Thursday, March 12, 2009

Saturday Errands

It’s 1974 in Memphis, and my mother and I are getting ready to do Saturday morning errands for the monastery. That’s right; we work for a monastery. The Monastery of St. Clare, to be precise. One of only a few monasteries in the US where nuns reside and carry out their daily duties and prayer. Think Sound of Music without the Nazis and that gives you a basic idea. We live on the grounds in a house provided by them and, in exchange for rent and utilities, we run errands for them, take care of custodial issues, and other odds and ends. And yes, this is true. Our house sits across a parking lot from the monastery. So each Saturday, we take their station wagon around town and pick up groceries and general supplies that are donated by shop owners, most of whom are Italian. I wish I had known then to appreciate the rich culture to which I was allowed access. Most of the places we went looked as if they could be locations for scenes from The Godfather. Our first stop was Delicious Foods Bakery off McLean. There we picked up large cardboard boxes overflowing with breads and pastries wrapped in clear plastic bags. I still remember the intoxicating smell of fresh bread, sweet rolls, Danishes, and cookies that we had to endure for hours as we drove from place to place. The old lady behind the counter at Delicious Foods, Mrs. Salvaggio, always gave me one of their behemoth sugar cookies, reaching her wrinkled, jeweled hand across the counter to place it in my chubby little mitts. This was in the days before you had to wear gloves to handle food. The people who manned the counters in those days were likely either the owners or somehow related to them, so there was always care to make sure hands were clean because their reputation was at stake. Word of a stray hair or, God forbid, booger on a cannoli cake or pasticiotti would travel like wildfire through those small communities. Now the gloves are due to (a) the fact that many in the food service industry simply don’t care whether a wayward snot rocket finds its way onto your food, and (b) the assumption that most food service employees are, in fact, carriers of avian flu or some other equally communicative disease. But, I digress. Back to my cookie. Almost the size of a dinner plate, it was the perfect combination of chewy and crumbly, with large crystals of sugar that would melt on my tongue and take up residence in the corners of my mouth. I could lick my lips hours later and still taste the sweet residue left behind by that beautiful confection. That? Was living.

Our next stop was Oglesby’s Flower Shop at Kerr and Clancy. We’d drive in through the front gate and the crunch of gravel under the tires would keep us company as we wound our way to the front of the shop. There were two buildings on the lot; the flower shop and the house where the Oglesby family lived. Both were a pale gray, the color of gravestones. The perimeter of the property was surrounded by layers of tall trees, overgrown azalea bushes, and a dense canopy of foliage that shut out the noise of the surrounding neighborhood, along with much of the sunlight. The result was an almost eerie darkness and silence that always made me wonder if the place was haunted. Making our way inside, we’d walk through the display floor directly to the work room in the back where a large, long box of flowers waited for us. The makeshift work tables, constructed of plywood and two by fours, held spools of ribbon in every color and size, containers of floral picks and wire, rolls of green tissue paper, and clumps of green floral foam. The floor was littered with discarded stems, wads of tissue paper, flower petals, and the occasional puddle of water. A small radio chained to a beam in the center of the room crackled with easy listening music that was barely audible over the hum of a huge walk-in cooler. Mrs. Oglesby always seemed to be at the same table, busying herself with an arrangement while a younger man that worked there loaded the flowers for us. I would “help” him get them out to the car while my mother and Mrs. Oglesby chatted briefly. Once loaded, we said our goodbyes and headed back out into the noise and sunlight of South Memphis.

Next, we headed to Liberto’s Produce on Webster for fruits and vegetables. It was a warehouse, the entrance to which was in an alley, and the sight of our station wagon backed up to the dock with the larger delivery trucks always drew a few stares. Most of the people there knew us, especially Mr. Memoni. He was a wiry old man with dark but lively eyes who always wore a newsboy cap and a sweater. He would greet us as we came up the concrete stairs to the loading platform. “Ay, look who’s-a-here! Mrs. Simmons, you bring-a you little helper, today, eh?” He’d always shake my hand and pat me on the back. I liked that. It made me feel like I was important. Like I wasn’t just a kid in the way. Like I mattered. He’d motion for a couple of workers to help him gather a few boxes of fruits and vegetables for us. My job was to stand on the ground and put the boxes in the back of the station wagon as they were stacked on the dock. By now the back of the car was filling up, and with one more stop to make, space was a precious commodity. In went a case of apples, a case of bananas, and a case of vegetables. Mr. Memoni always put together a nice mix of what the nuns liked: squash, eggplant, carrots, potatoes, and broccoli. When I had arranged the boxes just so, I would close the back door and climb onto the dock while my mother signed the paperwork. Just before we left each week, Mr. Memoni would toss me an apple or banana and say, “You take-a-this, ok? For all-a-you help, eh?” I would thank him and enjoy one final handshake and pat on the back before we climbed back into the car to make our final stop for the day.

Evangelisti’s Market on Vollentine was our final destination. It was a small mom and pop corner grocery. For some reason, when I was at that young age, I didn’t realize that Evangelisti was the name of the owner; I thought perhaps it was a store for people who had been saved by evangelists, like evangelistees, you know? Being brought up Baptist while working for a Catholic monastery can be very confusing for a seven year old. A bell on the top of the door announced our arrival and departure. The register was right in front of the door, and usually manned by Mr. Evangelisti, who would always offer a hearty “Buongiorno!” At the time I wondered why he called me that when my name was Alan. I never did ask, I just smiled and waved. The store’s concrete floor was cracked in spots, but its glossy coating reflected the shafts of sunlight pouring in through the transom windows. The wooden shelves were lined with canned and boxed goods, sacks of rice and flour, and soda in one liter glass bottles. The meat counter was at the rear of the store and displayed hanging shanks of beef, pork, and lamb, draped with a festive garland of sausage links. A single long cooler bin in front of the butcher’s window held freshly cut and packaged meats. I never knew the butcher’s name, but he was a kind older man with the patience of a saint. While my mother went through the list of needs with Mr. Evangelisti, I would badger this poor man to what would have been, for some, within an inch of sanity. But every question I asked, he gently answered in a thick, raspy Italian accent. As my little fat fingers would point to one, then another of the curious meaty treasures, he would name them for me: “Dhat’s-a-the-prosciutto…dhat-ees-a-called-a-bracciole. You can-a get it wit-a-beef or wit-a-pork…Dees-ees-a-pepperoni, like on-a-de-pizza, you know? An-a-dese? Dese-are-a-called-a -sopressata. Dees-a-one ees-a-sweet, an-a dees-a-one ees-a-hot…” Soon my mother would call for me to go, and he would reach to a nearby table and grab a small piece of oily, fragrant pepperoni and hand it to me with the kind of smile only old Italian men can smile, and say, “Here you go, you take-a-dees wit-a you, ok? Arrivederci, piccolo amico!” (Goodbye, little friend). What a neat old man. I know he has long since passed on, and I sincerely hope that he lived a long, enjoyable life and died peacefully in his sleep. Arrivederci, amico.