A Very Smart Shopper
New York is a city full of health-minded, discerning shoppers. I came across one the other night, right outside my neighborhood Gristedes gourmet supermarket. As I rounded the corner there he was, right at the store’s dumpster. He was a white male about 65. His clothes were not tattered or dirty; his hair and skin also looked clean. I was 100% sure he was not living on the streets. My guess was that he might have a room in an SRO or some little rent-controlled studio apartment. He might have been living off of the streets, but not on them.
How do I know this? Well, he actually told me so.
On an impulse, I had stopped, quietly watching him for a minute, and then asked him “How’s it going?”
“Great, thanks for asking,” he said, clearly a friendly guy perfectly comfortable with what he was doing.
I noticed that he had five shopping bags jammed full of food and all of it looked perfectly fine to me. He said he was especially excited about the Artesian Flat Breads. “They are made with Canadian wheat and you can turn them into Pizzas or dip them in olive oil,” he said. “They are just like the ones you see baked fresh in the Indian restaurants on 28thStreet.”
“Do you cook? “ I asked, after seeing carrots, celery and an onion in one of his bags.
“Not anymore,” he said, “but I do have a kitchen, so I could if I wanted to, but I haven’t really needed to bother since they started putting out the pre-cooked dinners. Whatever they don’t sell that was cooked that day has to go out. I got a dish of spaghetti and meatballs in there. The fresh veggies are for my salad. Why cook?”
“Sounds like Manhattan living to me,“ I said. He smiled.
There was a pile of discarded cakes next to the grey trashcans, away from his groceries.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Not interested,” he said. “They’re loaded with preservatives. I’m not eating unhealthy foods made with chemicals.” He picked up a box with a sugar-free blueberry pound cake inside and showed me a long list of ingredients that he said “will kill you.”
“And no bottled water either. The plastic leaches into the water and it’s some kind of poison.”
“I’ve heard that too,” I said.
“I have a big collection of glass bottles that I take up to Saratoga Springs three times a year and fill them up with the different kinds of natural mineral waters in the nice park up there.”
“I was just up there a few months ago, but one of them tastes like sulfur,” I said.
“That’s the healthiest one,” he said. Then he got busy again, rummaging some more. He told me he has to get there before 10 every night because that’s when the garbage truck comes and takes away all the food that the Gristedes Supermarket throws out. He said that he has to be extra careful where he gets raw meat, and there is a different Gristedes he gets that from. He said he used to get sushi from the D’Agostino Supermarket on 36th and Third but not anymore. He blamed the Freegans for messing up that sweet spot.
I knew a little bit about the Freegans. They are also “pickers.” However, for them it’s more a movement than a necessity. This man was not only not a Freegan, he blamed them for messing up the deal at a few places because of all of the attention he said they attracted when they showed up to rummage for food, take videos of their activities and then post their videos online. Some markets he frequented had even begun destroying the food rather than putting it out for people to pick through, he reported in a “can you believe it” tone.
What he was, was a struggling city dweller, a crafty and very health-conscious person “living off the land” in the only way one can in this city. Unless you have a little backyard vegetable garden to farm – or the money to actually buy your groceries!
I bid him good night and went into the store. When I came out, he was gone and I heard a garbage truck rumbling and screeching up the street toward the market. I passed a trash barrel full of Artesian Flat Breads. I picked one up. It was soft and fresh. I looked at the ingredients and there were no artificial preservatives. It was vacuum-packed and sealed. I almost took the one I was examining but at the last second tossed it back into the can.
There is one thing that happened between us that I deeply regret. From his stash, my new acquaintance had offered me a mini sweet potato pie. I can still see how his face changed at my knee jerk refusal to accept his sincere goodwill offering. Instantly, I sensed his disappointment from my rejection – a dessert no less. The gift came along with cheerful words. Holding the pie out to me, he said, “Look at this! Since it’s Thanksgiving time, there are always lots of extra pies out here.”
I wished that I could have taken that moment back and graciously accepted his generosity, but I had never before been offered food taken out of a trashcan and I hesitated too long.
Now the image of that little pie that I should have accepted, thanked him for and taken with me, even if I just tossed it into the next trashcan I came to, haunts me. It would have been the right thing to do. Furthermore, I truly believe that it would have been perfectly fine to eat. Just an hour or two before, I might have taken it off the shelf and paid good money for it.
This encounter was thought-provoking in many ways and I’ve been thinking about it for a while. To be honest, there was something I admired about the man. He looked a lot happier than many of the people shopping inside the store. I think it went beyond the fact that he didn’t have to pony up at the cash register. He was making the best of what life had thrown at him, and doing it on his terms.
I think I’ll seek him out again, and if he offers me a gift, I will take it.
Not necessarily to eat.