Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Trip to the Avenooo

A Trip to the Avenooo
Tracy Kauffman Wood Copyright 1997

The trek to Bustleton Avenue is the earliest excursion I can remember. There was the bank where voices called out from above: “Can I help you?” The marble counters were so high I could never track their source. There were slips of paper within my reach and pens on chains dangling from the sky. I scribbled my heart’s desire and waited. It worked. My mother and I left the bank padding our wallets and ready to shop.
Ben’s Fish Market was next door. It smelled like the ocean. Most of the time we just went there to gawk. Fat men in white aprons armed with nets and clubs patrolled the aisles like policemen between tanks of live carp. “I want that one.” The bony finger of a serious housewife crossed in front of my eyes as I leaned over the sides of the tank. This verbal cue set off the deft motions of the fat man. His arcing net would drop, catch and throw a three footer onto the counter and with two quick conks of the club, knock the life out of it. I’d watch for the final shudder of a dying fish. It reminded me of falling asleep, how my legs would jerk before dreaming.
They would clean the corpses in front of us, and worse in front of the live ones. My eyes would wander back to them. Did they know what I knew? I’d be shaking pretty hard too if I were to be laid out on fancy china, an ugly, colorless, spongy mound garnished with an overcooked carrot slice and a dab of garish horse radish. It all seemed too great a sacrifice. But I’d make it up to them. I’d never eat gefilte fish. I’d rush outside, nose struck by a hardball. A man, stomach tied together with apron strings shoved a block of what looked like wood into the top of a grinder. Out came horse radish, the source of my aching nose. I wasn’t fooled by its neutral color. Later it would be dyed blood red with beet juice.
We escaped the carnage, ducking into Martin’s Wholesale City. This place could cure all ills of the mind and spirit. A blond woman with a raspy voice sat perched on a high stool behind the counter and a thick cloud of smoke. She knew the exact location of every item in the store. “Rubber bands, right side, aisle four, half-way down,” she’d bark from her throne. I wondered if she had legs. I never saw them. She never moved except to light up another cigarette. If you came back to her exasperated, she’d become more specific. “Red, white and blue box, next to the paper clips, underneath the reinforcements, above the scotch tape...” Her eyes kicked into place like lemons in a slot machine as she keyed out an office supply. “Bingo!” she’d say when you arrived at her counter with your rubber bands. I couldn’t wait to shop there for my school supplies. Black-and-white bound hardback books with lined paper called out to me. Only when I owned these would I know what it was like to be a schoolgirl in the world. When that day came, I wouldn’t have to ask where to find them.
We went to Lou’s Deli next because in front of the display cases, they had pickle barrels. Prongs were tied to the barrels for snagging pickles in the brine. There were plastic bags on either side to plop your pickle in, as if it were a goldfish. I never remembered to roll up my sleeve before I leaned in to pluck a fat one. The others would slither up beside my arm. For the rest of the morning, I’d have to endure the acrid smell on my wet sleeve and dripping arm. If I’d wet my pants, I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable. But they sold penny candy next to the cashier to absorb my mother’s change. She preferred Hershey Almonds, I liked Tootsie Rolls. She taught me at a young age, the power of chocolate to chase down sour pickles.
We’d window shop our way home. Images from an adult world filled my mind.
“Will I have bosoms like ice cream cones? The nude mannequins at the ‘Jean Kleven Shoppe’ do.” My mother and aunts didn’t.
“Can I have one of those crystal balls?” Silver balls threw light around the window displays. I wanted to hold one between my hands and look inside for Auntie Em and the wicked witch. But my mother was already in front of Spirt’s Shoe Store.
“What will you choose for your first day of school?” my mother quizzed me. “My sisters and I all got bunions from hand-me-down shoes. Bubbe bought them off a pushcart. They ruined our toes. I always swore, if nothing else, my kids would have new shoes!”
This story was already familiar to me, lingering over the purple velvet MaryJanes. The black suede with sensible strap might be better. What about tap shoes? With each pair, a new image of running, skipping, dancing down winding streets in far off lands enveloped me. Pressed against Spirt’s window, Mom and I dreamed of the day when my perfect toes in brand new shoes would step into line in the world beyond the avenooo.

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