Break Your Mother’s Back

The Wild Olive is a funky grocery store on 125th Street between Madison and 5th Ave. It’s pretty tiny, it specializes in organic meats and snacks (kale cookies, aack), and it smells like somebody’s smoking weed in the back room. I don’t know, maybe it’s the incense the guy next door burns on the sidewalk to alert you to the T-shirts he’s displaying on the cyclone fence, all of them featuring Che, Malcolm, or Michael Jackson.

Whatever the source, it smells better than any grocery store in the neighborhood—-better than the Whole Foods on 124th will when it opens—-and it’s a friendly place. The deli is always crowded because the sandwiches are massive, the cole slaw is wonderful, and the guys behind the counter are genuinely funny as they go about their business, making you think they must like what they do for a living.

Yesterday I walked over there to buy some wild shrimp to make ceviche, something I haven’t done in years: a different kind of dinner for my girlfriend, who hasn’t been here since I bought my Latin Percussion drum, another new departure. On my way there, I noticed a homeless guy resting on a stoop between Lenox and Marcus Garvey Park (Mount Morris Park to those of Jamaican descent, go figure).

He seemed real tired. If I didn’t know he was homeless—-I’ve seen him sleeping under the scaffolding that hovers over the S.A.D. Deli, you read that right, or on the handicapped ramp to the Seventh Day Adventist Church at 123rd and Lenox (originally a Dutch Reformed church, built in 1886, a limestone monument)-—I would’ve said he was depressed. He was bent over, sagging, banging listlessly on the Obama phone he held between his legs, holding it far enough away to read the digits or the messages, whatever he couldn’t see.

I wanted to stop and ask if I could help him with the phone, or the larger problem that clearly plagued him, but I didn’t because I felt I’d be intruding on a private moment. Maybe he was talking to his children, his wife, his brother. I passed on, crossed over the park, and started revising my shopping list, because you never know what The Wild Olive has in store.

It wasn’t crowded, I got the shrimp and tomatoes and cucumbers I needed in no time, also bought some ham and bacon without nitrates (Applegate), and visited the deli for comic relief. There I impulsively acquired a quart of cole slaw and some risotto, accompaniments for the spectacular ceviche I’d be preparing.

On the way back, I was thinking I’d get some miniature Coronas for my girlfriend—-she likes light beer heavily seasoned with lime-—at the S.A.D. deli, and I was just turning onto 123rd, headed west, when I saw the homeless guy heave himself off his rest stop, still drooping, pretty shaky. I didn’t mean to catch up to him, but he was moving slowly, of course he was, he’s homeless and he’s depressed about something other (more?) than being homeless.

Then I fall in behind him because I can see that he’s dancing, he’s adjusting his frail, shuffling gait to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk—-he’s mincing his steps, side to side, back and forth, longer stride, whatever it takes to make sure he lands inside a square, not on a boundary.

I follow him most of the block, and I do it step for step, because I know what he’s trying to prevent, some catastrophe that’s already happened, the disaster neither of us is able or willing to remember. Finally he gives up, exhausted, he steps into the street, bearing his three duffel bags and my bad faith.

Me, too, I can’t do it anymore. I duck into the S.A.D. deli to buy those Coronas.

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