There’s a local grocery spot, a facet of our town for more than half a century, that offers a limited but very interesting selection of imported pantry items. It used to be one of my favorite places to stop for a salad, a cup of coffee, or really excellent grab-and-go sushi at a surprisingly fair price to enjoy in the café with a side of WiFi. Although the store was known to be an expensive place to shop, there were certain items I couldn’t find elsewhere in town–capers jarred in oil, for example, which is a “must have” for the treasured Poor Man’s Linguine recipe given to me by a friend. The shop also had a lobster tank my kids loved to visit when they were smaller and a jellybean dispenser that I imagine one day they’ll reminisce about via text (or whatever replaces texting a couple of decades from now) the way my brother and I remember the bowl of pastel butter mints with its little metal serving shovel at a restaurant named Aloha that blended Hawaiian decor and music with a menu of the most Chinese-American food I’ve ever had and where we held all of our family birthday celebrations. At “the Aloha”, as we called it, my dad always drank a Dos Equis (this sounded like a single word to my child’s ears), we kids sipped Shirley Temples out of frosted glasses molded into the shape of totem poles, everyone wore around their necks complimentary leis made of neon plastic that smelled like dust, and whoever was celebrating a birthday enjoyed the distinction of sitting in the oversized bamboo chair at the head of the table flanked by tiki torches while the staff played a very Polynesian recording of “Happy Birthday” featuring ukulele and steel drums. The Aloha was a really incredible establishment and I have many memories of it, including that my grandfather usually ended up with a sneezing fit in the foyer because he had a sensitivity to MSG but enjoyed his pu pu platters nonetheless. That building is now home to a car dealership, and who knows what purpose the strange space served before its inception as a restaurant.
Back to Foods of all Nations, the place where this story began: when I was growing up, the clientele included longtime patrons who’d been shopping there since it was called “Seven Day General” in the late 60s/early 70s, when it was one of the only gigs in town, and I think it’s accurate to say that, in general, most of the people who frequented the place were not hard up for cash. Despite the international offerings on the shelves, I don’t think I saw anyone there who wasn’t white until probably college, and my friends in high school jokingly called it “Q-Tip Corral”. Anyway, I had a long-ingrained impression that people who shopped there were elderly and wealthy, as inaccurate as that generalization is today. This is why, a couple of years ago, when I was standing in the café facing the cash registers, a very young guy wearing cutoff camo cargo shorts and a tattered tank top caught my eye. It looked like he hadn’t seen a shower recently; his hair was matted, his whole appearance struck me as rough around the edges, and his expression was dour. I completely realize how judgmental I was being, but this was a few days after yet another mass shooting had hit the news, and this kid bore a strong resemblance to the white supremacist who’d opened fire at a church in Charleston a few years earlier, so it triggered something in me. He didn’t have a cart or basket; in fact, he had nothing in his hands as he waited in the checkout line, but a second later he reached into a side pocket of his shorts and pulled out what looked a whole lot like a hand grenade.
I thought, ‘This is it.’ I willed the faces of my children into my mind, cycling through them: one, two, three, and focused my thoughts on the magnitude of my love, pressing it toward them energetically, everlastingly, sending them every ounce of positive intention and hoping hard that somehow they’d know that I was thinking about the enormity of adoration I had for them in my final moments. All of this took about an instant, of course, at which point I realized that the boy was, in fact, not holding a grenade. It was an avocado.
I made sure to catch his eye and smile hard, paltry penance for my privately pegging him as a bomber targeting the upper class, and felt both foolish and ashamed for passing judgment on a completely innocent, probably really decent person just wanting to make a little avocado toast. But then I got angry, on behalf of him and people who look like he does, on behalf of everyone in this country, on behalf of humankind. We live in a world so troubled that we see a white kid pull an avocado out of his pocket and think, ‘That’s an explosive and I’m going to die today.’
Moments like this make me yearn for those days at the Aloha, when the most ominous thing in life was what may or may not have lain down the dark staircase off the long hallway leading to the bathrooms that was cordoned off with a red velvet rope like the ones demarcating ticket lines at movie theaters. I wonder when that tipping point happened, when we turned from the final page of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” to the first page of “Songs of Experience”, when the sight of an avocado could cause us to assume imminent mortality, when our world view shifted to the point that a spooky staircase couldn’t hold a candle to a disturbed teenager with access to semiautomatic weapons. I know this shift will happen for my kids some day, too, that they’ll come to realize the depth and scope of evil that ribbons through human history, when the terrors implicit in everyday existence far outweigh fear of the unknown. I know it’s inevitable, but for now I’m savoring the phase of their lives when an unlit room is the most menacing entity, and I’ll hold their hands as they cross that dark threshold. Maybe this is what the deeply flawed saying “ignorance is bliss” is trying to express: that innocence is a golden hour of life that can only be fully appreciated in retrospect.
Oh, to be a child again, meltaway mint on the tongue, that frisson of thrilling fear in wondering what the downstairs of the Aloha contained! To imagine possibilities rather than lament realities! To have our first thought, upon seeing a boy take an avocado out of his pocket, be: ooooh, guacamole!