At the Supermarket
I went to the supermarket on Friday morning, my usual day. Ever since the pandemic lockdown started, I’ve been doing my grocery shopping on Fridays because that’s when they get their weekly delivery of my favorite bread from an upstate artisanal baker. I try to minimize my supermarket visits, as I’d always found them anxiety-provoking, even in normal times. When I work in an office I don’t keep much food in the house because I usually go out for lunch and do takeout when I get home. So stocking up on groceries was a novel concept for me, since I’d usually just dash into smaller shops for things I need here and there.
That changed in March, of course. I’d don my face mask and go out on a Friday morning at around 10am. Once I tried 8:30 but they hadn’t yet received the bread delivery. In the past I’d just pick up one of those red baskets, more than sufficient for my usual needs, but now I wheel around a full-size cart, which, for some reason, I find anxiety-provoking in itself.
Anyway, this past Friday I was at my local Key Food, mask on, reading glasses atop my head in case I needed to read a label, rolling my cart through the aisle for soup, rice, and pasta, looking for Progresso Chickarina soup, one the comfort foods of my often miserable childhood, when I saw a little kid, maybe ten years old, perusing the Progresso display. He had a mask on, but from his eyes, hair color, and head shape, I could tell enough to be surprised and a bit frightened. The kid looked just like me as a ten-year-old.
The kid saw me, and I think he smiled, that is, I saw the corners of his eyes crinkle in a way that suggested smiling. Then he started singing the Chickarina jingle:
It has chicken so nutritious
And meatballs so delicious…
His voice sounded eerily familiar. As an adult, I had never thought about what I might have sounded like as a child, but that’s what this kid sounded like, I realized. It was really freaking me out.
“What’s your name,” I asked the kid.
“I don’t have a name,” he replied.
“No name? Why is that?”
“Because I don’t need a name,” he said.
Why wouldn’t he need a name? “Why don’t you need a name,” I asked.
I went to look into the kid’s eyes again, but his eyes were no longer there—nor the rest of his head, for that matter. Floating above his torso was a blue surgical mask. Then I saw and heard something even more disturbing. The mask was kind of bouncing around, and a voice began to sing the jingle again.
It has chicken so nutritious
And meatballs so delicious…
The voice, seemingly coming from the mask, was my voice, my current voice, that is, my adult voice!
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I figured, and I started singing along.
It has chicken so nutritious
And meatballs so delicious…
It was kind of cool, albeit disturbing, this duet, the bouncing mask singing in my adult, trained baritone, and me singing with the innocence and purity of a ten-year-old.
It struck me that while the voice coming from the mask was technically much more adept, my own singing voice now had a patina of sadness that seemed at odds with its newfound innocence and purity—a contrast that provided an affecting tension.
With that realization, the mask and the little boy’s body disappeared and my voice returned to my trained, adult baritone. But I also noticed a new vulnerability that had been largely missing from my singing, due, no doubt, to my own natural reticence.
I had never imagined that the Chickarina jingle was such a tear-jerker.
On the Street
I didn’t recognize him with the red paisley bandana covering the bottom half his face and some big-ass sunglasses and a Yankees cap that had seen better days covering the upper half until I heard his voice, slightly muffled. “Ignoring me, eh?”
“Ah, it’s you!” I said, adjusting my blue surgical mask.
“Yes, I am me and you are you and we are all together. I recognized you right away. Not your face, of course, your gait, the way you carry yourself.” (Was he implying that I wasn’t sufficiently attentive to his gait and the way he carries himself?)
“I guess I was lost in my own thoughts,” I said. (Why was I trying to justify myself to him?)
“So, my friend, how are you weathering the storm?” he asked.
“As well as can be expected,” I replied.
“As well as can be expected!” I could tell this was the start of one of his tirades by the tone of his voice. “As well as can be expected! What can be expected these days? And who are you to tell me that you and you alone are on top of things, anyway, that you and you alone know what can be expected, that you and only you have what it takes to cope with it?”
I knew better than to argue with him. I knew that would only make matters worse, much worse.
“Let’s forget it,” I said.
“Forget it!” he said. “He wants me to forget it! Who in hell are you to decide whether I should forget anything?” (I wondered which was the more common phrasing, “who in hell” or “who the hell.”)
“Listen, why don’t we get together for lunch sometime,” I said, in an attempt to change the subject, to calm him down, to placate him.
“Lunch? You think this is a joke?”
“No joke,” I said. “I’d love to catch up, but I don’t think here on the street outside the park with masks on is the best idea.”
“Well, listen to Mister Superiority!” he said. “Not the best idea! You officious little twerp!”
“So what do you say, eh, lunch? Some outdoor place in the neighborhood? Next week?”
“Sure,” he said, “pretend I’m not here. Go on as if I’m some Ken doll with no feelings.”
I had no idea where he got that Ken doll from. He was hardly a Ken doll, with or without a mask. More like a Wishnik with slightly better-groomed hair.
“Listen,” I said, trying to put an end to this nonsense, “I’d better start heading home now. My bladder is tugging at my sleeve, if you know what I mean.”
“Boy, do I know what you mean, man,” he said, in a more conciliatory tone. “Give me a call later this week and we’ll talk about lunch.”
Nothing like bladder solidarity, I thought, partially relieved.
On the Subway
The other day I took my first subway ride since the outbreak. I’d been working from home in March, in April I was furloughed, and in July I was permanently laid off. I had to go to my now former office to pick up some personal effects before the skeleton maintenance crew discarded them. I was pretty nervous. I’m fine with outdoors, and brief bodega stops for milk or beer with a mask on don’t worry me too much, but the subway was a nest of unknowns. Unfortunately, a recent article in the New York Times about the relative lack of transmission on public transportation didn’t really set my mind at ease. I ordered some N95 masks from a Hasidic surgical supply business in Brooklyn, specifically for the subway, having read that these offered better protection than the blue rectangular accordion-style surgical masks I usually use, a tighter seal and I think better filtration material. When I put one of the N95s on for the first time, I thought the conical shape sticking out from my face made me look like a peccary.
When I got to the subway platform I switched masks, from surgical to N95. If anything could revive my anxiety attacks of yesteryear, this was it. The train arrived and I took a seat. I looked around. The crowd was sparse, mask here, mask there, very good, then, diagonally across from me, I saw a guy with the mask over his mouth but below the nose; I wondered if I should say something; I didn’t say anything. I saw an elderly Asian woman with a mask on sitting next to a younger man, no mask, maybe her son. But I was alone on one of those benches for two at the end of the car, and I figured I had enough distance from the scofflaws. I was about to take my Kindle out of my bag when the door between the cars, right next to me, opened, and in walked a disheveled, shirtless, maskless panhandler. I looked down as he passed me mumbling his spiel. Then the train made a stop; a few passengers got off and an unmasked teenager got on, smoking a reefer. He sat down across from me. I got up and moved to the next car. This looked more promising, similarly sparse, and I didn’t notice any unmasked passengers.
I sat down, took out my Kindle, and picked up where I had left off in an Icelandic existential crime thriller. Reading with a mask on is a challenge, as my reading glasses keep getting fogged up. A couple of years ago, before my cataract surgeries, I could have held the book right up to my face and read without glasses, I was that myopic, but now I can’t read a thing without reading glasses, though $15 ones off the drugstore rack do just fine. Then, just as I was getting back into the story, I heard those dreaded words coming from the center of the car, “Show time!”
Oh no! I thought, they’re going to rain on my reading parade. They’re going to do those asinine acrobatics to loud hip-hop music blasting from a distorted boom box. No way I can concentrate on my Icelandic existential crime thriller.
I’m not a hip-hop fan. I don’t judge it, mind you, I don’t say it’s not music, or even that it’s not good music, it’s just not my bag. I’m old school, not to mention old-ish. I love jazz, bossa nova, and classic late-sixties rock, and oh yeah, classic soul, but not hip-hop, and not that stuff they’re calling R&B either, which I don’t think stands for rhythm and blues, and certainly has nothing to do with La Vern Baker or Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five.
I do love buskers, and I always support the talented ones, but I don’t get these “show time” performers—interchangeable groups of teenagers throughout the subway system with the same shtick, swinging from subway poles while the music blasts. I’m always afraid one of them is going to accidentally kick me in the face. That’s entertainment? That takes talent? I suppose it takes a little more talent than painting yourself with poisonous silver or gold pigment and standing stock still for hours on end while tourists take their photos with you or try to make you laugh. Do those guys wear Depends? At least they’re quiet.
I put my Kindle down and prepared to weather the “show time” storm. But then something unexpected happened. The music that started playing on the boom box wasn’t hip-hop at all, it was a recording I love, Little Jimmy Scott singing “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over.” One of the young guys started miming the performance of the song, with meaningful hand motions and body language. He wasn’t lip-syncing, of course, he was wearing a mask. But then, about a minute and a half into the song, where Little Jimmy belts out “I’m afraid the masqueraaaaaaaade is over,” drawing the word “masquerade” out for several seconds, the guy pulled off his mask and we could see his mouth wide open. We all gasped. Or at least I did. This guy was lip-belting a Jimmy Scott song, unmasked, in an enclosed subway car! How many billions of viral droplets were spewing from his gaping piehole? Then he surprised us all. He brought his hand to his ear and pulled off what, it turns out, was only a mask of his open mouth. Then we saw a great big smile. Was that a mask too? It was indeed, and he wrapped up his performance in a plain old blue rectangular surgical mask.
Bravo, I thought to myself, as he sang the final words to the song: “And so is love.”
When he came around with the hat I showed him a buck’s worth of love.
At the Post Office
There was a green postcard in my mailbox. It was from the post office, notice of a package in need of a signature. I’d have to go to the P.O. to sign for my item, something I was not looking forward to in these times of caution, masks, and social distancing. I got out one of my flat surgical masks, since I’m saving the N95s for the subway and, if necessary, longer indoor encounters, and left the apartment.
In my zip code, there’s a small satellite post office not far from my building, two and a half short blocks, but they don’t hold packages there, so I’d have to go to the main branch, about a fifteen-minute walk away. I had gone only once this year, early in the lockdown, to mail out some copies of my new book. It was a little anxiety-provoking, but not too bad, and I’d say it was pretty much the same this time. Everybody was wearing masks, postal workers and customers. One person, a small, elderly, salted caramel-colored woman (gratuitous skin-tone metaphor added for a scintilla of controversy), had a homemade mask that looked like it was sewn from an old Blue Oyster Cult T-shirt. There were markers on the floor, decals of shoes, spaced at 6-foot intervals. It reminded me of those diagrams for dance instruction with schematic drawings of shoe outlines. Didn’t the Kramdens have one of those when Carlos was giving mambo lessons?
The biggest problem with the post office was how long it took to serve each customer. I was fifth in line but I waited close to a half hour. First of all, there were only two clerks. Somebody had a bunch of large envelopes, and the clerk was slowly reviewing the address on each, then looking them all up to make sure they were formatted correctly and had the right plus four zip code, which always reminds me of plus fours, which I don’t think I’ve ever worn, the closest I’ve ever come to golfing being pitch ’n’ putt (and, to be honest, I just now had to look up plus fours because I had always conflated them with union suits and those pajamas with feet). But I digress. Each customer took at least ten minutes. Because of the distancing, the line snaked around and out the door. I was glad I arrived early.
My turn finally came. Number 8 on the electric board lit up, and I went to window 8. I handed my green postcard to the clerk through that little tray under the window you slide things through. “Oh, you need to go to the package pickup window for this,” she said.
“Right at the end.”
“There’s nobody there,” I said.
“Don’t you worry,” she said. “You just go over and someone will come by.”
So I went over and stood by the package pickup window. Thirty seconds or so, and nobody came by. I could see there was a woman working in the back, putting things in and taking things out of pigeonholes. Should I call to her? Try to get her attention? Or would that be breaking post office protocols, post office etiquette. I waited. Maybe another two or three minutes. Finally I called to the lady of the pigeonholes. “Excuse me,” I said, “is anybody working this window?”
“I don’t know where she is,” the woman said.
“Can you ask? Or take a look?”
“Give me a minute.”
About five minutes later she returned. “She’ll be right with you.”
Another five minutes later a clerk came to the package pickup window. It was the same woman I had spoken to at window number 8.
I was indignant. Why the hell couldn’t she have helped me the first time around? In the old days I’d have made a stink. Yes, I could be quite combative back in the day. Then I started smoking weed for my insomnia and I mellowed out, lost my appetite for confrontation. Whatever. I handed her the green postcard. “I’ll be right back,” she said.
“Right back” in post office time is not the same as “right back” in human time. She must have been gone about ten minutes. I kept craning my neck at the window to see what was happening in the back, but the woman was nowhere in sight.
She finally returned. “Sorry it took so long,” she said. “It was misfiled.”
Call me a cynic, but I didn’t believe her. Misfiled my ass. I’ll bet she was shooting the breeze with one of her coworkers, or maybe using the opportunity to take a dump. But what could I do?
“Can I see your ID?” she asked.
I showed her my driver’s license, which I only use for ID as I’m so terrified of driving that I’ve never gotten behind a wheel since the day the examiner congratulated me, “You have met the minimum requirements.”
“Your name’s Cherches?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She started cracking up.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “they delivered the card to the wrong mailbox. This package is for St. Peter’s Church! Is there anything else I can do for you? No? Well, you have a nice day, then.”
Around the Corner
There was a line, on the street, people standing single file, six feet between them, snaking around the block. I saw the end of the line. I couldn’t tell what they were waiting for, because, whatever it was, it was around the corner. It must be something pretty good if so many people are waiting, I figured. Everybody in line wore a mask. Some had surgical masks, some had bandanas, some had N95 masks, some had cloth masks in the style of surgical masks, some of which were solid color, most often white or black, and some had prints; my favorite had the Rolling Stones logo, the mouth with the red tongue sticking out of the red lips. I joined the back of the line. I waited. After about five minutes it struck me that the line wasn’t moving. I figured I’d give it a little more time. I passed the time listening to a podcast. Another five minutes and still no movement. I called to the person in front of me. “Excuse me,” I said, “do you know what we’re waiting for?” She gave a shrug. Five more minutes, no change. I’d been waiting in this line for fifteen minutes and it hadn’t moved. I turned around and said to the person behind me, “Could you save my place?” I wanted to go around the corner, to take a look, to see what was holding things up. The guy nodded. I got off the line and looked behind me. It stretched the entire length of the block now. My spot was about halfway down the block. I walked the half block to the corner, then turned the corner to see what was going on. Around the corner there was only one person standing, at the head of the line, an elderly man with an N95 mask. The mask covered much of his face, but from his wrinkled brow and white hair I surmised he was elderly. He was just standing there, placid. I spoke to him. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, “can you tell me what you’re waiting for?”
“Just waiting,” he said.
“Just waiting? For what?”
“Just waiting. That’s all. I’ve got nowhere else to be.”
I went back around the corner, thanked the guy who was holding my place, and returned to my spot, to wait.
Called “one of the innovators of the short short story” by Publishers Weekly, Peter Cherches is a writer, singer and lyricist. Over the past 40 years his writing, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in dozens of magazines, anthologies and websites. His first recording as a jazz vocalist, Mercerized! Songs of Johnny Mercer, was released in 2016. He is the author of three previous prose collections, including Lift Your Right Arm and Autobiography Without Words, both published by Pelekinesis. His new collection is Whistler’s Mother’s Son and other curiosities, also by Pelekinesis. Cherches is a native of Brooklyn, New York.
Derek Berg is a photographer in New York City. You can find him on Instagram: @eastvillage_and_beyond • Instagram photos and videos