Nora rode a Raleigh bike. It was black and basic–three gears, hand brakes, a pump for the inevitable punctures. A gray leatherette bag hung from the handlebars. Every day or every other day she’d ride into town for “messages.”She would return with some muttonchops and rashers, the day’s provisions, staples and necessities, ten Woodbines for Tommy, Maguire & Patterson matches, and a newspaper. The spuds and onions and cabbage all came from the haggard out the back door beyond the whitethorn trees. The eggs came fresh from her own hens. Bread she made–plump loaves of soda bread, crossed like a good Catholic, baked in her covered cast-iron pot with turf coals on the bottom and on top. Milk was their business. Every now and then she’d kill a goose.
But it was that trope, “going for messages,”–not marketing, not shopping–that best described the difference between the “custom” in West Clare and “consumers” in Michigan.
By then in America we went to “super” markets for the stuff that filled the back of cars with a month’s provisions and spent the time at the checkout watching the charges as the clerk rang them up, or rummaging for the coupons, or sighing in commiseration with our fellow shoppers and sellers fro whom the transactions had become just work, just getting it–the money and the stuff. In trade for “messages” we got discounts, “paper or plastic?” and “have a nice day,” all in the one monotony of corporate good manners. The market is common, global, and dull. We buy in bulk, bank by machine, and couldn’t care less about the name on the sign. More and more, we point and click our way past any human interaction.
Nora came home the long road from Kilkee with a small bag of things–a day’s worth of perishables, a night’s worth of news–her messages. We return bulging with our bags and boxes of stuff–our newer faster brighter bigger better-than-ever-right-priced stuff–laden and empty, grim and wordless.
–Thomas Lynch, _Booking Passage_
For the first time in what seems like months, Twin Peaks is unblurred by the fog. I’ve missed its humps, which last night were as sharp as my reply to my mother when she asked–again–if the weather was hot in California. (I was instantly sorry, but didn’t say.)
I walk up brown Bernal Hill and look down over the city, out to Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands, and over to Twin Peaks again on the left. The first Bay Bridge carries people to Target and IKEA. Next to it, the second Bay Bridge is still a disappointed pier. The other major landmarks, or maybe timemarks, are two giant billboards, one pink, one blue. In silhouette, a man and a woman fling their arms in solo bliss, a mile or two apart on Highway 101. They are slender, oblivious, and plugged up. I want to rip them both down, but instead I strike an aerial X through each one, and skip to the next John Prine song on my own goddamn Shuffle. We are mistaken, the iPod ciphers and I. The yellow labrador and the Maltese sniffing each other’s arses by the park bench have it right.
At the bottom of the hill, where the freeways tangle, the Bernal Farmers’ Market gathers every Saturday. You can buy heirloom tomatoes for $3 a pound from the white farmers, or disposable tomatoes for fifty cents from the Mexican growers. The Vietnamese sell flats of duck and quail eggs, and knocked-up chicken eggs. There are lemon cucumbers and cling peaches and honeycombs and tamales, and Vietnamese herbs “for diabetes.” It’s a hike to get there, over the hill, but I like to watch people getting excited about vegetables.
Charles the baker has a stand next to a man in an orange turban who pushes his overpriced Sukhi’s chutneys so hard that I don’t go near him any more. Beside him, Charles is still, even a little forbidding. I watch him as middle-aged women wave at the racks of breads and ask for “one of those.”
“Which one?” he asks, and they don’t notice the tiny edge, frayed from hours of vague demands. I try to have my order right, and ready.
But he took a shine to me a while back, and each time now he surprises me with a sudden smile and a yard of flattery. “Where have you _been?”_ he asks, and makes me wonder. Where have I been? Not doing the good stuff–scribbling, seeing pals, cooking food bought from other human beings who grew or baked it. I ask him for a loaf of black olive bread, because even though he’s chatty now, I don’t want to hold up the line.
Charles says he’s the only seller at the market who lives in San Francisco. Everyone else drives in from the Central Valley farms before dawn. He has a bakery over on the other side of town; I’m not sure where. His olive bread is good enough for Bernal, but truth be told, it makes me miss the loaves that Caputo’s on Court Street sold out of by noon–the ones Nicholas Cage dripped sweat on in _Moonstruck._ But the Brooklyn Italian bakers were surly, and Charles makes me feel like more of a hot young thing than I’ve felt since I used to gatecrash the geriatric nudist camp for morning swims with Tim.
He wraps the loaf and says I look beautiful today. _”Damn,_ girl, you got some kind of portrait in the attic?” I realize Charles thinks I look great for 47. Then I scrabble in my bag and tell him, worriedly, that I think I’ve forgotten my wallet and I’ll just go back home and pick it up and maybe come back later for the bread. He shakes his head, cocks an eyebrow, and hands me the loaf. I wave it off, mortified.
“Take the bread,” he says. “It’s four dollars. You can give it to me next time. That way you’ll come back.” I hem and haw, and take the bread. “Do you have more shopping to do at the market?”
“Do you have more shopping to do? Yes or no?” I hear his tiny edge again and admit that I do. He reaches into his cash box and hands me a twenty. “Here you go, sweetheart. Now go on, and eat that bread when you get home. You got skinny since you last came by.”
I stuff the bread and the gratitude and the goddamn white earbuds into my rucksack, and nose around to see what else looks good today. The egg man with the aviator glasses packs six white and brown ones in a paper bag of straw. The fruit lady offers bruised peaches for ten cents off. A woman with a basket of baby aubergines shares her ratatouille recipe. I tot up how far Charles’ cash will get me if I buy the Mission figs. I’ve made the same happy calculations in Bangkok and Lima, Chiapas and Hanoi, but never in the swipe-your-loyalty-card Safeway at the other side of the hill. At the farmers’ market, no one has shopping lists. That’s because markets are conversations.