The distance between the Lower East Side where I grew up and the Upper, where I now live, is not measured in city blocks alone, but in how people shop for food — year-round, and especially at Thanksgiving. Now, gourmet supermarkets hire temps to hand out samples of Brie and public address systems announce “attention shoppers, we’re having a special on foie gras in the Deli Department.” It’s a far cry from the kind of food shopping most New Yorkers grew up with, where outside of foraging expeditions to stock up on the esoteric Old Country favorites for Nonna or Bubbe, you relied on whatever was closest for the bulk of holiday meals.
The local market in my neighborhood was optimistically, if incorrectly, called Finast. The giant plate glass windows were covered with white paper posters breathlessly announcing sales with an excitement verging on hysteria. “WOW!!! Chickens — 47 cents a pound!” “LOOK! Ground Beef — 45 cents a pound!”…with little pupils dotted in the “OO’s” of “LOOK”…most likely the work of some very highly strung junior graphic designer who went on to illustrate the punches in the Batman TV show.
The prices fairly bursting through the windows to grab local matrons by the throat were enough of a draw for my mom, but I set my sights higher: The huge safe, placed right in front of the store, facing all the cashiers and customers — the assumption being that no one in his right mind would try to crack the safe in front of everybody. Naturally, I tried to open the safe every time I went there with my mom. I had the perfect cover: No one ever challenged the six-year-old holding the shopping cart and intently spinning the dial hoping to hit pay dirt (It looked so easy in the movies!). My brother Philip, who was a bagger there, was absolutely no help, no matter how many times I asked him to at least watch while the safe was being opened. The armed security guards who showed up periodically to take the cash out just asked me to move out of the way.
The safe’s location assumed that the open display was protection, not temptation, and affirmed the character that prevailed at the time…or perhaps just a certain kind of innocence. After all, the gas stations in the neighborhood vied for customers with giveaways like a set of steak knives with purchase.
That’s correct. Cash-only retail establishments in a poor neighborhood gave their customers free weapons with the purchase of gas for their getaway vehicles. This was decades before the gas station next to Finast became an alternative arts center. The hipsters at the time would have sustained severe irony attack symptoms if they knew some guy in a greasy jumpsuit with “Esso” embroidered on his pocket was light years ahead of them in performance art for real stakes.
Before the supermarket was built, we frequented the First Avenue Retail Market, with its red doors the gateway to a gaudy urban souk. Stalls were packed side by side, each draped with strings of lights, or cheap cotton house dresses on hangers, or salamis, or stuffed animals, or washcloths like flags — anything to catch the eye of the housewives that flooded in daily, with kids in tow.
We had to walk carefully to avoid slipping on the sawdust on the white, octagonal tile floors, studded with drains to help the fishmongers and butchers clean up. It was tricky to maneuver our shopping cart around stalls packed in every inch of retail space, dodging barrels of pickles, boxes of fruit and vegetables, and the open pallets of the candy stalls, their bright purple and pink boxes lined up with jelly rings and halvah beckoning behind cellophane windows.
The pungent smells of provolone, garlic pickles, salamis, smoked salmon, and sweets contended for supremacy. The din was the sound of commerce — the ring of a cash register, the rustle of paper bags being filled, the debates of the comparative merits of Nova versus Norwegian, or the bargaining over spotted apples.
You could buy anything, get your shoes fixed, or your knives sharpened, and catch up on the local gossip with the white coated merchants with pencils behind their ears, happy to have left their pushcarts.
The Finast, by contrast, was antiseptic, bloodless, flavorless, and odorless, with meats confined in plastic and cans of food lined up with military precision — but it was convenient, and it was closer. The Market was shuttered for years, until finally the Theatre for the New City took it over — but I miss the sights and sounds and smells of the First Avenue Market, my Theatre for the Old City.
And don’t get me started about that.