a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Come with me, back to a moment that took place on a drizzly Sunday morning last summer at a delicatessen-cum-institution called The Lox Smith, in a suburb on Chicago’s North Shore, and I’ll show you what I mean. Be prepared to wait, though, before that moment happens, because the first thing you need to know about The Lox Smith on a Sunday morning – on any Sunday morning, in any month of the year, winter, spring, summer or fall – is that it’s always crowded and it’s always noisy and it’s always more like an event than it is a mere errand. That, in fact, what it feels like when you push your way in through the door is Life itself, already underway and being lived at the top of its lungs, so that there’s nothing to it but to jump right in and take a number, to grab a cup of coffee from the pot over there in the alcove to your right, and then breathe in the cinnamon and onion and garlic perfumes that will be steaming up from the bagels and bialys piled high in their bins, find a place for yourself in a pocket in the crowd, and settle on in for the ride.
“Why don’t you make that two pounds of the lox instead?” someone will most likely be calling out from somewhere at the far end of the room, while someone else will be asking, “You did make that the fat free cream cheese, right? I’ll let you answer to my wife if I come home with the regular,” and someone just beyond him will be saying, “And hey, throw in a pound of that corned beef while you’re at it. Gotta keep the cardiologists in business too,” their words crissing and crossing in a way that might make you think of all the words that have been woven together there, in that room, through all the years of Sunday mornings that have already passed, so that you might even find yourself imagining a Sunday morning, far off in the future, when a snapshot of this Sunday morning could be hanging on the wall, captioned “Delicatessen, northern Illinois, early twenty-first century,” and feeling yourself succumb to a wave of some emotion you can’t quite put a name to.
In which case, if that’s the mood you’re in, you might find that the sight of the row of glistening kiddush cakes lined up on the shelves just past the coffee pot will zap you right back to your grandmother’s living room, when you were maybe six or seven or so, so that you find yourself feeling the thick plastic covering she always kept on her couch crinkling beneath your thighs, and hearing her say, “Eat, bubbeleh, eat,” as she places a fragrant slice of just such a cake on a plate, and as she sets it on your lap and brushes a stray hair behind your ear with a hand whose touch you have never stopped missing.
Or maybe not. Maybe what you’ll be doing instead is watching the ballet being performed behind the counter, where men named Rodrigo and Sabino and Philippe and Jesus, born in towns named Huitzuco and Guanajuato and Chalantenango and Sensuntepeque, who have been working in the kitchen since midnight, are now moving out of it, its door shimmying behind them, then back into it again, and then out – to the counter, the kitchen, the counter and back – with trays of knishes and strudel and nova and pastrami hoisted high up in the air above their heads, while, all around them, in front of them, between them, among them, Moises and Javier and Francisco and Alfonso are glancing at the Currently Being Served sign up there on the wall and then turning back to survey the crowd and call out, “Aforty-afour! Who has it, aforty-afour?” Are leaning in toward whatever customer they happen to be waiting on at the moment, their hand cupped to their ear, asking, “You want it the asalmon asalad orihinal, or the new deloxe astyle we have anow anew?” Are holding up a small container of cream cheese, their eyes filled with mourning, asking, “You really think is enough this, for aso many bagels?” Are slicing, are dicing, are scooping, are weighing, are spreading and smoothing and counting out and packing in, are finishing up and wrapping up and adding up one order, while already swiveling around to see the number board and calling out, “aforty-anine? Who has it aforty-anine?” so that they can get started right in on the next.
What I was doing for much of the time I was waiting, on that morning last summer (leaning against the back wall in a spot I’d carved out for myself, between a sign that was insisting that A bagel a day keeps the doctor away and one that was ordering all whose eyes fall upon it to Come on in for Bagel and Bialy Happy Hour Every Day at 5:00 p.m.), was taking in, like a spectator at a volleyball game, the other-than-commerce-related exchanges making their way across that border. Because that’s what it is, that counter: a border. Constructed not of bricks or barbed wire or planks, but of chrome and formica and glass (and filled with smoked fish and herring and sable and cream cheese and pickles and potato salad and kugel and pastrami and salami and blintzes and chopped liver and roast beef and corned beef and knishes and lox). A border attended not by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents or Minutemen, but by kibbitzers and shmoozers instead.
And so: First, the serve, from Alfonso, across it to the man in a green Ralph Lauren golf shirt whose smoked fish he was wrapping in waxed paper: “I didn’t see you here for now already two weeks. Everything, she is okay?”
“Oh yeah, buddy. Thanks for asking. We went up to see our kids at camp in Wisconsin and then stayed in that area for a while.”
“Really?” (a woman in a University of Michigan t-shirt, intercepting the ball). “We did that last year when my son was up at Camp Horseshoe. It’s great up there, isn’t it?”
“Gorgeous.” (the woman beside her – jogging shorts and a Rolling Green Country Club hoodie – sweeping in for the steal.) “We do that route every summer. Door County, too. Have either of you ever been to the American Folklore Theater up there? We were blown away by it the last time we went.”
“Nope.” (Bald man, heavyset, Armani Collezioni windbreaker.) “I’ll have to add it to my bucket list. But you wanna talk about being blown away? Ever been to Kopps, up there in Milwaukee? Best frozen yogurt on the planet. Even my grandson – the little pisher’s not even three years old yet? – already a maven.”
And on and around and back and forth, until someone tossed it back across the counter to Francisco (“You ever get up there, to Wisconsin, big guy?”) who smiled and shook his head and tossed it back to the man in tennis whites whose sable he was weighing, with a “You think the rain, she will astop in time for you to be playing today?”
To which the man replied with such a sharp fist smack (“It sure as heck better stop in time. Our club’s tournament’s today.”) that the ball staggered into a spin that sent it careening from fist to fist to fist on our side of the counter, with every fresh smack to it accompanied by yet another reason why the rain had better stop, the reasons themselves now raining down in a barrage of becauses: Because of the eighteen waiting holes. Because of the children with their hearts so set on a day at the beach that they’d slept with their swimsuits on. Because of the wife who had already packed a picnic basket. Because of the son who was waiting by the front door at this moment with his bike helmet on. Because of the daughter who had been promised a horseback riding lesson through the Forest Preserves.
“If I don’t get my kids out on that boat today, I’ll never hear the end of it,” a man to my right was saying when Moises called my number, and I lost track of the ball as I made my way to the counter to give him my order, but I know that it must have continued on its journey around the room, or at least that it had continued on its journey in Moises’ mind, because, ten or so minutes later, once he’d filled my order and I’d paid for it and was standing at the furthest end of the counter near the credit card machine, waiting for him to retrieve the receipt it was printing, is when it happened. Is when he turned toward me and, leaning in close and bending his head low and speaking in a whisper, said, “And I hope the rain, she adoesn’t astop.”
“I read the oter day,” he continued in a murmur, “how much atrouble are having the farmers here por que we have no too much asnow in the winter. Maybe if my farm in Mehico, she get more rain? I didn’t have to leave my chil’ren.”
And that was all, but it was enough, because I had seen his children, or at least a photo of his children (his 35 mm. children, as I had come to think of them) – a three-year-old daughter and a seven-year-old son – on the day, a few months earlier, when as director of Neighbor to Neighbor, an organization I had created to offer assistance to the Mexican and Central American families who are waging a daily battle for economic survival in the shadows of the affluence of my hometown, I was called by a school social worker to bring food to the family whose couch he pays rent to sleep on. “Marisol and Tomas,” he had said, holding the photograph out toward me, and then he’d pulled it back and looked into it for a long moment, rubbing his thumb across their faces, searching for the solace of their skin, before putting it away. “Every day, I lose a little bit more them,” he had said.
And since then, on other visits, he had said more. Like this: “When I tell to Tomas that I am leave now for a ashort atime, he cry without make the noise. You know how it is the old man, they cry? Yest the tear. No the noise. He cry yest like this, like the old man who know already too much. He know already, I think, that this is no for a ashort atime por que in my atown? No. In my conetry? In all my conetry? There are no too many of the mens. All the mens they are go already to el norte for find the yobs.”
On the day before he left home, more than two years ago now, he also told me, his son had walked too close to the fire he was using to heat their shanty, and he had yanked him away from the lick of the flames, his heart thudding. “You have to be CAREFUL,” he’d screamed, and his son’s face had crumpled at the unfamiliar blade of his voice, and now he couldn’t stop worrying that that’s all he’ll remember of him while he’s gone.
“So I hope the rain, she adoesn’t astop,” he repeated, again in a whisper, on that Sunday morning. And then: A sigh, a deep breath, a split second of a beat, and, handing me my receipt and my bag and wishing me a good day, he swiveled around to check the number board. “Asixty-fiiiiiiiiife,” he called out, turning toward the crowd. “Who has asixty-fife?”
He already knew who had sixty-five. That’s the reason he’d kept his wish for more rain to a whisper. Because he knew that whoever had sixty-five would be someone who couldn’t possibly understand how it would feel to fall to one’s knees in the middle of a field of cracked earth, imploring an unyielding sky to conjure up the miracle of a downpour. Because he knew that there are two kinds of people in this world – the them who golf, and the us who grieve, and that the golfers, there on the velvet of their greens, couldn’t possibly be expected to understand the griever’s grief.
I knew it too, in that moment. Knew it while I nodded my agreement with his hope, and my concern for the farmers, and while I accepted my bag of food and my wishes for a good day from him. Knew it all the way up to the moment when, pushing my way out the glass door and onto the sidewalk, I gave a quick glance back over my shoulder.
I still carry it with me today, the memory I snapped in the freeze-frame of that glance: The short Hispanic man in the white apron with a pencil poised above his order pad looking across the counter at the tall blonde one in the red and black cyclist’s racing suit with a fanny pack around his waist and a helmet in his hands, who has just called out “Sixty-five? That would be me!” and made his way forward through the crowd. “Mirror image,” I would caption that freeze-frame if I could develop it and print it and hang it on a wall, but that, of course, would lead anyone who peered into it to raise his eyebrows and cock his head, to wrinkle his forehead and maybe even say it out loud: Mirror image? and then to lean in more closely, examining it for a few more moments before giving up and shrugging and turning away, thinking that there must be some clue to the puzzle that he’s missing. Which, of course, there would be.
You wouldn’t be able to see it in the picture. You couldn’t see it in the deli either, for that matter – that the man in the red and black cyclist’s racing suit is actually dressed in dreams. That that man, painted into spandex from neck to knee, who’s talking to Moises – that man who will be ordering bagels and lox and cream cheese and smoked fish and saying why not? throw in a pound of that rugeleh over there, too; the one who, a moment ago, had said that the rain had better stop because his son is probably already standing at their front door with his bike helmet on, revved up and waiting for him; the one who is now smiling at some comment the woman in the Phoenician Resort visor beside him just leaned over and made – tucked a whole other self beneath the stretch of that cycling suit before he left his house this morning, taking care to make sure that none of its edges would stick out enough to be seen.
They don’t. Look at the picture again. See? Not a hint of a stray thread poking out at his neckline, not a suggestion of a clump beneath his sleeve. Not a trace anywhere of that tucked-away self who he’s been for nearly two years now. Of the one you would have seen, for instance, four times already, at 6:00 or so in the evening, at just about the time of day when he should have been coming in the door of his house and setting down his briefcase, should have been unbuttoning his coat, shrugging off his day and calling out, “Hey guys, I’m home,” when he was instead sitting on a couch beside his wife in Children’s Memorial Hospital’s family waiting lounge, the world outside the windows behind them bruised with dusk, their eyes locked on the phone on the desk, willing it to ring, willing it not to, waiting for updates from the operating room.
“Father and Son Go For the Goal” had been the title of the article I’d read in the local paper a few weeks before that Sunday morning, in which it had said that he and his eight-year-old little boy were determined to cycle their way to every one of the twenty-four parks in town, its words selected with care to let the reader know, without ever explicitly saying so, that the dream was for them to do so while that little boy was still in remission and they still had the time. While they still had some hope at their backs. And then there had been a photo of the two of them, which is how I had recognized him in the instant of my backward glance from the doorway. A photo of him and his 35 mm. child, standing beside their bicycles, grinning up into the sun.
“What I can aget you?” I heard Moises ask him, and: “Why don’t we start with a pound of lox?” I heard him answer, just before the door clicked shut behind me. And now Moises will be pulling the slices of fish from their bin and setting them on the scale, I found myself thinking as I climbed into my car, and then he’ll be weighing them and wrapping them in white paper, and then he’ll be taping the paper shut and turning back to say, “and what anow else?,” without ever once coming close to imagining how wildly that man wishes that he could have asked for a pound of luck instead. ###