On Saturday afternoon I went down to the farmers market to sit for a while in the sun on a crate behind the turkey stand and watch my friend Joanne weighing out fresh turkey breasts on a scale. I saw all her regular customers coming to buy turkey, and they all had things to ask or say to her about turkey. “What breed is this?” a man asked, and Jo told him that she wasn’t sure because she doesn’t work on the farm itself, but that she knew these were big white turkeys. A very tall woman came hurrying over and said, “Do you have any necks left?” and when Jo said she didn’t the woman looked crestfallen. “Oh no,” she said. She told Jo that the necks she’d had the last time were excellent and she had been just dying to have more necks that very night. I thought of a woman my mother told me about who lives in a trailer park and keeps a big turkey as a pet. She calls her turkey “Turk,” and when she comes home from work, Turk runs to greet her and then cuddles up beside her on the sofa and lays his little head in her lap.
I sat watching the life of the market play out before me and listened in on an argument happening a few steps down into the subway entrance directly behind me. A lady was shouting at a man, and from where I sat I could see them clearly through the bars surrounding the subway entrance. The lady wore huge sunglasses that made her look like a bug, and she had a tight little mouth that grimaced around each word she shouted. They didn’t notice me looking, but if they had, I don’t think it would have changed a thing because while the lady was doing all her screaming the people going into the subway had no choice but to walk between them even as the lady screamed, “If you LOVE me, you wouldn’t do what you’re DOING! You talk all the time about LOVE, LOVE, LOVE and it’s ALL BULLSHIT!” She didn’t look good when she shouted out those words, and it was difficult to imagine anyone loving her. Then a man of about seventy wearing a big, full mustache like a walrus stopped to look at the turkey. Jo told him she thought his mustache looked very good. He said that he had worn it for most of his life. “You’ve probably forgotten what you look like underneath it,” Jo said, and the man answered, “That was the pernt.” Then he quickly corrected himself to say, “That was the point,” but we had both heard it, Jo and I. “Pernt,” said Jo after he was gone. “You don’t hear that one much anymore.” The old accent popping up is something like an old creature thought to be extinct suddenly appearing on the street with all its horns and saber teeth shining.
On a recent Friday evening after visiting my friend Bobby downtown on Grand Street, I had to ride down in the shabbos elevator that stops on every floor whether anyone wants to get on or off or not. An old man was in the car with me on the long trip down, leaning on his cane, and when we reached the ground floor he said, “Ladies foist,” and let me go ahead of him. I can’t explain why, but “foist” and “pernt” are relatives from the same tribe. When I told Bobby about the man saying, “Ladies foist” in the elevator, he said it was probably his neighbor Saul. Then he told me about an old phrase his mother used to say to thwart nosy people: “Does Macy’s tell Gimbels?” And hearing that little expression spread a warmth like brandy through my heart with the same pleasant soporific effect as when I heard an old man in Hell’s Kitchen say, “Well, what am I supposed ta do? Stand on my head an’ spit wooden nickels?”
I sat on the crate thinking of other old expressions so taken for granted once and gone the way of Gimbels department store, shut for decades already just like B. Altman’s. It was B. Altman’s where one of my friends used to buy all her brassieres and tell about the old lady clerks who would accompany you into the changing room and measure your bosom. They would all have surely had the old accent, those ladies who would work their whole lives in the lingerie department of Gimbels or Altman’s and take it all very seriously, too. Thinking about them made me wish I could run and buy a potato knish on the corner, the way you always could before. You can still find knishes, but they aren’t everywhere the way they were, on any block off any of what felt like ten thousand Hebrew National hotdog stands, and if you had one of those with a coke, you were good for the whole day.
Things can disappear so gradually that one doesn’t take notice that people aren’t givin’ each other agita the way they once were, or making sure they have carfare. You just forget about it until some old guy decides to say, “That was the pernt,” and it all comes rushing back in an instant and hangs around a while before it fades away again.
A great big lady with sparkly glasses began to shout into her phone by the subway entrance. “Yeah, you BETTER tell me where you at, ’cause if I get in that L train an’ you ain’t there when I get out I’ll be callin’ the police on my own SELF is how bad it’s gonna be, so you BETTER tell me where you at!” I saw Jo turn to see what the fuss was and then go back to what she was doing. When you work in the middle of the whole theater, you sometimes just drown it all out.
February 20, 2011