He’s happy to see us. Each week when we visit the Senior Center I see my little friend waiting in line as the truck—the Veggie Mobile—pulls up to the front curb. He stands there bow-legged and smiling. He knows our routine and lingers patiently with all the others while we set up. It takes three of us to unload the bushels of apples, watermelons, corn, and the bags for the Taste and Take and place them on the narrow sidewalk. We extend the ramp out from the back of the truck and set out a stack of blue plastic hand baskets folks can carry while they shop inside the truck. This set-up takes only a few minutes; it’s well-choreographed. We’re only here for an hour.
Each week our usual customers buy their allotment of bananas, grapes, plums, cucumbers and broccoli from aboard the Veggie Mobile, a colorful, repurposed moving van, supplied by the Capital District Community Gardens, and stocked with a pretty decent assortment of fruits and vegetables. It travels year-round to the Capital District’s underserved neighborhoods, those so-called food deserts.
After the heavy metal ramp is secured, we set up a little wooden folding TV table next to the truck’s side door and bring out spoons, tiny paper cups and a small slow cooker with this week’s taste. Jane, a fellow volunteer, dons the disposable gloves used for medical procedures and food service, and serves the “Taste”, a thick, chunky potato-leek soup. I hand out the “Take,” a grocery bag containing a leek, an onion and a couple of potatoes, along with the recipe for this week’s soup. We make small talk with the familiar faces and we’re always available to assist those customers who can’t maneuver up the four steps onto the truck to do their own shopping.
I spy my little friend part way down the line of customers, not conversing with the others. He is dressed in dungarees, each leg cuffed several times yet still falling heavily upon the tops of his clunky black shoes. He wears the same long-sleeved denim shirt each week regardless of the weather, the breast pocket filled with slips of paper and his money. He speaks softly with a heavy foreign accent. Someone said he’s Filipino, I think he’s Chinese. He looks into his free bag and is curious about the leek. I try to explain to him what it is and how to use it. All the while he smiles and nods as he attempts to understand.
After my friend shops and then totters down the ramp, holding his purchases and the wobbly railing, he approaches me to ask a question. In the first sentence I only understand the word coupon. In the second I hear the word bag, his hand gesture providing the main means of my understanding. My mind puts his motions, his expression, and the two words together in various fashions. I say something in response and he shakes his head. We both try again, neither of us advancing any closer toward understanding or being understood. He shuffles over to Jane and repeats the quickly clipped and mumbled words, the hand gestures and the smiles. I listen in. Jane is able to get an additional word we all understand out of him, lettuce. But still he knows we do not understand what he is asking. Next it’s Patrick’s turn. Patrick is towering above us, four feet off the ground, in the back of the truck, at the cash register. Our little friend repeats his question one more time to this giant. Patrick is busy bagging up someone’s order and casually turns our way with half attention. He listens and then responds that yes, the coupon can be used to buy a bag of lettuce. Our friend nods and smiles.
After he has left and the line of shoppers has dissipated, Jane and I express our frustration and transient sadness at our friend’s inability to convey his questions and thoughts to us. We feel bad for him and for our not understanding.
“You know, that’ll be me in a year.” I say.
Jane laughs then pauses, “Oh, no.” It’s an exclamation, a denial and a question all rolled into one.
“That’s me. In Thailand with the Peace Corps. I’ll be at a market wanting to buy some strange fruit or vegetable. Struggling just like him to understand. I’ll be the giant looking down, instead of this little guy looking up.”
“Oh no,” Jane says again, now with a bit more sadness and humanity.
“I guess I’ll just have to get used to the frustration.”
Her hopeful side reemerges, “But they’re going to teach you the language. You’ll understand things OK. You’ll be fine.”