Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An encounter at the cookie counter

      There must be something cruel about what I do, I realized, standing in the parking lot of Joe Caputo and Son's Fruit Market on Dundee Wednesday afternoon, wondering if I should hurry back inside and take a picture of the lady I had just met. She'd make a good photo: her brightly rouged cheeks, her deeply lined face, that festive red bow on her hat. I would use it to illustrate the piece I'm about to write. 
      But ... I thought, pausing. She'd also be identified, and maybe that would be a bad thing. I'd have to stay my hand, a little, in describing what had just happened, and maybe the sense of it would be lost. 
      Not that I thought poorly of her. Just the opposite.  I liked her, almost immediately, after she sidled up to me at the cookie counter at Caputo's—have you had Caputo's cookies? Italian. The best. We were going to a party, and my wife had instructed me. Go to Caputo's and get a box of cookies. Not that I needed persuading. I'm always looking for something to do at parties, and now I had something to do: eat the cookies we brought.
     So now I was picking them out, carefully, with my tastes in mind, and this lady bubbles up, and expressed interest in the cookies. Which ones were good?  Could I help her?
      I told her I was partial to the amoretti—almond. But there was the chocolate Nutella. Oh no, too heavy, she said. Then the sesame. 
     "They have a purity, " I explained. 
      She was so friendly, I introduced myself—"I'm Neil Steinberg!"—and she introduced herself, and I told her I had gone out with a girl in college with that exact name; not her of course, because she was 10 years older than me, if not 20. She also lives in Northbrook, and taught Sunday school, and told me some details of her life, then we turned and looked at the case and talked about cookies some more, her shoulder just touching mine. She said how she is alone at New Year's, but was going to have a spree anyway, gesturing back to the bottle of white wine in her cart, and now these special cookies. She started to make her selections.
     "I'll leave her in your hands," I said to the clerk, as I made my farewell. At the line, I thought, "I wonder...?" I waited, and paid for my items, and decided that, if I had understood things correctly, she'd be in the line next to mine. I looked, and there she was.
     "How are you!?" she said brightly.
     "Same as five minutes ago!" I answered, perhaps a little abruptly, and looked at her. All that make-up. The red circles on her cheeks. A bright red bow. How hard it is, I realized, to face the world alone, to spend New Year's alone. And how brave to make yourself up anyway, at 65 or 70, and go out, and chat up young men, well, younger men anyway, at the cookie counter at Caputo's. 
    I reached the parking lot, and put the groceries in the back seat, except for the separate little white bag of auxiliary cookies that were never going to make it to the party. Maybe I should have gone back and gotten her picture. Maybe she would have loved that. She seemed the sort, ready for anything. But one must tread lightly on the lives of others, and I made a judgment call, and got into the car, and snaked my hand into the bag, and drove away, thinking that I was going to try to hold onto a little of what that lady was projecting, the joyousness, in the face of what must be a lonely reality. 
      Have a happy New Year. Whatever situation you are in, put your best face forward, embrace those you've got, and if you haven't anybody, reach out to others until you do, make conversation and be friendly. It'll all work out, and if it doesn't well, you tried your very best, and that's a kind of success too. 


  1. Lovely story. I hope the woman enjoyed her New Year's Eve. (Caputo's does have great Italian cookies, as does Valli Produce in Arlington Heights -- good cannoli as well.)

  2. Heart-warming and heart-cooling, both at the same time.


    Love to see her comment should she read this and recognize herself.

  3. "... maybe the sense of it would be lost." Not bloody likely! I appreciate the swell photos you include with your posts as much as anybody, but your writing needs no pictorial accompaniment to help convey your meaning. This was a fine vignette, absent the photo. If she'd WANTED her photo posted, I suppose that would have been fine, too. But I'm of the vanishing opinion that there're too many photos being taken these days and that just because somebody is out in public, their image shouldn't be fair game for every person with a cellphone. (Which is everyone, of course.) (And yes, I realize I sound like either a hermit, an Amish fellow, or a 19th century Native American...)

    1. And some of us would like to preserve the illusion that for us 70 is the new 40.


    2. Good point, Jakash. In fact I think the absence of the woman's photo enhances the story, because good writing, as in this instance, affords us the opportunity to use our own imagination.

  4. Nice story and glad you like Italian foods.

  5. Good cookies and much more. I don't get up that far north though, didn't even know they had a store there.


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