First, let it be said that I hate shopping. I hate mainly because I hate talking to people I don’t know and also I hate buying things. If I could walk in and out of shops and look at things and go away without speaking, I would like it okay. But then I’m better off going to a museum, right? Or a library. Both of which I’d much rather do most of the time.
But Brooklyn is maybe changing my feelings about it. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a city and I’m not sure I’ve ever lived in a neighborhood that was quite such a thorough mix of businesses and residences. And that mix makes you keenly aware of the rhythms of the working day when you live here. I love, on summer nights, listening through my open window to the the bell ring at the corner store down the street whenever someone goes in to buy a carton of milk or comes out for a smoke or to avoid yelling obscenities at the soccer game on the TV over the counter, not when there are children buying popsicles. I love that in that same store, we know the owner’s name and where he comes from and how many children he has and what they are doing. He does not know our names, so he has made some up. He calls Mr. Spy Bossman and AJ Handsome Schmandsome. Up until today, I didn’t have a nickname, and if truth be told, I felt a little unloved, although whenever I go in there he tells me what a beautiful family I have and whenever Mr. Spy goes in there he tells him he has a beautiful wife.
Today is my first day off in 26 days, not that I’m counting. I didn’t take the day off for any particular reason, just that I needed a break. The day has not gone according to plan. I’d been looking forward to an apartment to myself for the day — Mr. Spy has returned to the motherland for a few days — but AJ is home sick. But at lunch, I needed to be OUT. So said goodbye to AJ (who was also happy to have some time alone) and I headed out to do a little pre-Christmas shopping (I need to fill an advent calendar and get some gift swap gifts in the mail) and investigate the appliance store that may or may not have a TV that we are thinking about buying. I sprinted down the stairs and turned on the Avenue into a sea of Haitian nannies pushing their charges, bundled up beyond all recognition, in strollers.
I stopped first at the dry cleaner where the owner always bows to me when he gives me my receipt. But it was all different. The counter has been painted a bright yellow. A new curtain has been hung around the changing area (which is enigmatically right in the shop window). The old news clippings were gone from the walls, replaced with photos of small children. I smiled and said hello. He asked my name and began looking for me in the computer. The old owner had painstakingly written out everything by hand in a book that you signed when you picked up. “I don’t think I’m in there. I haven’t been here in a couple of months.” “Oh, I’m new,” he said. “Welcome to the neighborhood,” I replied.
Next I stopped at favorite gift store, because I’d seen a couple of things there earlier that I thought might be good for someone on my list. It seemed good to start with an easy win, and I always like going in there. There was one other woman shopping there and I collected my purchases and stood in line behind her. She turned to me and said, “I just love this place. I don’t want to leave.” And I have to say, with the sun streaming in the window, I felt kind of the same way.
That had gone so well, I headed down to the television store. It’s a long walk and I made note of other places I might want to stop when I got back. TV stores in Brooklyn are not like what most people are used to on account of the lack of space. This particular shop is a local institution. It’s been in business for 60 years — back then they were a radio shop — and is now run by the son of the original owner and his son. The first thing you notice is a refrigerator in a box sitting on the sidewalk right in front of the door. Then you walk in and you can’t see the counter at first because so many things are crammed in such a tiny space. All the way up to the high 19th-century ceiling are teetering towers of microwaves, rice cookers, coffeemakers, toasters, dishwashers, ovens, televisions, you name it. If it has a plug,it’s there somewhere. Behind the counter is a rack of headphones and batteries and assorted adapters. A man pops up in front of the batteries and asks if I need help. I tell him I’m looking for a 32″ tv that will fit on my mantel. He recommends a brand and starts scanning the stacks of boxes. Another man, whom I hadn’t even noticed, jumped up and said, “I just had one come in today. Let me go down and find it.” And he disappeared through the floor in a glorified dumbwaiter. He was back in seconds with two boxes, one large one small. The smaller one looked perfect, but I was suddenly unsure about the space. I told him I wanted to measure and I’d call back to order. We said our goodbyes and I was back on the street.
I stopped in the stationer’s to buy Christmas cards and talked to the woman behind the counter about the garland she was making, huddled up next to a space heater set on high. I stopped in the shoe store, but they were out of the shoes I was hoping to find. I stopped in the bagel shop to get AJ some breakfast before tomorrow’s scholarship exam. And then I stopped in the corner store.
“Hey, mama!” he said in greeting. I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right, but I said hi. “It’s cold out there, mama!” Then I was sure. “It sure is. Mr. Spy’s in Chicago and he says it was only 7 there.” “Brr. What’s he going there for?” “Work, family.” “Tell him he should work in Brazil.” That’s where the shopkeeper is from. “Maybe we should all work in Brazil.” “Maybe we should. You have a beautiful family, mama. Good to see you.” “Good to see you too.”
And the bell rang on my way out. I smiled all the way up the street. I had a name. It’s not the one I would have picked for myself, but that doesn’t matter. I know I’m going to have it forever now. I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. Spy. Back at home, I call the TV shop and tell him I think the size is just right and ask how much is the delivery charge. “For neighbors,” he says, “it’s free.”