Jersey tomatoes are still available, but they won’t be around much longer. Likewise, sweet corn. I felt the coming loss last Sunday while walking to the farmers’ market that stretches along Columbus Avenue by the Museum of Natural History. There was a light breeze. Temperature in the seventies. Low humidity. Cloudless blue sky. It was a day to “make glad the heart of man,” but it gave notice of change. I doubled up on corn and tomatoes.
T.S. Eliot found April to be the cruelest month. Yes, well, it can feel cruel, “mixing… memory and desire” as it does. But cruelest seems to be an overstatement. Anyway, why make season-change feelings a contest?
If one must rank seasons for cruelty, Shakespeare makes a good case for autumn by using it as a metaphor for impending death. “That time of year thou mayst in me behold/ When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang.” It’s the season “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.” Sure. But last Sunday at the market, with the promise of autumn in the air, it was possible to live in the moment. It was almost impossible not to. But, as Shakespeare notes, not simply.
It brings to mind (mine, at least) some well-known words of Scott Fitzgerald. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I prefer ‘good sense’ rather than ‘intelligence,’ but with regard to season change, the point remains. It’s more comfortable/less risky to feel the first day of a new season as either simply blissful or simply threatening.
In any case, the beauty of those rows and piles of fresh-picked fruits and vegetables was dazzling.
The market encourages social distancing with marks on the sidewalk for shoppers to follow like stage actors. The line that results is long, but it moves quickly, and no one seems impatient. It functions like timed admission at an art exhibit; there is not the crowding up to the bins and tables that was the rule before Covid-19. I like the orderliness of it, but I do rather miss the jostling and urgency and possibility of annoyance that used to be part of the experience. The big market at Union Square could be like a subway car at rush hour. Still, everyone was so taken with the pleasure of the new crop that the crowding tended to encourage a sense of solidarity – if you will – rather than competition.
These days, the way you obtain your purchases is different, too. Clerks on the other side of the display tables select for you your bell peppers, peaches, leeks, and so on. In supermarkets, shoppers sometimes riffle through every green bean in a three-bushel heap before settling on a few for the evening’s dinner. That’s not possible at the farmers’ markets during the pandemic, so the process goes faster. I like that better than being forced to wait and wait and wait to get my turn at the beans.
I would prefer to do my own choosing, of course, especially of tomatoes and apples. But it seems less important after last Sunday when I watched a young clerk pick four gala apples for me. He and I may have different ideas about what constitutes a best apple, but he carefully, rejected several, and that was enough for me; it was a tacit collaboration. This new way of getting stuff from display to carrier bag is uncomfortably similar to Russian and Swiss markets I’ve known. The 79th Street version is more acceptable, though. Maybe because it’s motivated by the need to protect against disease rather than a habit of regimentation. And besides, pursuing the common good even in this small way is as welcome as a perfect Honey Crisp.