Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Tangled Small Talk: Of Leeks and Capitalism

Do they have them in your city? The newspaper sellers? Here in Seattle, the paper is called Real Change. I think it's a capital idea. Homeless people and other at risk populations can buy the papers at a discount and then sell them for a dollar apiece and pocket the profits. I'm all about any sort of empowerment of marginalized people, so ever since they could walk, my monkeys have toddled over with their dollar to buy a newspaper, their newspaper. They used to sit and pretend to read it, legs crossed, paper up in the air. Now they read them for real and ask me all sorts of difficult questions about homelessness and politics. It's win-win.

Our favorite paper sellers hang out in front of our favorite stores: Trader Joe's, the drugstore that has the child-sized shopping carts, Cupcake Royale. Today was our first trip to Trader Joe's since Christmas Eve (this was a grievous miscalculation on my part that shall never happen again) and the Hooligan and I were relieved to be back in hipster grocery land, stocking up on our favorite treats. We were also relieved to see our favorite paper seller out front. Sometimes they vanish, never to be seen by me again. I always hope it's because they've moved on to something brighter, better. I'm not so naive as to believe that's always the case, so we keep an eye out.

"Paper today, ma'am?"
"Sorry, I think my husband took all my cash last night. I think it's his week to pay for coffee at work this week. Lemme check." I really felt like this was a valuable piece of information that he was interested in knowing. My middle-class guilt drives me to justify why I don't have a dollar for a paper, but I have three grocery bags stuffed with half-price Christmas candy.
"That's OK, I'll just give you one for free."
"Oh, no thanks." This is the part where I forget that just because I recognize him, and see him a few times a week, does not necessarily mean that he has any earthly idea who I am and I speak - a little too loudly: "You can't just give it away! Are you crazy?! What kind of a capitalist are you?!" This is completely ironic because I am the very last person on the planet now that Kim Jong Il has died to be lecturing someone about capitalism.
"No ma'am. I've had a good week. I'd love to give you one."
"That's very nice of you, but keep it." Again, forgetting to turn on the word filter I've been warned to use with strangers: "Soooooo, what constitutes a good week?" This is less an example of my poor manners and more an example of my utter inability to make small talk and the unfortunate blurting that ensues when hard pressed. I never, ever ask people about their income or discuss money with anyone besides the Chief Lou.
"Well, the way I've figured it, I made about $20 an hour today."
"An hour?! Holy crap! Oh look! I found a dollar. Hooligan, don't lick that. I'd love a paper." Non sequiturs are also a part of my dazzling conversational repertoire.
"Thank you, ma'am. Here you go, sir." Handing the Hooligan the paper and looking into my grocery bag: "Oh! Do you like leeks? How are you going to serve them?"
Suddenly bizarrely speechless: "Ummm... well... usually I just make... um... well...  potatoleeksoup." Why I can holler about capitalism and being robbed by my husband and then suddenly be cagey about my soup plans is completely beyond me. Don't ask me to explain.
"What I like to do is, you see, slice them really thin, almost shaved. They have to be real thin. Then get your chicken broth boiling, cut up some bits of chicken in there, maybe some herbs. Really simple chicken soup. So good this time of year. You have to almost shave the leeks, though." I was mesmerized. Being the good little housewife that I am, a new recipe is always welcome. But even more than that, I watched him sell 5 newspapers while we were standing there exchanging worldviews and recipes. Obviously, he's a better capitalist than I gave him credit for.
"Wow! That sounds wonderful! Excellent! Thanks for the recipe! I'll have to try that! Not this time, though! I already bought the stuff for the potato leek! What will I do with all those potatoes! I have to pick my daughter up at school now! Thank you! Talk to you later! Hooligan! Onward! Now!" It was getting dangerous. I was speaking all in exclamation points and miscellaneous unsolicited facts. This is the last stop before complete conversational melt down. I very nearly hugged him - also an unfortunate and rather shocking compulsion I have when I get nervous.

I walked away from this exchange richer by a recipe and a newspaper. I probably left him feeling sorry for the poor crazy woman out shopping with the small boy she probably kidnapped because who would let her be responsible for the care and feeding of small children?

I spent far too much of the rest of the afternoon thinking about that twenty bucks an hour, though. Maybe it's time for a change in my line of work. Maybe I could stand outside the grocery store and sell papers? But I've given up on this pipe dream, too. It was short-lived like most of my entrepreneurial ideas. It all comes down to the same objection: then I'd have to talk to people.


  1. But what a pleasant surprise his answer must have been to you. Imagine if he's said he'd made $20 that DAY...then how would you have managed your conversation on capitalism? That recipe actually sounds delicious...I am tempted to try it myself!

  2. I think what I loved most was the care he took in describing the "just so" on shaving the leeks. The humanity of teaching one special secret to a customer who charmingly fumbles her life lessons through words, exclamation points, around discounted Christmas candy, and betwixt the Hooligan punctuations. I'm certain the corner of his mouth curved slightly upward as you exited the scene.

    ~ Red Dirt Kelly

  3. Love the Kim Jong Il reference! And I also love that I am not the only one with that inner narration issue (along with the rehashing it all later) when I am talking to people--for some reason it's especially acute the less well I know the person.

    I'll bet you could make WAY more than $20/hour selling a cure for that problem. :)

  4. Your telling of that story was hilarious. I was in Seattle a couple of months ago. We stayed downtown. I did notice a lot of homeless people but none were selling newspapers. Perhaps your story had a happy ending and your friend is now making $ writing stories about the crazy women he meets on the streets :)

  5. What a great idea. Potato leek soup: my all-time favorite. I'll peel and dice the potatoes, and get the leeks ready, "just so." Annie will get the immersion blender, and we're ready. There's no better month than January, for cooking soup on one of the two wood burning stoves. We'll bake the bread in the other one.

  6. They sell papers at all the major intersections (in town) over in West Texas. I always thought that extremely odd. But now that I've read your story, maybe its the same kind of situation. Although, I don't think it's reserved for anyone specific. I've observed all walks of life with there newspaper "shop" setups. Loved reading your story!

  7. Love, love, love, your storytelling. I speak fluently in non-sequiters myself. Thanks for momentarily transporting me back to one of my favorite corners of Seattle. It's a small world :)

  8. Hilarious! I, too, like the Kim Jong Il reference. And the string of exclamations --- totally empathize --- and then spend the next few hours analyzing what came out of my mouth and why. Classic!

  9. I love how you took a few minute exchange outside a grocery and turned into a very telling story which reminds us these are real people that many of us turn away from or avoid and it also spoke of generosity. I often find the people I think don't have much to spare are often quite generous.

    And hey he got you to buy a paper, didn't he?

  10. I laughed so hard through the exclamation points that Hubs asked why. I read the story aloud (faster and more excited at that part) and he laughed and said we'd make excellent friends. ;-)

    There are no Trader Joe's stores in Texas. This is the #1 thing I miss about Phoenix. Thanks for that reminder.

  11. Okay, hold the phone. I just clicked your TJ's link and for giggles, entered my zip code. There are THREE TJ's stores listed as coming soon! Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston. Okay, so I live in Austin, but still. Trader Joe's within 2 hours? Yes!! YAY!!!

    verification: otabbles. Sentence: He laughs at the way she babbles, especially in discussing the setting on her otabbles.

  12. Thank you all! And welcome Sherri and Emily! Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found something you liked.
    Long live Kim Jong Il (I am completely obsessed with him for no real good reason.)
    I am with cdnkaro, the recipe really does sound delicious.
    And I am so, so, so very glad that I am not the only one with the "inner narration issue" as Masked Mom put it so well.
    And M, I would have literally KILLED for a Trader Joe's when we lived in Houston. This is good news indeed.

  13. Haha
    What an utterly charming story! (There's an exclamation point for you...)
    These are the kind of exchanges (& surprises) that makes life the sweet treat it is.

    I love your slightly awkward, self-conscious awareness. Haha I'm still smiling as I type this. Thanks for the ray of sunshine on this foggy San Francisco morning.

  14. Ha! I'm late coming here but really? I think that could be MY new career. I HAVE to talk to people all day in my current career but standing outside the grocery store and making with the chit chat FOR MONEY - well, I could do that. I assure you, w/o the money involved, there is no way in hell I would do it....
    and, btw, did you hear that Kim Jong Il is now Kim Jong Dead?
    Stephen Colbert told me that.

  15. @sebtown - I don't even think I could do it for money. It would be awkwardness of epic proportions. I would earn every penny of that $20 an hour in sweat.
    Stephen Colbert is one of the silliest men alive and I love him for it.

  16. @Lori - Thanks for stopping by! (Another exclamation point) I'm glad I could make you smile.

  17. We have the Denver Voice here and I love that paper! It feels good to buy it.

    sebtown totally beat me to the Stephen Colbert quote. Phooey.

    captcha is undis


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