“No tomatoes today?” I was surprised when the cashier at Schnucks asked me this question, on that early morning about a year ago. I remember because it was a couple of days after the winter break, and here we are now counting down to another New Year’s Eve.
“No, no tomatoes today,” I replied with a smile she couldn’t see hidden beneath my mask. I wanted to tell her that I used to buy the tomatoes mainly for my daughter’s diet, but that now, after a semester and a half of taking online classes, she had decided to fly back to her college in Massachusetts for the spring semester—because, she said, she would lose her mind if I forced her to stay another semester at home with us.
It is always me that does the worrying. My kids agree with their mom: I am the neurotic, anxious parent who would’ve locked them all up at home if I could.
“I’m not ready to share your anxieties,” my wife makes sure to remind me, arguing that the kids are young and healthy and that, statistically, nothing bad is likely happen to them or to us. She cannot understand that I don’t trust statistics, that as someone who belongs to a minority I’ve always felt I was born on the wrong side of them: being Israeli, statistically I ought to be Jewish; being Palestinian, statistically I should be a refugee. In practice, I’m neither. I’m a statistical anomaly.
So my wife laughed at me when I told her that the safest time for pandemic grocery-buying would be between 6 and 7 AM, the hour the local Schnucks reserves before their regular opening to serve the elderly and the vulnerable.
Since then, I’ve been fully in charge of the groceries; twice a week, I present myself at 6 AM sharp with a KN95 mask on my face and a shopping list in my hand. It took only a couple of weeks before I started to recognize some of the regular elderly and vulnerable, as well as some of the workers who were usually busy stacking the shelves. I feel safe at this time of the day, knowing that I can trust the very few customers who, like myself, would go the extra mile to be cautious. Sometimes I would nod to a person, sometimes I would say good morning, or apologize to one of the stackers and ask if I could pick some fruits and vegetables from the boxes awaiting to go on the shelves.
Two cashiers were more than enough at that very early hour. The usual greeting, and: Did you find everything okay this morning? Yes, thank you. Are you a reward member? Yes. You have $260 in rewards: save them or use them? Save them, please. Thank you. Have a nice day. You, too.
And then came that question. “What happened? No tomatoes today?”
The cashier caught me off-guard, making me blush. I was so excited to know that she had noticed me the way I’ve noticed her. I wanted to tell her my name and ask hers. To tell her about my daughter, and about my two boys, who, following their sister’s decision and encouraged by their mom, have decided to go back to in-person learning. All of which leaves me terrified the whole day long. I wanted to ask if she had kids, presumably older than mine. And I wanted to ask if, statistically, she was all right.
Since the tomato encounter last year, I always look forward to my grocery shopping, really so as to see the cashier who has become my closest friend in St. Louis and of my entire post-pandemic social life. I get up at 5 AM, shave, splash on my best (and only) cologne, and choose nice clothes to wear. Good morning, I like to imagine her smile beneath the mask, How are you today? Here is the tomato! How do you cook this couscous? I can see you’re having lasagna for dinner.
When I get to the cashier and it’s a little after 7 AM, she will say, You’re a little late today. When I didn’t see her for a whole week, I was worried: Was she sick? I wanted to ask her colleagues about her, but on what grounds? As a worried costumer who didn’t even know her name? When she came back, I was relieved to see her. I wanted to say, Good to see you again. Instead, I just smiled at her, a smile I hoped she could imagine, and said nothing.
I cannot believe it has been a year since we established our friendship. And here we are just before the holidays: a precious opportunity to buy her a gift. But what should I get her? The whole holiday gifts and tips business in the US confuses me. I was surprised to learn that the Happy Holidays card I found folded into the newspaper was not a personal welcome message to new immigrants—and then I was embarrassed to discover, a whole two years after moving to America, that it was a cue and I was supposed to tip the paperboy.
It’s still a struggle to figure out, as I search the web for answers about local laws, proper amounts for tips or gifts, and ways to deliver them to mail carriers, the recycling person, and garbage collection workers. Sometimes I just give up: after the shame over the paperboy, I switched to a digital subscription.
But the cashier is a different story. She really is my friend, and I can’t afford to get it wrong. The Internet says that Shnucks workers shouldn’t be tipped. Other articles suggest that there are laws in Missouri forbidding cash gifts, and other advice saying that a seasonal tip should never exceed $20. Would she be in trouble if I gave her twenty bucks in an envelope? Would I fall afoul of the law? I musn’t mess with the authorities while I’m still waiting for confirmation of my US residency.
“I’m not ready to share your anxieties,” my wife said, again, when I tried to share with her my moral dilemmas. “Just give your friend a gift card.” Yes, but which one? Would she use an Apple gift card? And don’t you need a credit card to have an Amazon account? Would it be appropriate to give her a gift card for Shnucks, the place she works? Of course not. How stupid could I be.
I am running out of time. I have only two more grocery shopping trips before the holiday, two more meetings with my only friend in St. Louis before Christmas and I can’t think of anything.
“I can’t go on like this,” I finally told my wife. “We have to move.”
“Just give her a freaking gift card, for God’s sake!”
I wish it were that easy, but it’s not. The thing is that I will continue to see the cashier in the days after Christmas, and I can’t risk our friendship with an ill-chosen or humiliating holiday gift.
I’ve weighed all the options and I can’t see any other solution but to move. To a different city. Better, to a different state. And never buy tomatoes again.