“Hey sweet lady, how you doin’ today? Look at you in them fancy shades!”
I’m sitting on the curb, double fisting water and iced coffee like I’ve been outside for five hours instead of five minutes. It’s Wednesday, our long day at the Farmer’s Market, and I need all the hydration and energy I can muster before customers show up. The man who spoke, one of the many public housing residents employed by the city to set up our tents, never fails to crack some sort of witty salutation at me. He plops down beside me, leaning forward to rest elbows on knees. We both smile. Neither one of us is able to start work until my boss pulls in, hauling his bed of produce behind a red truck old enough to spew rust instead of smoke.
When Ed and Rob the Watermelon Guy finally drive up, I heave myself off the curb and direct the lumbering truck-and-flatbed trailer ensemble into its designated double parking space. The Hickory Farmer’s Market fills half the downtown parking spaces with large white tents and the other half with customer cars. I wait on Ed to pull in and, after he painstakingly inches the truck to a satisfactory spot, begin unloading the flatbed. Scuffed white tables, boxes with our two scales, crates to stack produce baskets on. We – Rob the Watermelon Guy and I – shake out the tables, kick open the legs, and swing basket after basket of peaches, okra, tomatoes, tricolor bell peppers, and more over the sides of the truck bed.
I’ve been working for Ed since late May. Rob and I have a steady rhythm now, weaving between each other, the tables, the crates, and the truck itself. It takes us half an hour to set up our sizable stand. Ed putts around while he tells me the weekly price changes – today it’s okra down to $1.49 per pound and watermelon, one for $4 or two for $6. I make new signs for each and stick them, along with the rest of the Sharpie-ed notecards, in baskets, on the truck bed, and on the tables. We stuff fistfuls of plastic bags between the baskets, under the produce, everywhere in sight. No matter how many we put out, at least once an hour some hook-nosed old lady will grasp at my attention while I’m making change for another customer, demanding a plastic bag when there are several in the wooden baskets right under her giant nose. Half the time I smile sweetly and tell her I’ll be there in a minute; the other half I just point as if to say, Right there, lady, it’s right there.
That’s the part of working in the customer service industry that drives me crazy, the people who want you to wait on them hand and foot. And it’s funny because, in doing so, they prevent you from giving another customer the same kind of attention. I like the customers who treat you like another person, not a service. I can have fun with them, joke around, and make small talk about the sweltering weather. Some of the regulars pick on me about getting a tan – two months in this job and no sign of one, not even freckles. Clearly I have some sort of melanin deficiency due to my Scotch-Irish heritage. The customers and other vendors notice, laughing.
I landed the job of assistant produce seller to Ed Husk with just the right amount of dumb luck. While shopping one day, my mother overheard one of the older vendors commenting on how busy his stand was and how he could use some young help. I already had one job in the food industry and wanted another (job, industry not particular), so she volunteered me. Ed’s sixty-seven, but a lifetime of farming has weathered his skin and his posture so much that he looks like he’s going on eighty. When I came by the next week, there was no interview: he just started naming off prices of produce and showing me how to work the scales.
We’re a good team, Ed and Rob and I. Well…Ed and I. As the first round of customers begin trickling in, we juggle produce and small talk, all while weighing scoops of purple queen snap beans or handfuls of baby red potatoes still dusted with dirt. Rob the Watermelon Guy wanders off to smoke at the earliest possible opportunity, leaving me to clamber up into the bed and lug watermelons – Ed offers to do it, but I don’t want him maneuvering around the heavy fruit – for the customers who say, Oh, I want that one…no, this one…oh, is this one good?
Yes it is, thank you very much. Like I would tell you even if I were sneaky enough to sell bad produce. Which I am not, and I don’t. Ed only sells the best and, if you do have a complaint, he’ll “make it good,” which is just a simple way of saying we’ll give you a new batch of okra or snap beans or another watermelon.
Some customers think they’re slick, coming back every week or so with a watermelon they say was too ripe or wasn’t quite sweet enough, and every week we give them a fresh one. Ed knows exactly what they’re doing, and I do too, but he keeps giving them free fruit anyway. He thinks it’s good business. There’s one lady –shaped like a watermelon herself, great bulge in the middle and a penchant for bright, monochromatic clothing – who sometimes sends her husband to do the dirty work for her. He brings a slice of the previous melon in a plastic baggie to demonstrate whatever she says is wrong with it. When they buy a few pounds of tomatoes or zucchini, I round the total up generously. Ed shouldn’t lose money on their account every week.
It’s still early, but an older woman comes by with a fresh complaint. She says she cut open her watermelon yesterday and it was overripe, too mushy. Well, I ask, when did you buy it? She doesn’t quite remember, perhaps sometime last week. I ask when she plans to cut the one she’ll get today then pick one and give it to her free of charge. This is ripe right now, I tell her. I shake my head after she leaves: if you wait a week, of course it’s overripe! We sell fresh fruit here, no preservatives added. Our watermelon is crisp, sweet, but left unattended will ripen past its peak and turn into mush. Don’t blame the organic produce vendor when natural, untreated food goes bad more quickly than the stuff steeped in preservatives.
It’s worth it, buying our fruit and vegetables, even if they do rot more quickly than what you can buy at the grocery store. I’ve been living off fresh produce since right after I got the job. They’re delicious. After the first big wave of business each day, Ed and I crack open a watermelon or cantaloupe, giving free samples to customers and eating substantial portions of the sweet melon all by ourselves. I’ve eaten half a cantaloupe before on a hot day, when business was slow. When customers browse, I tend to go for their little kids, who make adorably cute messes as they squash thick slices into their faces. If they like the fruit, they quickly convince their parents to buy one – it’s an easy sell and the kids always make me smile. Ed loves them too, but a lot of them are scared by a wrinkled old man, so he lets me amuse them while he does business with their parents.
By early afternoon, my grandparents bring my young cousin to the market after his coach-pitched baseball game. Jake hasn’t changed out of his dusty uniform yet and his sweaty cowlicks of brown-blond hair stick up as he hugs my knees.
I’ve learned how to crack open a watermelon with my hand because I think I’ll cut one of my fingers off whenever I use our giant bread knife. The hand trick only takes one quick stab of the knife, enough to get my fingers inside the rind. I show Jake and the kid squeals, loving it. He doesn’t like candies and cakes but he loves fruit, so I scoop out the seedless heart of the melon. He’ll make a sticky mess, but he’s already dirty from sliding into third base, according to our grandpa. Ed loves seeing my baby cousin – his kids are all grown – and he’s always telling me to take a break when my family comes by, even when we’re knee deep in customers. I hardly ever listen to him. Family’s family, but work is work and, even if Ed doesn’t mind, I don’t think it’s fair for him to pay me eight dollars an hour if I’m standing around chatting. I can multitask, talking to customers, my family, and Ed while we work.
The relaxed mood of the market is great because, unlike at the grocery store, I can sass the worst of the annoying customers. There’s no corporate office to call and complain to here. I’ve never been nasty, but I throw my share of sarcasm their way when they ask for it. There was a drunk man who wandered over to the market from the Hickory Taproom and stopped at our tent one day while Ed was drifting around, talking to his farmer friends. Rob the Watermelon Guy apparently knew our drunken visitor, but the guy honed in on me. I gave him a jibing earful for being drunk at two on a Wednesday afternoon, and he was a good sport about it. He wouldn’t leave though, instead buying a watermelon, then another, and various other fruits and veggies one at a time. He eventually spent at least twenty dollars on produce, made me take a picture of him lying in the truck bed of watermelons, and tried to kiss my cheek before he left.
Today while Ed’s out roaming around, a woman asks me what type of watermelons we sell. Well, ma’am, I reply, we’ve got seedless and seeded, but seeded is sweeter if you want my opinion. I know that, she says, I want to know what types they are.
I have no idea that there are different varieties of watermelon, aside from the seeded/seedless bit. Ed appears out of nowhere and, in his old man’s heavy drawl, tells her the small seedless are Sugar Babies and the large, oblong seeded are Crimson Sweet. She wants to know where they’re from and if we grow them. Ed, quite matter-of-factly, explains to her that North Carolina soil doesn’t grow sweet enough melons, so he drives to Georgia or South Carolina once a week. These are from Columbia, South Carolina. The woman hem-haws, but eventually settles on a Crimson Sweet, and after she leaves I thank Ed for coming to the rescue.
Now that Ed’s back from his wanderings, he decides that he’s hungry. We’ve worked into this groove of making tomato sandwiches in the afternoon. Ed sends me to the sandwich shop down the street to fetch a few slices of bread, mayonnaise, salt, and pepper, along with a giant cup of sweet tea. It’s a nice walk, and the waiters at Groucho’s Deli usually provide the sandwich stuff for free because we give them a great discount on a bushel of tomatoes and cucumbers each week. As he always does, Ed asks when I come back if I want a tomato sandwich and, as per usual, I tell him no. They look delicious, but I know that as soon as I slice a tomato I’ll hate the smell and won’t be able to eat it. Ed usually eats two just to make up for it. He tells me to pick out one of the more ripe tomatoes for him. Everyone has been talking about how sweet our Cherokee Purples are, an heirloom tomato with purple skin and a brownish-purple inside, but Ed doesn’t want those, just the normal red Celebrity. He says the Cherokee Purple tries too hard, and it’s an expensive plant besides. I crack a grin at this old man, stubborn enough to refrain from eating his most expensive produce. We both lean against the white tables, him with his sandwich and me with a sugary white peach.
The white peaches are my favorite, and they’re only in season for a month or so. Popular, we usually sell out of them by mid-afternoon. Last week there was a huge batch of soft, overripe ones that didn’t sell so Ed sent them home with me, seven pounds worth of peaches. I made smoothies all week, just washed them gently and split out the pit, then dropped both halves in to the blender, skin and all. They mixed perfect with the raspberries that one of the other vendors, a one-handed glassblower who sells all sorts of berries, gave me for two dollars less than the regular price.
It’s the end of the day. Clouds come rolling across the horizon and a breeze picks up, cooling my skin. A young boy walks over to our tent from his mother, who’s shopping at another vendor. He hands me four dollars and says he wants a watermelon. I pick out a fat ripe Crimson Sweet, half as big as this skinny kid. He wants to take it so he can show his mama and, despite my reservations, I hand it to him gingerly. The boy takes off running up strip between the line of tents, watermelon clutched tightly to his chest. His untied shoelaces leap up around his ankles and he stumbles, sprawling on the pavement. The watermelon flies through the air, arching upward before crashing onto the blacktop in front of his head.