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With Tommi Avicolli Mecca



February 28, 2006

From the moment he woke up, Sal remembered that it was the day his mother was going to do the shopping. He took his time leaving his room. He lingered a while in the bathroom, brushing his teeth laboriously, as if they hadn't been cleaned for years. Then he went to his parents room and stared out the window at the street below. Already, women were sweeping their pavements and children were beginning to file out of their houses to play on the steps. It was a mild summer day but he had the chills. Nervousness always did that to him.

Mama was standing on a stool, busy cleaning shelves in the cabinets above the stove when he finally made it into the kitchen. She was wearing her favorite apron and a scarf around her head to hold back her long dark hair.

"There's cereal on the table," she said, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. It wasn't that warm out yet, but up toward the ceiling it was much hotter. Besides, it didn't take much for her to sweat. She preferred the cold, though she complained even more about that, especially when it snowed. At least in the winter she could keep warm by wearing layers. In the heat she couldn't take off enough clothes.

"I want some toast, " Sal said. He put on the TV, flipping around the channels until he found a re-run of I Love Lucy, one of his favorite programs.

"Why do you gotta put that thing on? It's so nice and quiet without it." She paused, knowing he wasn't going to pay attention to what she said. "The toaster's already cleaned. Have cereal. It's good for you."

"But I don't want cereal." He shook his head.

"Eat the damn cereal and shut up. Be glad for what you got."

Sal grunted then resigned himself to his fate. Not much he could do about it. Mama was in one of her moods. He could tell.

"And don't go getting lost, we gotta do the shopping today."

"Why do I gotta go with you? I'm old enough to stay home by myself."

"You're not old enough! Besides, I can't drag that cart myself. Your sister's not feeling good. She's still in bed."

"She's faking." He knew why. They had discussed it last week when they got back from the supermarket. His sister couldn't take the stress anymore.

"Don't go arguing with me. It's bad enough I gotta work so damn hard to keep this house clean Show some appreciation. Just do like I say."

"Can I buy a comic book?"

"If I have any money left over."

He knew that she wouldn't. She never did.

When he finished eating, he went up to his brother Freddie's room. He thumbed through the hundreds of albums his brother stacked against the wall between two cinderblocks on the floor near the foot of the bed. He read the liner notes as he listened. The mellow jazz relaxed him and he leaned against the bed and nodded off. It was quiet in his dreams.

"Sal!" his mother said, entering the room. "I called you a million times, are you hard of hearing? Maybe if you turned down that damn music you'd be able to hear something. Now get ready cause I wanna leave in a few minutes."

Sal got his sneakers from his closet. As he laced them, he realized that he had missed his golden opportunity. He should have pretended to be sick before his sister did. That's what he would do next week. He'd get up in the middle of the night and go into his parents room with an upset stomach or a sinus headache.

Mama was waiting by the door with the shopping cart. She was carrying a large black shoulder bag. She handed him the cart. "Now don't go dropping it like you always do, that old thing's gonna break. I can't afford a new one. They're expensive."

The cart made a clunky sound as he pulled it down the steps.

"Why don't you lift it up a little?! You're gonna ruin those wheels, they're worn out enough..."

He ignored her. It was too much trouble to try and raise it off the ground. Once it was rolling on the pavement it was less noisy. He generally had a hard time keeping up with his mother. She walked too fast. With the cart dragging behind him, it was Mission Impossible. He didn't care. He just wanted to get the chore over and done with so he could get back home and listen to the music again.

"I'm glad they opened that new supermarket," Mama said as they turned the corner on 19th street. She seemed happy to be out of the house. "It's so much easier--and cheaper. That Tony charges so much for things. And he's never got nothing I need no more." Tony ran the small grocery at the corner. Sal didn't like that Tony always watched the kids like a hawk. It was as if he assumed that they were all shoplifters.

"But if nobody shops at Tony's then he won't have any business and..."

"It's his own damn fault. He's gotten so greedy, that's the problem. It's that wife of his. She's gotta have more and more money. She don't care that people around here just ain't got it."

He liked Tony even if he was suspicious of kids. Tony gave him an extra piece of candy, when his wife wasn't watching. He also let him taste the fresh olives when they arrived in the big wooden barrels.

When they got to the supermarket, it was already crowded with women and children. Mama grabbed a shopping basket from the long line of them in the front of the store. She started down the first aisle.

The store was immense. Sal never could take it all in. First of all, it was so bright. It wasn't just the fluorescent lights that hung down from the high ceiling. It was the white tile on the floor and the clean walls. Even the tall metallic shelves seemed to glow as if they were made of phosphorous. Everything was freshly polished and cleaned. Antiseptic, like a hospital. All of the food was neatly packaged, even the meat and cheese. Not like at the butcher shop where Mr. Calciano chopped bone and flesh right in front of Mama's eyes. His apron was always splattered with blood and the top of one finger on his right hand was missing. Mama said that he accidentally lopped it off one day while preparing Mrs. Benedetti's pork chops.

The butcher in the supermarket meat section wore an apron that appeared freshly bleached. Not a smudge or a stain on it. He looked like a model for one of those catalogues that sometimes came in the mail. He was young and blonde, with a smile that seemed to stretch across his face. When he said hello it was as if he were a TV game show host.

"Would you look at how much they want for this?" Mama said, eyeing a package of ground meat in the frozen food section. The cart was filling up fast. She examined what she had already selected, mentally calculating how much it would cost. "What do they expect us to do?" She looked around the aisle, then up toward the ceiling before she slipped the meat inside her shoulder bag. Sal closed his eyes. He thought: If I concentrate hard enough, maybe I'll be in Freddie's room. In his head, he began to hear John Coltrane playing the opening bars of "Summertime."

"Would you look where you're going?" Mama said, grabbing him by the shoulder. He was heading into a shelf when she pulled him back. "What're you trying to do?"

"I was playing a game," he said.

"Well, don't. This ain't the playground."

A little further along, Mama slipped a second and third item into her bag. She quickly pushed the shopping basket through the rest of the store and then into the shortest checkout line she could find. Women were chattering all around her. Mama picked up a glossy magazine near the register, using it as a cover to look and see if anyone were watching her. Then she put it down.

"Can I get a comic book?" Sal asked, eyeing a nearby rack.


An older Irish woman in front of them shook her head. She had white hair and a sunken face with more wrinkles than Sal had ever seen. Her right hand looked as if it were vibrating.

"You know, this place just gets more and more expensive," the woman said to Mama. "And it's supposed to be the cheap store." The clerk began ringing up her items, grabbing them one by one, examining them for a price, then punching in the numbers in the register. A bagger stacked them inside of brown paper bags featuring the name of the supermarket in big letters. He did it by rote, barely looking at what he was doing. His eyes were a million lights years away. He didn't seem old enough to be working.

"I know, whadda they think we're made of--money?" Mama asked, starting to place her things on the conveyer belt, which moved the items toward the front. Sal could never figure out how the thing worked. Perhaps there were little men underneath it. Or it was magical, like the gizmos that people were always inventing in his comic books.

"They don't care about us, believe me, they only look out for themselves."

"That's the way of the world. It's always been like that."

"Not this bad."

"Well, there goes any chance I had of buying myself a little chocolate treat this week...I like those cherries from that store right around the corner, I don't remember what it's called..."

"I know the one you're talking about. I can't afford to even go in there."

"Every once in a while if I have a little extra I do," the Irish lady confessed. "Well, no use in thinking about that now."

The clerk read off the total. The woman began fishing out the dollars from her small purse. She then counted out the change, right to the penny.

"Well, that leaves me with fifty cents until Friday." She laughed. "Whaddaya gonna do, huh?"

"How're you getting all that home?"

"My son's outside in the car. I see you got your little helper with you." She smiled at Sal who turned away.

"Well, good luck."

Mama watched as her items went from clerk's hand to the bag and then into their old squeaky cart. She was nervous. So was Sal. But they were at the counter. Whatever Mama had inside her shoulder bag was safe now. In a few minutes they'd be outside and on their way home. The sale rung up, Mama handed the man the money. He gave her change and some green stamps before he began grabbing the next woman's groceries.

Mama thanked the packer and took the cart. It was heavy. She made a grunting sound as she dragged it toward the door. Sal grabbed the edge of her house dress. She pushed it away.

"You're gonna slow me down."

Just before they got to the door, a big man in a suit and tie stepped in front of them.

"Ma'am, can I see what's in your shoulder bag?"

Sal's eyes got huge as he stared up at the huge man. He looked like a football player from the football games that Papa and his brothers watched every Sunday afternoon.

"What for?" Mama asked, undaunted.

"Just open your bag."

"I don't know who the hell you are...but you got no right..."

"Security, Ma'am."

"Nice to meet you. Now I got things to do..."

"Ma'am, your bag."

"Mama, what's wrong?" Sal asked in a squeaky kid's voice.

"Nothing. Just be quiet."

"Ma'am, don't make me call the police."

Mama locked eyes with the security guard. "Van fan culo, I don't know who the hell you think you are, but either get outa my way or I'm gonna make a fuss..."

"The bag, please." He sounded like a broken record.

"Did you hear me? Or are you stupido?"

"I saw you back there..."

"You saw me what?" Mama raised her voice.

"Don't make a scene."

"I'm making a scene? You're the one standing there accusing me of stealing. In front of my son! And you say that I'm creating a scene? How would you like it if somebody did that to you in front of your kids? Huh?"

"I don't have..."

"You have no right to be doing this. I just bought a whole shopping cart full of groceries from this damn over priced joint. I come here all the time, I'm not some bum off the street. Now either you step outa my way or I'm gonna call the cops myself."

"I can't do let you..."

"You can't admit you made a mistake? You know what, I ain't got time for this!"

"If you take one step..."


"Mama? I wanna go home," Sal said, grabbing his stomach. "I don't feel good. Please, Mama."

"You proud of yourself? You got my son all upset..."

"Mama," Sal said and started crying. He couldn't help it. As much as he told himself he shouldn't do it, he was sobbing loudly. It was the fear. He didn't want his Mama arrested.

"Why's that man bothering that lady?" It was the elderly Irish woman. She had come back into the store for a new coupon book for her green stamps. "You leave her alone!" she shouted to the guard, raising her hand and pointing her finger. "She ain't done nothing. She's a good person. You're just a bully."

Other customers, too, were wondering why the man was bothering a mother with her child. "Go pick on someone your own size," another woman said. The guard seemed suddenly uncertain of himself. Perhaps he had been mistaken.

His moment of distraction and hesitancy gave Mama her advantage. She veered the cart around him and started toward the door. "C'mon, Sal..." A couple of the women applauded her. They were out of the store in seconds.

Neither Mama nor Sal said anything until they were about half a block away. Then Sal asked, "Did you do it, Mama?"


"Steal something?"

"I don't wanna talk about it."

"Why, Mama? Why do you do it?"

"Cause it's what I gotta do..."

"But it's a sin."

"Not when it's for your family."

They walked the rest of the way in silence, the shopping cart squeaking as they went.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca is a writer, performer and activist whose latest work, the aching in god's heart, can be seen on stage at Theater St. Boniface, 175 Golden Gate/Leavenworth, March 16-18, 8pm and March 19, 5pm. Tickets ($10, no one turned away) can be reserved by calling 415-861-5848. Check out Tommi's website: www.avicollimecca.com.




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