Some memories disappear with time, others are distorted by time, and others remain imbedded in our mind in their original form, appearing at their own whim. That’s how my memory of the pickle man first functioned. With no directive on my part, it appeared and disappeared, but with a hint of deep meaning that eluded and disturbed me.
The pickle man’s shop huddled among the many small stores that served a New York Jewish neighborhood. The butcher, the appetizer man, the shoe repairman, the tailor, all snuggled in tight open-front cubicles in a low building next to the elevated train where, at the end of the day, workers would slowly step down the long staircase from the overhead station platform, inhale the pungent aromas of dill and garlic, and be enticed into the kosher food stores. There, they’d buy their evening meals of herrings, smoked fish, kosher meat. Then, wandering home up the avenue, they’d pick up laundry or shoe repairs that had been dropped off early in the morning as they departed for work. The place was steeped in rushing activity as all yearned for home – but not without their purchases – for the time was the late 1930s and many were without refrigerators – still being serviced by the ice-mans’ quick-thawing deliveries. So-the daily evening shopping was a necessity required for the tired bodies and watering palettes.
Each day I walked to the train station to meet my mother. When she came down the steep stairs at the end of her work-day we would shop for our evening meal and other food basics – carefully discussing what our palettes craved. Many an evening our discussion grew into an argument that I invariably lost, much to my embarrassment, as my mother always managed to lure the merchant to her side with her soft smiles and batting eyelashes. I did, however, win one battle every day, or so I thought. That battle didn’t involve my mother; I fought it on my own terms before my mother arrived; it was a battle fought to serve my insatiable desire for pickles.
Each day I would arrive at the station well before my mother with a nickel and a mint in my pocket, and I would begin my daily ritual with the pickle man.
The pickle man’s shop, unlike the other shops, was open to the street. There was no shop window and no door. The pickle barrels sat out on the street beyond the store – the brine overflowed the wooden barrels and ran onto the street: half-sours, garlic, new pickles, pickled tomatoes…the aroma was pungent, which stoked the appeal. Two empty barrels – one inverted atop the other carried the sign: “A NICKLE A PICKLE!!”
The pickle man was garbed in a white shirt with thick rubber wrist shields. His food smudged black pants were covered by a thick black apron. Heavy black rubber boots covered his legs and feet. A black yarmulke, held down by hair clips, perched on his black curly-haired head. Braided paise dropped down next to his ears. They were met by the sideburns of his thick beard that traveled from his ear lobes down to his chest. A hat rack stood among the pickle barrels. Pairs of large black rubber gloves hung from its arms.
My early encounters with the pickle man were pleasant. I would arrive with my nickel and my mint (to hide my adventure from my mother). The pickle man would greet me with his robust voice – always with the same words.
“Good afternoon Blondie. What’ll it be today?”
I would point to the barrel that held the newest pickles -the greenest, the crispest pickles.
“I’d like one of those, please.”
The pickle man donned one of the rubber gloves; submerged it in the barrel; quickly grabbed a fat green pickle; wrapped it in paper with one edge exposed, and handed it to me as I exchanged a nickel for my purchase.
“Enjoy!” he commanded heartily as I moved to a quiet spot to munch on my beloved prize.
This ritual went on for some time. Then one day – and a rainy one at that – I arrived at the pickle man after a day of hurt and rejection. I had been turned away in the schoolyard by the girls jumping double-dutch, rejected by the hop-scotch crowd, and turned away by the pick-up-sticks players. All, I was certain, because I had been cast in the lead of the yearly musical. I had no control over that decision – not that I wanted it to be altered. But why couldn’t I have it all – success and popularity. Who was giving out this stuff anyway? Why didn’t anyone ask me what I wanted!!
With those agonies in mind, I arrived at the pickle man’s store.
“Good afternoon, Blondie. What’ll it be today?”
Out of habit, the pickle man put on his rubber glove and started to plunge it into the barrel that contained the new pickles.
I hesitated for a moment. Then pointing with my finger to the other barrel, I said, “no, not that one. An older one.”
The pickle man looked at me suspiciously, withdrew his hand from the new pickle barrel, moved it over to the softer pickles, picked out a pickle from the top of the brine, removed his rubber glove, wrapped the pickle in paper, and handed it to me.
I stood still. “I didn’t ask for that one. I want one, that older one – the one that’s nearer to the bottom of the barrel.”
Keeping his eyes glued to mine the pickle man donned the rubber glove, plunged his hand into the barrel and withdrew another pickle.
“This one alright?”
On and on it went, this strange testing of wills, and with each iteration, I felt a rush of energy or was it superiority. Surely, I was in control. It was up to me how and when this ended -or so I thought.
Finally, I reached for an offered pickle, knowing that I had just enough time to eat it and melt a mint in my mouth before my mother arrived – but who wanted a wilted soft pickle anyway? Yet, the feeling that surged through me, which I came to understand was a feeling of control – and it had washed away all the pain of the schoolyard rejections.
As I reached out to pay with my nickel, the pickle man bent down, held the pickle in his outstretched hand, and said, “Here’s your pickle, you brat, don’t ever come back. I don’t need your nickel.”
Banished from the pickle man for life, yet plagued by him in memory through the years, I couldn’t avoid asking “why?” Why does this memory stay with me?
It took years and many pickle men and women in my life to understand what I probably partially understood as a child. I had given up something important in my life – the only person who greeted me kindly with “What’ll it be, Blondie,” for the fleeting glory of gaining control. Just think of all the tantalizing pickles I could have relished!