That morning we had a fine experience at the greengrocer’s. The place we had visited it but once or twice before but was in no way a regular customer. Nor was our order too grand: a kilo of oranges to squeeze fresh juice was our only desire. We imparted it to the little old man. Then again, real greengrocers only come in one size and sex: if your greengrocer is the tall athletic type – not to mention a gigantic woman – you can be sure he is an impostor. Take another bite of that peach you’re nibbling on. Do you dare?… Hmm, you see? Lacks flavour, does it not? An uncouth, dirty quality is perceived, one that has nothing whatever to do with the regal magnificence, the proud firmness of a true peach. Throw your flawed pseudo fruit at the flaming fraud, the cheating charlatan and refute once and for all this charade where any old cowboy or male model think they know a piece of fruit when they see one.
Such arrogance ruins it for everyone in the end. Professionalism is called for here. Indeed, in the fruit-selling business we see a metaphor for our gradual mechanisation and the breakdown of society as, in a paradox that would make Borges blush, it becomes ever more controlled. Removed from the Garden of Paradise, then the countryside, we still knew who we were. We realised poetry had nothing to do with any one place; that the city had its own rhythm and rhyme, beauties and blues. Initially, even with the advent of our age’s most terrifying spectacle, the suburb, a cool relationship was maintained with the Garden. Indeed, poetry appeared there from time to time, too. Yet the suburbs grew and splurged, became empty dens of selfishness and paranoia, places to park one’s automobile, which of course became the only practical way of living there. The local shops that originally sprung up to breathe some degree of oxygen into the stale air were eventually choked to death by an excess of carbon monoxide and killjoy planning legislation as the cars, steadily increasing in number and size, chugged off to the hypermarket. Once there they hardly even notice the very idea of the greengrocer has become redundant. They pack, bag, scan and weigh the fruit themselves.
“What, fruit has seasons? How ridiculous! I’ll eat kiwis all year long if I like. They’re delicious. Personally I like to cut the top off and eat them with a spoon.”
They fail to realise that with every little sticker they apply to their plastic bags, they’re putting a price on their souls. Each step towards the cashier-less checkout is a step further into a world of exaggerated privacy, a step away from one’s fellow man, a step closer to a world of fear.
The greengrocer, in this respect, is the greatest superhero of all, the most suave, the most subtle. Understated, the aloofness he displays at times is merely a ploy to usher the appropriate atmosphere of respect into the transaction. Yet he is a superhero, and, like all such beings, he has his identifying traits. You may take his slovenly appearance, his limp, his glass eye, his ear muffs, his whorly, gnarled skin, his chewed pipe, his sun-beaten face, whichever he may bear, for his bat-suit, his spidey sense, his x-ray vision, his green hulkiness, his aquaness. This is a sage, and no doubt if you ask him, he’ll also have parsley, rosemary and thyme, too. This is a man who knows and understands the earth yet who wheels in the field of business; a man who knows the people, knows the neighbourhood, but accepts newcomers readily; a man who will give you good advice and seek to help you if for some reason he is unable to get his hands on some obscure fruit or légume you may require, like a mint plant if you’re hankering after a mojito.
Now this particular greengrocer was truly a good noodle, bonum fideum as the Romans say, for he was no taller than a suburban hedge, hardly surpassing the shrubs in the Jardin du Luxembourg, indeed. He had a gambler’s limp and that crook in the eye special to men who’ve seen too far.
Faithful to one of the ruling principals of boludoísmo, this grocer’s was grossly overstaffed. Three men inside: one cashier, one watcher, one sitter. Despite the obviously negative economic consequences of such cultural oddities, however, they carry a, dare we say it, spiritual weight of their own. The old (though strictly speaking all greengrocers are old – indeed one suspects they come into the world fully dressed in their worn apron and cap, emerging at daybreak from the nearest gutter as the supply truck rolls up) man hobbled over and crooked us a glance. No more.
- Un kilo de naranjas, por favor, señor.
- Aye, pibe.
Only a cold-hearted monster could fail to be moved by the ensuing display, nay performance. Limbs so lately lame became infused with a spirit not seen since Casper, with a glee not witnessed since the shackling of Colombus, with a joie de vivre unheard of since the early carefree days of tobacco, a steadiness and resoluteness absent from the world since the vote for the execution of the cock-robbing debtor of Aesclepius. Not even in the wildest moments of Lord Zeus and his friends’ most fanciful siring parties was there been such passion. Touching, prodding, sniffing, a toss or two in the air, a manly squeeze and even a sneaky pinch. We finally understood why our mother always insisted we wash our fruit, even those with skins.
He soon had our oranges ready. After a quick pass on the scales, a mere formality, they know, he accepted my coins and stepped into the gloom where the cashier waited to control the transaction. A chink and a scribble in the ledger later, he was out again. He proffered us the bag with one hand, which we accepted gladly, yet as we stuck out the other for our change the most wonderful thing happened. He slipped in the coins, of course, and then with an other worldly dexterity he let slip an extra orange down the tattered sleeve of his windbreaker before expertly flicking it through the handles of the bag hanging from my left hand. Words, as usual, could only fail to capture the beauty, the innocence, the profundity of the moment. Hence, with a wink he said it all.*
We turned and headed up the street, dumbfounded – such simplicity, such grandeur, such class! So unexpected, so futile, so perfect a gesture! Yes, Blaise, you are right – there’s more to life than success in the Armenian yoghurt industry. A free orange! A life-affirming miniature sun in the palm of our hand! Nay, in the crook of our soul. A fine prelude, to what would surely be an exquisite breakfast.
*Many of you will doubt take this to be some kind of elaborate closet allegory. To this we have two observations: (i) a pox on your puerile minds! You’re probably the same glib, facetious, joyless types who think Alice in Wonderland is about a lecherous old tyke sticking his hand down a girl’s drawers. And (ii) that when the other Lewis, CS, had his characters go into a closet in the first of a series of novels, it was but the prelude to one of the gayest things ever written.