foodville. Alas, I couldn’t get in, it was that crowded with ancient shoppers. Word must have gotten out about what a swell shopping experience was to be had there.
Next stop, the Korean fruit and vegetable market across from the D’Ag. In truth, it’s sort of an OK place to shop. At least the stuff is displayed attractively. I hadn’t gone there in the first place because I’d hoped to avoid the small-and-crowded experience.
At this point, the shopping gods took a break from messing with me. It turned out the Korean shop had small red potatoes and most everything else I was looking for. And since only one checker was working and there were two registers, I was able to slip surreptitiously behind the counter and weigh my things. Most surprising, the D’Ag across the street had fresh rosemary and, in an impressive touch of magic realism in everyday Bronx life, even Parmigiano Reggiano.
The soup came out wonderfully thick and hearty, and the roasted onions and fennel in olive oil were pretty good, too. My bread was too light and white, though. I never did find any whole-wheat flour.