Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In Soviet Russia, The Role Defines YOU

Pausing at the front of the building, I look up at a white stone facing, cut to look like it could have been quarried near Dover some 200 years ago, and fire-retardant petrochemical shingles, molded to resemble Cornish slate on an 18th century Irish dwelling, assembled into peaked roofs bracketed front and back by square protuberances designed to recall woodfire chimneys. Artificially weathered brick trim wrapped around incongruously modern steel framed glass storefront sprouts plastic light fixtures painted to resemble wrought iron and cast after gas lamps from the 19th century. Muzak emanates from one of the white "stones".

Walking through the shiny glass doors into a foyer of bright reds and yellows, I'm greeted by three smiling teenagers and a decorations sporting cute sayings about healthy living through fruit consumption ("Your body is a temple: No littering allowed!")

While waiting fro one of the bright faced teenagers to mix up my $5 puree of fruit and ice (no preservatives! all natural!) I flip through the marketing material that's been labeled "nutritional information" and chained to a bright yellow tabletop.

Buried behind the all fruit confections and the dairy based parfaits I stumble across the ingredient lists for the baked goods. Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, High Fructose Corn Syrup, and Hydralized Yeast top several of the lists.

As I leave with my legal cup of chilled crack cocaine in hand, one of the bright faced teens cheerily sent me on my way with a goodbye and a half-hearted attempt to pronounce my name off my credit card slip.

Later that day, I pull into the parking lot of the local Central Market. Exiting my vehicle, I grab a pencil and a notebook before wading past the Hatch Chile Festival signs, the peppers roasting in a giant mesh bin, and the lines of suburbanite "foodies" patiently waiting for their Hatch Chile Burgers.

Having survived the entrance way gauntlet, I grab a small cart and meander into the produce section, pausing in front of a wall of apples. No less then 6 varieties of New Zealand apples of various sizes and assorted red and yellow mottling are stacked in bins against the wall. Each bin sits under a sign with a name, price, description, and product number. Each apple has a sticker reiterating the product number.

I read each description and looked at each bin for a few seconds. Shrugging, I placed one of each in a plastic, printed up a label at the fruit scale, and affixed it to the bag. Pausing, I glanced down at the apples in my hand, before nodding with a small smile and reaching for my notebook.

As I jotted down the name, description, and code for each apple an elderly lady came up and asked me:

"When do the Mackenzies become available?"

Wiping the furrow from my brow with a shrug, I responded:

"I'm sorry, I really don't know much about fruit growing season."

"Oh - you don't work here?"

With a smile and a shake of my head, I returned to my notebook. Within a minute, a trim, bald-headed man in a green apron stepped behind my right shoulder:

"I can't have you copying down prices"

he said, staring up at my ear.

I turned my head to the right, cocked my eye, and peered at him over my glasses:

"I'm not"

As I resumed scritching in my notepad, he persisted:

"What are the notes for?"

Without looking up:

"So I can recall the names of each type, in case I decide to buy more later."

Out of the corner of my eye I noticed him frown and lean in:

"Then why are you writing down the PLU code?"

Still buried in my notebook, I closed my eyes, and took two measured breaths:

"They all look alike - the stickers make it possible to associate a particular apple with a particular name"



He cleared his throat:

"Where are you from?"

I looked up, eyebrows raised, and cocked my head to the right again:

"Dallas, mainly, although I've been quite a few places over the years - why?"

"I mean: 'where do you work?'"

My brows lowered:

"Oh - an investment firm."


"Are you sure?"

I closed the notebook and turned to face him completely:

"'Unless something unexpected happened in the last 24 hours"

"Are you sure you don't work for Whole Foods - or maybe Sprouts?"

I stepped past him and put the offending notebook back in my cart:

"Well sir, I'm certain someone as deeply immersed in the cutthroat world of agricultural counter-espionage as yourself will realize that I'm far too tactless to be an agent of the organic insurgency"

Stymied by my Holmsian cover story, he finally turned away. I grabbed his elbow:

"Hey - what's Sprouts?"

That evening, as the sound of four fat guys belting out a rendition of The Flinstones theme song on tubas waddled through the muggy twilight, I leaned back on my picnic blanket and savored the taste of Apples (Washington Fuji and New Zealand Braeburn) from Central Market mixed with watermelon, bananas and yogurt from Sprouts (my new favorite produce grocer). Watching a man and woman engross themselves in one another on a blanker near me and indulgently pining after the Lady, a precocious toddler caught my eye. Having had enough of exploring the familiar territory that is the underside of his parents' canvas "captain's chairs" ($29.95 at Walmart) and decided to go in search of less suburban fare.

Striding with uneven purpose to my self-involved neighbors he toppled into a sitting position with a solid thunk, leaned back against the woman's rear, looked over his shoulder and - catching the couple in mid-canoodle - said:


Looking up from the object of his preoccupation with a wide eyed start, the polo clad Romeo cast about for a moment and came up with a small box:

"I'm sorry, bud, but we're out of cheese - would a bunny cracker do?"

It apparently would.

I don't recall the toddler's name because I was already two thirds of the way through a bottle of sparking wine, which I'd bought across the street from Sprouts, when his mother noticed him missing and relieved the romantic duo of their uninvited guest. Whatever people call him, I hope he never learns to grow comfortable defining his identity in terms of his role.

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