Old Lady at Fine Fare

In the rush to leave the apartment, I didn’t have any time to get anything for breakfast. All I wanted was something small. A couple pieces of fruit. Whatever. So I dropped my bag in my office and headed back out to a fruit stand nearby. I love stopping there at lunch time, spending less than a dollar, and walking away with a handful. I decided I’d get a nectarine and a banana. Seventy-five cents. Easy.

When I got to the corner, the fruit stand was missing. Do fruit stand guys get the day off? I ducked into the grocery store a few doors down.

I grabbed a nectarine and a red plum, and going against my better judgment, I went to the other end of the store in search of a Red Bull or something to wake myself up. On the way there, I passed by the cookies and began browsing. I briefly considered picking up a package of fig newtons, but the bag was not resealable, and I didn’t want them to go stale in my desk, so I stashed it back on the shelf, admonished myself for even considering it, and began to walk off. At that moment, I crossed paths with a tiny old lady who seemed to be mumbling to me.

Her untamed hair was dark gray with a few leftover spots of auburn from the last unsuccessful die job, which, by the look of it, had been several months ago. She stood up straight but was quite small, the top of her head maybe reaching my chest. She wore a fur-like coat that a younger woman would have found far too warm on a 75° September morning. And around her waist was wrapped a wide sort of scarf tied at her side. It looked like the knotted sash of a geisha, but crossed with a quilted ironing board pad.

“Huh?” I said, stopping and leaning in closer, not entirely sure if she was talking to me or to herself. It looked like she was asking a question — something about the cookies. I looked at her, expectant, willing to hear it.

“Eh, do you speak English?” she asked. (Ah! New York!)

“Yeah,” I said, dumbly. As if this one syllable proved it.

“Excuse me, can you tell me if there is anything just plain here? I don’t want any flavor. I just want plain. What are those?”

She pointed at the package I had just put back, which was near a stack of strawberry-filled cookies.

“Oh, strawberries,” she continued. “I can’t have strawberries. That’s too much. Too sweet.”

I was charmed by her accent, which my Midwestern suburban upbringing allows me to describe no better than “little old Lower East Side Jewish lady.”

I scanned the shelves for something plain. I picked up a package of vanilla sandwich cookies.

“Do those have eggs? Milk? I don’t want eggs or milk. Just nothing in them. I need plain. I can never find the plain ones.”

I wondered if my striped shirt made me look like I worked there. My friend Richard once told me it made me look like a Young Republican. I supposed there wasn’t much further to go before I passed “caddy” and hit “grocery store manager.”

“I suppose you’re in a big hurry,” she said.

“Well, yeah,” I stammered. “Kinda.”

“Can you just read me the label? I can’t read the label. Can you just read the label and tell me if there’s anything plain? Just plain. No milk, no eggs or nothing.”

I turned over the package and began looking through the ingredients. I myself was surprised to find no milk. No eggs. Just a bunch of sugars, oils and various unpronouncables.

“This one is plain,” I reported. “No milk or eggs. Nothing. It’s safe. It’s vanilla flavored. Is that OK?”

I handed her the package for her to examine. She put it back on the shelf.

“Thanks. I have to check it out with someone who works here. Maybe they’ll know.”

I grabbed another package. Sugar wafers or something. The plainest thing I could think of.

“What about this one?” I said.

“What’s in it?” she demanded. “I have to my goddamn breakfast, and I can never find anything plain,” she said.

Ooh! — she has a mouth on her, I thought.

“Um… vegetable oils… sugar… flavoring,” I said, reading the label. “No milk or eggs.” What was I doing here?

“Hmm. Well. Thank you,” she said. “I need to find the manager or someone. I have to find something plain, and I can never find anything. And I have to have my goddamn breakfast. I can never find anyone who works here.” She put down the sugar wafers and walked off, Yoda-like, continuing to talk, with no one listening.

I was annoyed that she didn’t trust me. But whatever. It was too much for me to take on at the moment to find this lady something edible. I had to get to work, and had already taken far too long. Seeing no Red Bull in the beverage aisle, I made a bee-line to the checkout. I felt ridiculous buying only a plum and a nectarine.

I saw the lady down the aisle as I approached the register. I slowed my pace to avoid her, and she passed safely onward. As I entered the checkout lane, I saw her talking to someone who evidently really did work there. I set my two items on the conveyor belt.

Then she entered the lane behind me.

She weakly maneuvered her cart into the aisle, snagging the corner on a stack of hand baskets. I pushed them out of the way with my foot, or she’d never get past. Looking up at me she said, “Can you help me with these things? This milk is so damn heavy. It gets me every time, this milk.”

The cart contained a cylindrical container of oatmeal, two yogurt cups and a quart of milk.

No plain cookies.

I emptied her cart for her.

“I don’t like this place,” she said. “Everyone’s always in such a hurry. No one knows anything. I was asking him over there to help me find something, and he didn’t know where anything was. I don’t even think he spoke English. I said do you work here or not? And then he ran away. Such a damn hurry.”

I smiled at her, wishing the cashier would hurry.

“Most of the cashiers are mean, but this one is a nice one. I know the cashiers by their number.”

I glanced up at the cashier, who was studiously ignoring the woman.

“Sometimes they change lanes, but I know which ones I like,” she continued. “This one here is nice.” She gestured to the cashier sho was ringing up my fruit.

“Do you hear what I’m saying, señorita?” she called out, overpronouncing señorita and saying it too loudly. “Eh?”

After a pause, the cashier answered back, “Yes. You’re talking about cashiers.” She had heard this one before.

“When you leave here, which way do you go?” the little old lady asked me.

Not sure what she was asking or what she wanted, I told her I would turn right when I left the store.

“Oh! Can you help me to my building? This damn milk is too heavy. It’s very close. I’m just up the street. I hate coming to this place. Usually I go to my other place, but sometimes I come here because it’s closer. You can just walk me to the door maybe.”

How could I say no? She couldn’t lift a quart of milk. I wondered how she normally manages her groceries.

“Sure, I can walk you,” I said, hoping it was indeed quite close.

I paid for my produce ($1.04 — a remarkable sum for two small pieces of fruit) and watched as the cashier expediently rang up the four items. The old woman slowly fished a 20 out of her pocket book and extended it to the cashier, who had already counted out her change. She counted it back to her out loud. The old woman counted it again, slowly, deliberately, before restoring it to her purse. “I always have to count my change,” she announced.

Meanwhile, another woman packed the items into two doubled-up bags. Four plastic bags for four items!

Instead of continuing through the lane to leave the store, the woman leaned in and tried to strike up a conversation with the cashier, who dutifully went on about her business. I don’t even know what the woman was saying. I considered leaving. Had she forgotten that she asked me for help? That I was sort of in a hurry?

The cashier looked up nervously at me, a perfect stranger all but looming over a tiny old woman. I felt like I should explain that I was not waiting to jump her and take her money.

The nudging of the person behind her and the movement of the conveyor belt sort of ushered her along, and she gave up and moved on. Seeing me, she snapped back to attention and saw that I was holding her bags already, anxious to go.

“Ooh, don’t get your bag mixed up with mine,” she said. “I’m just up here a bit. Maybe you can take me to my door, and I can find someone else to help me.”

Outside, the sun shining through her thin hair, I saw how slow her movements were. I considered her frailty. I looked down at my own body. What a strange contrast. Every weekend I tackle and am tackled by large men in long stockings and rugby shorts. I bleed from the knees and elbows. I bang my head on the hard, packed dirt. My feet and legs ache. But I am young. I can do these things. She struggles with milk.

She stopped suddenly. “Now, I need to ask you something,” she announced. “Do you remember what I did with my change? Did you see me put it back in my wallet?”

“I don’t know if it’s in your wallet,” I said, “but I remember that you got your change and put it in your purse.”

She seemed satisfied.

“I don’t like that place. Too big. I can never find anything. And no one is around to help you. Does anyone work there? That manager is in such a damn hurry.”

I grunted a response. What will I look like when I am old, I wondered. What will I be unable to carry?

Half a block later, mercifully close, she veered along a fence toward the next building. “This is me up here,” she said.

I walked with her to the door. Held it when she opened it. She struggled with her keys. Tried twice before the door clicked open.

“Can you just take it up to the elevator?” she asked.

Fine, whatever. I followed her into the building to the elevator.

“Have you ever been here?”


“You know there’s an exit through here on the other side. You can get back out through that door. Did you know about that door?”

No. I saw the door she was talking about just through the lobby.

“Ah, well now you know. It’s like a shortcut. See, the next time you’re here, you can go out that door as a shortcut instead of going out the way you came in.”

The special door she was talking about was merely the main front entrance. We had come in through the side door. And why would I ever be here again, I thought. I gently set the groceries down on the floor, taking care that nothing tipped over and that she could reach the handles without bending. “Here you go,” I said. “The milk is here. And here is the other stuff.”

“Thank you so much. Oh, that milk is so heavy. Gets me every time. Thank you for taking the time to help me. I can get someone else to help me with this. I’ll wait until someone else comes along to help me.”

“OK, well have a good day,” I said. I turned to walk, waving good-bye as I walked toward the marvelous shortcut door.

She continued talking to me and laughing about something. Some kind of joke, I guess. But I knew better than to stop and listen in. I smiled and let out a short laugh in response.

Thirty minutes and $1.04 to get two pieces of fruit. I waited until I was out of sight before I checked my watch.


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