Thursday, June 26, 2008

Salad Days

The bookstore we ran throughout the Nineties in Seattle's tourist-driven public market (still known as Pike Place Market even though it meanders over portions of several streets) was a small example of what the 100-year-old site had evolved to--expanded from its earliest stands of fresh-picked vegetables and just-caught fish, to a mega-mart offering new and used books, records and CDs, fresh and dried flowers, Asian and European groceries, bakeries and cheese shops, handmade jewelry and crafts, knickknacks and antiques, teashops and second-hand clothing, old magazines and ephemera, myriad eats and much more. You could, for example, pick up walkabout snacks or finger food, stop at a cheap eatery, enjoy an expensive sit-down restaurant, or get happy in a bar or tavern.

But tourists and locals alike still think of the Market as fresh vegetables and flying (i.e., thrown) fish; and when I'd arrive most mornings back then, I'd see the "highstalls" being set up for the day--carefully arranged arrays of oranges and lemons, scallops and shrimp, asparagus and mushrooms, salmon and cod, peaches and peas and tomatoes and all... and I'd routinely remember my own single high-school summer spent working the produce line in a USAF commissary:

Produce Man

At seventeen I sprouted—
stringbean-like, lean—
thought I knew my onions, but my salad
days grew as mixed greens…

The air base commissary
hired me to stock
bare shelves, then straightaway transferred me
into the grip of Jack,

the old-hand produce man.
In his white cap
and lime smock, Jack was lord of his domain,
and made me suit up.

The green assistant, I
crowbarred orange crates,
polished apples, top-chopped old celery,
tried to keep the beets;

but racking those stacked tomatoes,
fondling ripe melons,
softened pear-shapes, I felt small potatoes.
Bananas lacked appeal. Un-

sold truck wilted my heart.
The art was missing—
no magic in mushrooms, and none per carrot—
till Jack gave me a dressing

down and one fruitful lesson:
“Life’s a food crop;
some grow, some shrivel. Some eat with passion;
others we coax to sup.”

He said, “You think we’re swindlers?
Skimming what’s best,
trimming the rest to sell? Wrong. We’re handlers;
edibles kept right fresh.

“Yer mug would sour grapes.
Juice up there, mate,
or make yer good buys.” I stopped with the mopes,
tried harder to fake—

selling old bargain jokes,
whistling out back,
coping with cauliflowers, artichokes,
using the hose like Jack,

keeping things slick, cool, quicker
wetting the lettuce—
till the day he winked and said, “We’ll make yer
right produce man yet.”

But I quit Jack soon after.
Gave no excuse,
but lacked his touch and tact, his true gift for
minding life’s peas and queues…

Likely I spoiled my chance.
I know at best
I’ve holed up, vegetating, ever since,
with nothing fresh produced.

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