by John Ryan
My summer job is selling mushrooms at farmer's markets around Chicago. While no two days are ever the same, most days are pretty routine—I set up, answer questions about washing mushrooms or the best way to keep them, and of course, I sell the little guys. Occasionally, however, something extraordinary happens. These are a couple market stories. My only preface is that, as any experienced people watcher knows, there's always more to see than meets the eye.
It was a muggy Saturday and the market was winding down. Across the way I was watching a little girl edging herself, one step at a time, towards the gladiolas. She was decked out in a frilly pink dress and shiny white shoes. While her eyes saw nothing but flowers, I could see larceny in that little girl's heart.
The glads were on the ground in plastic 5-gallon buckets. The buckets themselves came up to the little girl's shoulder. The glads towered over her. After inching her way up to the flowers, she quickly hoisted a couple bunches out of a bucket and beat it across the lot.
The ending is predictable: the little girl made it to her mother who was picking out some vegetables on the other side. And of course, her mother noticed the flowers and went back to pay for them. But the vignette was priceless: not only the amusing vision of two bunches of gladiolas scampering across a parking lot, but also the transparency, the way you could see everything—her thoughts, her motives, and her strategy in every move. Like watching a cat stalk an unsuspecting bird.
It must have been twenty years ago. I was a lonely student in Paris having a morning coffee in a corner cafe and watching well-dressed people rush in and out of the subway station on their way to work. One young couple caught my eye. They were hurrying up a side street to the station. I'll never forget the fresh, radiant look on their faces. Their clothes were very rumpled, like they'd been slept in. Or just piled on the floor.
By the way they embraced at the corner, with a tenderness and urgency that protected them from the wave of commuters rushing past, you could tell they were under the spell of their first night. But the light of day was separating them. After their embrace she turned and descended into the station. I watched him back away from the stairs, dazed, and slowly, as if by losing sight of her and then the corner where they embraced he would also lose the night they had spent together.
Anyway, a few weeks ago at a downtown market a woman of a certain age came up to buy mushrooms. (French is full of charming euphemisms. One of my favorites is "certain age." It's so much nicer than "old lady" or "this woman...a senior citizen.") By her accent I knew she was French. And her English wasn't bad. She knew the right words and pronounced them well, but she wasn't fluent. She lacked the words that come from living in a place. Even as she asked me for a half kilo, she knew that wasn't right. I could see the struggle "what is half a kilo in English?" that makes even simple transactions tiring.
Fortunately, a rusty bit of French returned like a sling shot from the past and I suggested that she wanted "une livre" (roughly a pound). After I counted back her change, she lingered. She smiled and told me that she was in Chicago for three months. "On vacation?" I asked. Not exactly. She told me her story in correct, but very simple sentences "During the war I met a man. After the war he had to go home. Last year I was on vacation in Belgium and saw him. It was an accident. I didn't know he was there. We talked. So many years had passed. I was free and he was free. Now I spend part of the year here and he comes to France for part of the year." She had the same look I had seen in Paris twenty years ago.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page created September 1998
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