I should have known something was wrong before I walked in. The energy was off, the parking lot and the store seemed somehow emptier and the cashiers, who normally joke around and shout at each other in a mixture of Cantonese and Spanish, were subdued.
He was a thin, tall, dark-skinned middle aged Japanese man with a mustache and a twinkle in his eye. I never knew his name, but he always knew mine. Every Saturday, I could count on him to greet me with “Shopping late today, eh?” even though it wasn’t even noon yet. I used to try to squeeze my grocery shopping in at Monterey Market before my 9:00 yoga class by arriving right when it opened, at 8:30. Half and hour wasn’t nearly enough time to finish everything, because I liked to pick through the trays and inspect each piece of produce, one at a time.
This past spring, he pointed out some baby new potatoes to me that had been freshly dug with skins so thin they slid off when you picked them up with your fingertips. “Try these, we only get them one or two weeks out of the year,” he urged. Some of the potatoes were so small, they were about half the size of my pinky fingernail. I decided that the smallest ones would be the tenderest. He watched me dig all the way to the bottom of the bin. “You know, there’s another bin over there,” he said, eying me with great curiosity. “Oh, I’m just trying to find the smallest ones for a saute,” I explained. “Ah, that’s a great idea,” he smiled. “You must cook a lot.” The next week, like every week, he was sure to ask how my dishes turned out and what I was going to cook the following week. Next week, I won’t be able to tell him what I did with this week’s purchases.
I was picking through the figs when I noticed a small cluster of the cashiers whispering and nodding where he normally empties his boxes of chanterelles. I peeked around the corner, and could hardly believe my eyes. A small green shrine had been erected where they normally store the morels. His picture was up, next to a single red rose and a large black truffle. “Our mushroom man,” it read. “1957-2006”.
I asked the cashier what happened. “Heart attack,” she said softly. “Yesterday, in the parking lot,” added the bag boy. They both sounded stunned.
I’m at a bit of a loss of what else to say. I hardly knew him, but it’s strange how much someone you barely know becomes part of your routine and part of your life. It’s because of people like him that I chose to shop at Monterey Market instead of the much more popular Berkeley Bowl down the street. Going there won’t be the same, at least for a while.