Days of Ripening
It’s fifteen minutes till closing when I hear the garage door open. Sal Monaco is making his delivery. I am filling out a deposit slip from the day’s receipts, and I must decide if I will stay with my usual routine of going out on the floor, which now means having a minimum fifteen-minute, mostly one-way conversation with Sal, or staying in the office, which would delay me putting away produce, as well as keeping people from coming in. I decide to face the music and say hi to Sal. I actually like his company. He tells good stories. But I have to stop what I’m doing to hear them.
“Hey, what’s going on,” he says as I emerge from the office. He’s dropping forty-pound cardboard boxes on the floor, pulling off tops, ripping away the thin plastic sheeting that ripens the fruit, putting the darker ones on top. He’s never called me by my name; I’m not sure if he knows it. “You had a half-box of ripe ones, I’ll give you that half price.”
“Okay, Sal,” I say. I never look at his bill.
“Railroad car was late today,” Sal says in his rough, gravelly voice.
“Yeah?” I say. Around us, there are less than a half-dozen people in the store, the usual assortment: a fifty-ish woman from the suburbs, with her long coat and dignified bearing as she scoops out tarragon from a quart ball jar into a paper bag; teenagers helping themselves to some heavy molasses cookies from out of the bakery display case; an elderly couple carefully selecting sweet potatoes.
“Yeah, temperature in Guatemala dipped down into the seventies, so Chiquita came up ninety-thousand boxes short.”
“Wow,” I say, looking around for something to do while I listen.
“Yeah, but I got my fruit cause I don’t shop around. Those guys know I got customers like you who don’t like Dole. You’re still boycotting them, right? So they made sure I got my Chiquita order filled.”
“They come by train?”
“Nah. I used to get a train car. One day I had six men waiting down at the yard for three hours. I figure the car is here, so I say to the yard workers, ‘Hey, when you guys gonna bring up my freight?’ ‘Whenever we feel like it,’ they tell me. So the next week me and three other guys go in together and buy a truck.”
“That’s great,” I say. I pull open the old massive door of the front walk-in cooler and pick up a bushel crate of apples.
“See, I like the unions, but they went too far.” Sal is built solid: squat barrel chest, short thick neck, tapered jaw, broad nose, bright blue eyes which drift off in thought as he tosses empty boxes in the back room. “They would come to companies here, National Biscuit, and say, ‘You do it our way or we’ll shut you down!’ So the company just leaves town.” He leans toward me and lowers his voice. “Did you know they had a fireman riding in the cab for years after they switched from coal to diesel?”
I say I didn’t know and start back into the cooler with another bushel of Ida Reds, but Sal is shaking his head, and I want to hear what he’s saying. He never shouts or raises his voice in the ongoing conversation with whoever happens to be standing nearby. “Running late tonight, again,” he says. Despite my intentions, I have to look at him for elaboration.
“Last week, when it first got cool down there I was late all week.” He comes over to me and lowers his voice a little. “Wednesday was my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. We were gonna go out to eat. I was late.” He shakes his head. “For two days I thought my wife was gonna leave me. On Friday, I made sure I got home early, brought her flowers, took her out. It worked.” He sighs, old pain in his eyes tempering his broad and chiseled smile. I take some cardboard boxes outside to flatten them and watch Sal drive away. The driver’s door has JOE MONACO & SONS on it. Joe is Sal’s father’s name as well as his son’s.
Those days I worked at a natural foods co-op on Monroe Avenue, found on one side of the first floor of an old Victorian firehouse. Faded brick on the outside—we steam washed it one year—and a sliding pole inside near the front, extending down through a sealed-off hole in the wooden ceiling.
We were a collective of five managers, who got low wages but set our own hours and vacation time, supervised members who worked for a discount. All vegetarian, all bulk in those days. No plastic, no sugar, no white flour.
Trish and I had just moved into the city. I’d dodged a bullet—literally—working as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Now I felt like I needed to prove who I said I was.
I got odd jobs as a landscaper and loading dock receiver before I started at the co-op. Trish found work at a daycare center. In my spare time, I read Henry Miller and watched, from the moraine that was Cobbs Hill, how Monroe Avenue snaked into the city. The corrupt, decaying world of Off Track Betting and massage parlors had grown out of an even older one, the earth and rock the great glacier had pushed forward, then left; but I felt young. We drove to rock festivals on weekends. Three Dog Night sang Road to Shambala on the radio. We had no money, but things were in reach. There was a path. Trish and I would go bicycling. Sometimes she rode in front; her breasts hung loosely in her halter top. I felt the world was mine.
The co-op was a busy place, a hub in the alternative community. Clustered in the two-story firehouse were pottery; printing press; vegetarian restaurant, Peace and Justice; Alternative Health Center, Gay Alliance. When some people in the health center got federal grants, which gave them salaries two or three times the norm for co-op businesses, there was an uproar. A series of meetings which lasted for hours ensued, with debate on issues like how much money people there should make—(not too much)—and should anyone be on the payroll of a government that had just finished up an immoral war in Southeast Asia.
Boycotts were popular: California grapes, Dole bananas. We helped support a handful of local startup businesses: Green Valley Yogurt, Sangha Tofu, White Tyger Tempeh. A family from the community started an ice cream brand, Cold Mountain. Word got around that the stranger they sold it to forced a woman to take him in her mouth at his place, a single mother everyone knew. Two women from the feminist community appeared at one of our managers’ meetings to demand that the store boycott Cold Mountain. The three women on the staff liked the idea; the two men, including myself, were less comfortable with it, as there were no charges and everything was hearsay. None of us, men or women, wanted to confront the guy.
Since our rule was that all major decisions had to have consensus, the issue never got resolved, like much else.
“Would you like to have a baby?” Trish asked. We lay on the bed, her fine brown hair falling over her gently sloping breasts.
“Sure, some time,” I said. I knew she wanted a baby, but she never pressed me about it.
One day she told me she was pregnant.
What can you do? Go with it was my guiding philosophy then. I bought a whole bottle of wine and drank it in solitude to commemorate my loss of freedom. Then I joined Trish in being accepted by the community as young parents-to-be.
To my surprise, our lives became more carnal, not less. Our sex diminished in frequency but not in fervor and lust. Her pregnancy was a signal that brought women’s sexuality perceptibly into the light, almost impersonally. I began talking knowingly with young mothers and pregnant women at the co-op while they filled their paper bags with beans and scooped out peanut butter into their own ball jars, about cramps and swollen breasts, water breaking and morning sickness, stages of labor and dilation. I felt comforted by them, part of the community. It seemed Trish’s pregnancy explained who we were. When she gave birth to Elsie, the store gave me three-weeks paternity leave.
One Sunday afternoon, (in those times, when the store wasn’t open for business) I was just locking up after bringing over some produce when a man on a bicycle asked me if the store had a bulletin board where he might find some postings for hostels. He said his name was Daniel, (accent on the second syllable), that he was from Chile. He was young, virile, dark, friendly and prematurely bald. I told him we had a spare room.
Daniel wound up staying for a few weeks. I was a poet in those days; he went to readings with us, showed understanding and interest in my work. We talked about Neruda and Vallejo, labor issues, capitalism, fascism, boycotts, grapes. He spoke of oppressive governments with familiarity. He also went to sauna with us.
Klaus Schwinn had a sauna and a swimming pool in his basement. I began to hear people talking about it in the store in a way that indicated Klaus was a naturist. One night, the wife of one of our store managers, Lee Ann, asked if Trish and I would like to go. We jumped at it. Like having a baby, it seemed to be part of a wave that was sweeping over us.
There was a kind of ritual for sauna night, which happened several times a week. People gathered in the living room as the sauna heated up. Guests sat down and talked, greeted each other or were introduced. I looked at women, anticipating their imminent nakedness. Klaus gave the signal when the sauna was fired up: he was the first to strip. He had a muscular body, with curly, leonine blonde hair and a beard, and we would follow him down to the basement, leaving our clothes upstairs, the smell of chlorine filling the basement stairwell.
We sat in the sauna, a wooden structure with enough room for about twelve people sitting close together on two tiers of benches on each side. In the middle of the floor was an enclosed heating unit, where Klaus occasionally tossed a ladle-full of water to make steam. When we’d had enough, we went out first to rinse off in the shower, then to the pool.
The abundance of children helped dampen the erotic potential of the occasion, but the presence of young nursing mothers did not. One night I left the sauna looking for Trish, and found her in an upstairs bedroom, lying on her side with her back to me, nursing Elsie. In the quiet upstairs semi-darkness, I saw her legs slightly bent together making a line that extended up her curvaceous behind. It was like I’d stumbled on a hidden grotto, a backlit dune in a sacred cavern.
From the beginning, I had noticed an absence of quiet at Klaus’ place. People always found something to talk about, even though they didn’t really have that much to say. In addition to the usual discomfort with silence, I decided that people were making small talk to keep Eros at bay. They weren’t really naked. A thin veil of verbiage was draped across everyone, just like that transparent plastic sheeting on Sal’s bananas to suppress oxygen. I wanted to preserve arousal and feel excited when I saw a woman naked. So I stopped going.
Those days I had a sense of being immersed in humanity, seeing hundreds of customers every day from the city to the sticks, urban women with overalls and suburban teenagers with piercings, a new wrinkle then. Many were also working members whom it was my job to supervise. Biking home on a busy Saturday, I felt bathed in the blur of human beings, thinking it would all make a great novel or epic poem once I was able to grab it out of the air and put it all down. I had been a shy and introverted only child. How unexpected it was, to be so unreservedly among people!
I never invited anyone home, only Daniel, a stranger I had happened to bump into. I never went to anyone’s house, except for meetings or potlucks. I had a few friends, mostly writers, but no one from my life at the store. And no one from Trish’s life at the daycare center. She would suggest having people over, but I didn’t want people intruding on my free time. I especially didn’t want to get together with married couples with children.
I thought that Trish’s desire for company was a sign of neediness. She wanted to slip into some kind of unconscious leisure cycle. I wanted to be aware every minute. Family and friends were part of the cycle I wanted to break through.
It was as if I needed to keep other people distant enough so I could see them, and not let them slip into the unconscious world of myself, which I unavoidably shared with my family.
I pictured myself as an outsider, in but not of the co-op, offering a helping hand as long as people didn’t get too close. Daniel was a friend with clear limits; he would leave one day.
Sometimes after a reading, we would talk about the CIA, how it had supported and trained Allende’s assassins. Or about what the Contras were doing in Nicaragua, in Guatemala.
I didn’t know all the places where Daniel went while he stayed with us. He got around a lot on his bicycle. Sometimes I thought I played the part of the generous, tolerant host to the eccentric wanderer. Sometimes I thought he was just more serious than I, that he had a plan.
Although politically aware, he was anything but strident. I was never sure if he was quiet from laconic personality or lack of English, but he could go seamlessly from ruminating anger to subtle self-reflection. One day I had been needling him about his baldness, and he said, “Do you worry that in twenty years, you will lose your hair?”
I laughed, and said, “In twenty years, I will have other things to worry about.” But in my mind, I thought, I can’t imagine twenty years ahead, as if the coming millennium had already given me a concussion.
Daniel was circumspect about his plans, but he intimated he might try to do some union organizing in Central America.
After he left, Trish brought up having another child. This time I drew the line. “We can just barely get by now,” I said. She didn’t push it with me, and it was hard for me to tell how strongly she felt about it. She didn’t like to argue.
I wrote a poem about Sal Monaco which got published in a nationally known journal. My friends laughed at the line, “He brought her flowers, and she changed her mind.” I have since thought of that line many times. What was I saying? These working folk are simple people: they get angry, but are cheered by flowers?
I didn’t know what it was I felt with Sal. Sometimes, scorn. What kind of life did he have, penny-ante produce business, working sun to sun, like my own construction supervisor father. Working so late, when did he have time for culture? I didn’t want my life to be swallowed up like his, I wanted empty pockets of air, I wanted time to be bored, to reflect, to have slow sex.
I thought he was anti-union without wanting to admit it. But when he told me how many deaths occurred at the East Rochester train crossing for years until they put in a signal when the company president’s son got killed, I knew he cared.
I never imagined what I now know to be true, that, even if he didn’t know my name, he knew me better than I knew myself.
All I knew was that Sal told stories and I listened.
“You can’t get good help these days,” he’d say. “I once had a guy, I told him, ‘put out produce in the display cooler,’ I came back twenty minutes later, he’d put out two tomatoes, two heads of cabbage, two bunches asparagus, I said, ‘What do you think this is, the Ark?’”
After thirteen years at the Food Store, I decide to go back to school, get my graduate degree and go into teaching. I feel lucky to get a scholarship since Trish and I have saved nothing. One night in the store, two weeks before I am to leave, Sal Monaco drops by. My shifts have changed, I haven’t seen him in a while. He lets down a box, slower, holding himself a little more carefully when he says, “How ya doin?”
I tell him about my plans. He wishes me luck, but his broad face has a rigidity I haven’t seen.
“My back is giving me problems, I can’t bend at the waist like I used to,” he says.
“Do you have a chiropractor? I know a good one.”
“I’m seeing this guy. He’s a Filipino.” He motions across the street. “I been going every day after work.”
“Wow, you must really be getting home late.”
“Yeah, well, my wife left me.”
“No.” I think of my poem, his flowers.
“Yeah. One day she was just gone. Went to Florida.”
“Last fall. She just flipped out. Won’t come back for nothing, family reunions, her kids, see her granddaughter. She just went crazy.”
I take a moment to absorb this. “What about Joe? Were they close?”
“Not really.” Sal surveys the Thursday evening customers as they pick over the zucchini and delicata squash. “He quit driving for me, you know. Got a job with Zappa brothers. My rival. Can you believe it?” he says with a pained smile, shaking his head.
I take a breath. “So, you still living in your old house?”
“Yeah. I’m not there much.” We continue talking while I register all of this new information. I feel bad for him, but I have another feeling, dull and insinuating, just barely registering: it’s something you did, Sal. I’m not like that, bad things won’t happen to me.
In spite of his stiffness, he still has the glint in his eye and the tone in his voice that says You gotta keep going no matter what happens. Then his tone softens and his face relaxes a little.
He tells me when his wife left him, he found a Seneca-Iroquois girlfriend, Ursula, barely out of her teens. He says she was on drugs, but he got her to turn things around.
“She says, ‘Sal, you’re the one,’ with this look in her eye. I’m not kidding myself, I say, ‘Ursula, you get it together so when the right young man comes along you’ll be ready.’ When she’d say, ‘we gotta go out and score,’ I’d say, ‘Whaddya mean? Let’s just go out and have a good time.’ Oh, sometimes I’d smoke a little weed with her and her mom, but then I’d say, ‘tonight let’s just all go out to a nice restaurant.’ Her mother loved me. Ursula would say, ‘Sal, you made me find something good in myself.’”
I become a teacher. I never publish another poem. Trish starts volunteering at the Peace and Justice Center. It helps us keep in touch with the community and alive to the greater things in the world. One night she comes home distraught. Her eyes are moist, but there is a ghastly light in them. I look at her without speaking.
“I heard a terrible thing today.”
“What did you hear?”
“He was trying to organize some poor workers on a banana plantation in Guatemala. He was taken by the government. They found his body yesterday. There was torture.”
This is distressing and sobering—but I think, it’s been seven years. Trish is not sobered, but in manifest grief.
I lie by her side, both of us awake until she says what I have guessed. “I loved him.”
“What do you mean, how?”
“I mean, how? How did you love him? Did you love him with your body?”
“I loved him.”
In the morning, I’m putting on my tie in silence in front of the closet mirror. I have lost most of my hair. She sits down on the bed. “One morning, after you had gone to the co-op, I came in to see if he wanted coffee. The covers were off, he just woke up, he was erect. He just smiled at me. That was the first time.
“And... one time later, at the sauna, after everyone had gone upstairs. Those were the only times. I never felt unfaithful to you. I felt I had more than enough love for everybody.”
I feel an anger impossible to express. The line I walked, the lust I suppressed. I don’t touch her, or let her touch me for two weeks.
And then something snaps, and I try to put it back, but it’s gone. It’s not there. After I stop being angry, she takes Elsie and leaves.
The co-op was not a place where one was angry. I felt my role was to manifest a rational, enlightened state of mind. After I started working there, I began to meditate. It was in the air. It allowed people to paper over certain feelings. Just as the sauna could obscure sex—at least for some people—so did meditation eclipse anger, as if all one had to do was to sit with the idea of oneself sitting. Sometimes this idea or self-image was loud enough to deafen ears to the roar of anger at one’s own life. And bright enough to blind you.
Trish’s confession was the slap that made me see. I am glad she gave into that impulse to show love, which I now see I wasn’t giving her. But if I had allowed myself to show anger, maybe I could have also shown forgiveness. By restricting that one emotion, I put the kibosh on the emotional life I thought I lived. I had imagined I was in the classroom, but I was still back at the old firehouse.
This is how it was: there was an esoteric secret in the world I imagined I knew about, a knowledge that put me slightly apart from people around me—even the ones who shared the secret! All the religions confirmed it, pockets of wisdom, such as Blake’s locating eternity in the moment between the heart’s pulsations, substrata churchgoers didn’t get, I thought, how could I ever be angry at anything or anyone? How petty, the affairs of humans!
What I didn’t understand was that this pulsation, the breathing that went with it, is exactly what made me not separate from people around me; that the secret was not above or beyond the affairs of humans; that my idea that I understood this arcane fact of existence crippled my ability to experience it, or anything else. I was standing on the riverbank, feeling the turbulence of everyday life beneath my feet, but barely able to register it, much less express it, so intent was I on keeping what I thought was perspective, as if getting upset would take this fragile truth I had cobbled together and blow it up.
I keep on teaching and remarry. Once when I go to the market and ask about Sal, I learn he has died.
A week before Christmas, well before dawn on Saturday, the market is full of people. Buyers and vendors mingle around kerosene heaters under long corrugated roofs, misty clouds forming around their open mouths. Local Yukon golds, late broccoli picked last night, Cortland apples, empire, golden delicious. Knit caps with flaps and tassel balls, lemons from California, Mexican asparagus, apple cider and cabbage and wallets. “There are those wallets!” a woman says.
But nowhere is it more crowded than here under the shed, where the line for Ray’s flowers extends past the bagel sellers, cake vendors and fish peddlers, past the produce dealers, where Florida size 90 lemons sell three for a dollar forever. There’s another woman who sells flowers, but Ray has the freshest product, comeliest arrangements and best prices, so people are willing to come early and wait.
What Ray does not have, however, is business sense. “He didn’t get my wreath done yet?” says a large black woman in elegant hat and fur coat who is in front of us.
“He’s working on it,” says Ray’s assistant, bending down under the corrugated door to get back outside where Ray is assembling wreaths in his van.
“I have to go to yoga,” my wife Lorraine says.
“Go ahead,” I tell her. “I’ll get them.” We have brought two cars for this possibility. Her sister and husband are coming the day after tomorrow.
“Bye,” she says, giving me a kiss. “Don’t forget you said you’d clean out the garage.”
“I won’t,” I say.
“I don’t have time for this,” says the woman in fur, as we wait for Ray’s helper to come back. “It’s not ready, I’m going somewhere else.”
The assistant brings in a wreath.
“That’s not what I ordered,” the woman says.
“We can add to this.”
“I didn’t order that. I wanted some of those African things.”
The assistant goes back to Ray. “Don’t buy what you didn’t order,” the woman says to me and leaves.
I have to wait another twenty minutes, but it’s worth it, as I walk out with a bouquet of snapdragons, exotic lilies and flowers I don’t know the names of, feeling rewarded for my trust that Ray would put together something exceptional with the sketchiest of direction. I now attract the attention even of those who are not expecting, nor looking for, beauty. I don’t really know what I have—I have never liked flowers that much—but I can tell it’s remarkable from the way people notice me.