“You look fine, there’s no blood.”
My mother told me this as a kid after she looked me over, her eyebrow raised in swift consideration when I cried to her that one of my older brothers punched me or I fell and hurt myself. She would then remind me of the abuse she suffered from her mother growing up.
“You want to talk about pain?” She’d say. “I was dragged by my hair from my bedroom to the bathroom, beaten and forced to scrub the floor with a toothbrush, singled out for no reason at all.”
I had no right to complain. I tried my best to endure pain like a man or in my case, like my mother and there are two instances that have been carved into my memories where pain didn’t come from my older brothers or falling, but from being sent down to Mary’s market with shopping lists longer than ancient Egyptian scrolls.
We relied on food stamps to survive my father’s sluggish wages and the first instance was In 1988 when I was nine and my seven siblings and I were two weeks shy of our monthly stipend. There was nothing left to eat or drink but the ends of moldy bread, expired powdered milk, and tap water. In a household of ten people, a dog, a cat, and a cage full of hamsters, food never lasted.
Mom sent me down to Mary’s market, a mom and pop grocery store on Zerega Avenue a few blocks away. The owners, Mary and her husband, Antonio agreed to give mom credit, knowing they would be paid back in a fortnight.
There was light rain falling from the sky as I walked down Westchester Avenue toward Mary’s market with a grocery list. Our dog, a black lab named Sonia, managed to get out and began following me. She would have been good company and amused me by chasing the pigeons who cooed and flapped under the el that stretched down to Pelham Bay Park, but Mom called her back.
“I don’t want her to stink up the apartment with a wet coat. she said.
The sky was turning black and in the distance, I could hear fierce thunder as I walked into Mary’s market.
Antonio was in the back of the store stocking pet food and Mary was at the register finishing a transaction with a man buying a pack of cigarettes and a six pack of beer. She smiled excitedly when she saw me and said in Italian, “Oh, ecco il mio bell’oometto.” From her smile and pinch of my cheeks I figured she said something about how cute I was. I handed her the shopping list and she filled two and a half baskets, then started ringing everything up. She called Antonio over to double bag the groceries, snapping at him to bag faster as lightning struck and thunder crashed, shaking the windows. She then kissed me on the cheek and ushered me off with four heavy bags and a gallon of milk.
“You be a careful walking home.” She said.
“I will,” I said as I winced in pain from the handles of the grocery bags and gallon of milk digging into my palms, numbing my fingertips and turning them purple from lack of circulation. My muscles even began to shake under the weight of the load as I headed out.
“I got this.” I said to myself as my mother’s voice rang out in my head, “I was dragged by my hair from my bedroom to the bathroom, beaten and forced to scrub the floor with a toothbrush!”
I stopped at the crosswalk of Zerega Avenue, set the groceries down and waited for the light to change. When it started blinking green, I picked up the four bags and gallon of milk and crossed. I set everything down again to relieve some pain from the weight of the load as the clouds cracked open and heavy rain came pouring down. Pigeons took cover under the el as I had a MacGyver idea and quickly tied the bags together at the handles and wore the groceries like a tank top. The load became bearable. I only had to switch hands every now and then from the weight of the gallon of milk. I walked under the el to stay dry. A pigeon took a dump on my shoulder that splattered down my neck. I was disgusted and continued on, determined to get this over with.
I got the groceries upstairs and my brothers and sisters started rummaging through the bags for something to eat. They saw some of the bird poop on me and said, “Ill, you have cooties, stay away.”
“Bird poop is good luck,” mom said, as she joined my brothers and sisters searching the bags.
“Oh no, Joey, I forgot to put grated cheese on the list. Go back and pick some up,” she said.
My luck just ran out, I thought and asked why couldn’t someone else go and pick it up?
“Because I’m telling you to,” she said.
I ran back in a downpour to Mary’s market. Mary rang me up for the grated cheese and as luck would have it, she sent me off with a free chocolate bar.
On my way back home I stood clear of walking under the el to stay dry. I was already soaked and didn’t want to be used as a port-a-potty again. I wasted a piece of chocolate trying to hit a pigeon I deemed the culprit who took a dump on me. I missed. The piece fell to the ground and pigeons flapped down taking turns pecking at it before a tough, scraggly pigeon took it in his beak. He taunted the rest of them to contend and when there were no challengers, he took off with it.
The second instance was the first of September in 1988. A brand new stack of food stamps awaited the lot us from welfare, awarding us the mother lode of all groceries and me the mother of all pain that I suffered getting hit by a car bringing a shopping cart back to Mary’s market.
Singled out again, I had to go down with a grocery list that resembled the first draft of a novel.
I took the manuscript from my pocket and handed it over to Mary, who took what seemed like days to gather the groceries and ring them up. The load was too much for me to carry, so Mary suggested I use the only shopping cart available as long as I promised to bring it back. I didn’t want to make multiple trips, so I promised and she filled the cart to the brim. I handed over all the booklets of food stamps. $700 total. Mary passed me back a twenty and a few pennies.
I was just tall enough to see over the bar of the cart. I pushed against its weight like a field mouse trying to push an elephant along. I skinned my lower lip getting it out the door over the metal strip threshold. Outside, I grabbed the cart from the front and pulled at it. Inching forward, then gaining momentum. At the Zerega Avenue crosswalk the sign was blinking green and I rolled on home slowly, like a tugboat pulling along a barge.
After going up and down the stairs some zillion times unloading the cart, I lived up to my promise and headed back down to Mary’s Market. I ran the empty cart forward and jumped on, riding it down to Parker Street, a block from Zerega Avenue. Halfway across the street, a Buick Century sedan with an old man driving, turned from Westchester Avenue slowly and hit me, striking me hard enough to send the shopping cart skidding on its side down the block and knocking me down to the curb with a sharp pain in the right side of my hip. The old man never pulled over to see if I was dead or alive, he rolled down Parker and out of sight.
I made myself stand up and grabbed the cart. I cried bringing it to its feet. The frame was slightly bent and the wheels wanted to go one way when I wanted them to go another. I wiped my eyes, limped up to Mary’s market and left the cart out front. From the window I could see Mary in the middle of ringing a line of people up. She smiled and gave me the thumbs up.
I limped back home. Shaken up, I told mom a car hit me and that my hip hurt really bad. She looked me over, her eyebrow raised in swift consideration and said, “You look fine, there’s no blood.”
“You want to talk about hip pain?” She said. “I carried and delivered eight children, I know hip pain.”
She searched through the last of the bags and said, “Oh no, Joey, I forgot to put eggs on the grocery list. Go back and pick up a few dozen.”