90th and Broadway

by Lorne Taichman

I don’t know his name. He opened a fruit and vegetable stand on the corner of 90th and Broadway about the same time we moved into the neighborhood, about a dozen years ago. We made the mistake of befriending him right at the outset, saying hello, warm greetings and so on. He always responded in kind, acknowledging us with a quirky little head tilt. It did not take long for our greeting to turn into an expectation on his part and some guilt on ours that we would purchase fruit or vegetables from him. I say it was a mistake because we soon realized that the produce he sold was of very poor quality. For example, once he convinced me to buy a package of figs: “Fresh. Very fresh. Six. Only two dollars.” Five of the six were inedible. Yet every time Ettie and I passed without stopping to purchase anything, he looked at us accusingly. Ettie is convinced he examines our parcels from Barzini, the grocery store on the other side of Broadway, looking for evidence of betrayal. I would often place items he doesn’t sell, such as milk or eggs, at the top of our parcels to throw him off the scent. Sometimes I would walk an extra block so as to enter our building from the 89th Street entrance where he could not see us at all. My most frequent ploy was to walk along the opposite side of 90th Street hoping the parked cars would conceal my passage from his view.

Nevertheless, that little fruit and vegetable stand supports an entire family. There is a wife, a large heavy woman with rough features and a fierce look in her eyes. Her face gives no hint of past youth. She is undoubtedly far younger than her appearance would suggest. She wears a headscarf and all is covered but her face. I can’t help it, but when she is sitting, resting alongside the stand, my gaze automatically zeros in on her two thick, meaty thighs straining against a dark, heavy skirt. I have never seen her speak a word to or exchange a glance with her husband. There is also a grandfather, an elderly gentleman with a rather kindly look. He knows how to say numbers and to make change, but he has never uttered any other word. And there is a son, a young teenager with alert eyes and a warm open smile. Often, all the family is present, standing idly awaiting the next customer. They are closely tuned to each other’s movements: when the father moves a few apples higher in the stack, the wife follows by shifting a few other apples sideways along the row followed closely by the grandfather transferring still a few other apples slightly lower. I suspect it is a very tight knit family that provides critical emotional support to one another in what must be a very strange land indeed.

What strikes Ettie and me is that, although we see and greet the owner every day, we know nothing about him: we don’t know his origins, his customs, his thoughts, even, as I said at the outset, his name. I often wonder what he sees, what judgments he makes about our behavior and ethics. In the summer when young women walk about in tight fitting, revealing clothes, what goes through his mind? Does he know we are Jews?

Like many Jews, Ettie and I often wonder, in a playful sort of way, who would save us when the Nazis return. It is a game we play to help us take measure of the inner core of a person’s character. We both agree that we would not be able to count on the corner fruit and vegetable man to shelter us. Perhaps he plays the same game and wonders if, in this angry land, we will save him. Probably not.

I suspect the gulf between us is larger than a language barrier. Our worlds are so different we likely have no basis for exchange. In truth, I am somewhat relieved that I cannot know his thoughts, for fear there would be views I would find disturbing. Perhaps he feels the same way about me. I wish him well but the distance between us is immense, even though he is right at the corner.

In winter he closes shop. He tells me it is too cold to stay in New York and goes back home. It is a relief when he is gone. I can now stride guilt-free across the corner of 90th and Broadway carrying my Barzini parcels with the fruit and vegetables sticking out at the top. Our salads definitely improve.


This essay was written as an exercise for the Guided Autobiography Class. Lorne Taichman was a physician-scientist. Writing has opened a whole new world for him.