We Are What We Eat

I have learned learn to read people’s menu choices like bookcovers.
Their grocery store routes leave breadcrumb trails of personality.
Handling people’s food, working the checkout line becomes…
almost. voyeuristic.

Mr. Moretti is the aroma of fresh crusty rolls, hot peppers,
chianti and salumi lingering out front most of the morning.
His laughter mingles with Georgia’s fresh cornbread smile
as she clutches okra and corn from the parking lot farm stall.

Mrs. Wojciechowski is as cool, blonde and blue-eyed
as her smooth bakery boxes full of blueberry pie.
Loading a catering cube van stressed to the brim with
cinnamon sticks, clove, custard and egg yolk,
mimosa, ginger, grape jellybean and heavy cream,
honey nougat, shortbread, macadamia and nutmeg,
sugared pansy, sultana raisin, and bread pudding;
she peels crisply out of the parking lot.

Working the checkout, I meet Shona.
An essence of yoga and finger-paint who brings her own bags.
She buys almond butter, arrowroot cookies, buckwheat flour, lentils, tahini
and, shamefully apologetic, she tries to hide the disposable diapers.
Her socially conscious suburban circle judges her for not using cloth
but she justifies to me: she just doesn’t have time for that much laundry,
I offer to drop them off for her on my way home.
Every day she stands at the end of my checkout to lovingly pack her child Avery’s lunch.
Into a small paper bag goes a carton of milk, a piece of fruit, a sandwich.
One day, during the worst crisis of my life – I will have a meltdown,
my own mother will be more than 2000km away and Shona will care for me.
For now we carry on with the small lives at our fingertips.

Community is formed in grocery store checkout lines.

Shona’s contrast is in Byron; the downstairs desperation of lotto tickets,
reeking of native cigarettes, and buying nothing but ground beef and freezies.
His toddler son, Onntario, is shaped approximately the same
as the bottle of chubby soda he clutches screamingly
and is dressed in my boxer shorts,
missing since last week from our corner laundromat.

He can have them.
Everyone who passes through here – on both sides of the counter,
is really just trying to make ends meet.

Literally unable to close coupon stuffed binders and
figuratively unable to make two ends of a neighbourhood
find common middle ground.

This is one of those catch-all grocery/convenience/cafes perching carefully
at the independent intersection of affordable housing and gentrification.

Motorcycle-guy slides miso, lemongrass and rice paper into his backpack and asks
if he can refill a water bottle. I say yes, and give him lemon zested ice from the bakery.

The tired case-worker handling the Tremblay placement
fills a worn, plastic children’s wagon with visitation necessities.
I never cease to be amazed how far she can stretch a dollar,
and later, the stretchmarked teen she is coaching
will bring her beautiful baby girl to visit daily;
pouring over ingredient labels with the halting syllables of new found literacy.

Not all success stories are grandiose.

Still chatting with Shona, I tuck an overripe avocado, hickory sticks, popcorn,
rolling papers into a plastic bag for a parental-funded university degree & his girlfriend.
I haven’t seen them buy condoms in a while, but she was in here last night,
asking for pregnancy tests and crying with her roommate.
It’s surprising how much you learn about people from their purchases.

New regulars in the neighbourhood sometimes seem surprised when I know who they are,
but I handle their credit cards, cash their government cheques, send faxes, stamp mail,
listen to spouses yell at each other and parents call children across the store.

I still don’t know everyone’s name.

Like Mrs.Change – so called because she yells about the good old days
and pays for her pickled duck eggs with rolls of nickels that we have to weigh
on the produce scale because sometimes she stuffs them with pennies.

I only know made-up names for the bleach-blonde cigarette smoke,
working the street corner nighttime surroundings,
finding pale refuge in our 24hr neon lights.
I spend the every other weekend of my shift-rotations with them,
their laughter dulled by the glass and accompanied by
the rhythmic clink of re-shelving cans and pricing guns.
We dim some of our lights at night to save electricity,
but it only makes the moonbeams of headlights pulling through the parking lot
seem that much starker in the darkness.

I pack cardboard boxes and glass containers for the Espinosa family.
They spend summer out at camp with no electricity or refrigeration.
Toasted marshmallow, graham cracker crust, butterscotch, butternut squash,
purple basil, beets, chard, dill, eggplant, mushroom, watermelon, yams,
brook trout over the fire, or with a salt glaze on the BBQ.
The teenagers sneak 2 cases of pear cider and a bottle of plum wine behind
carafes of orange juice while their parents pretend not to notice.

Next in line, Chef Mäkelä is a contrast of steel and resin
like sharp knives on warm cutting block boards.
A rusty, sun-baked pickup cradles applewood and artichoke hearts,
rough-hewn wooden crates of bay leaf, caper berry, endive
and fennel nestled between flat rows of figs.
Towers of ground pepper and cases of Maine lobster on ice.
He insists on loading the lowrider himself
before hoisting his wheelchair into the front.

When the checkout barrage stills, I refill the deli-counter
where I will forever nurse a hatred of kalamata olives from
digging into the sharp scented kegs of brine, filling pint-sized containers.
The English professor’s wheeled contraption seems to like them though,
swallowing two containers whole, along with a caraway rye baguette,
a bottle of claret and two tins of cat food.

Later this evening as I walk home from Shona’s, I will see her in a garden adorned
with one too many ornaments, making textile art tapestries and glaring
at neighbourhood children over thick plastic glasses.

Her students, preceded by a cloud of Nag Champa, raid the bulk bins
for things that make them feel exotic: earl grey and oolong along with
pink Himalayan salt, saffron, smoked rosewater and pomegranate.
they make chapbooks and zines, so I give them the keys to the photocopy machine.

they want to spread their words.
they want to speak the photocopied truths of idealistic youth.
they want to tell this town: I have found in you a community.

In the uncomfortable grey area that arises when two classes have to stand together,
I have witnessed remarkable compassion and empathy.

I have seen the clash where breadline meets bakery,
and the solidarity that occurs in the chaotic aftermath.

I have watched the formation of an accidental community, around access to nourishment,
drawn like moths to a florescent-lit oasis is in the sub/urban food desert.

We are what we eat.



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