The Fruit Vendor

by George H.Smith

A leap into the unknown Argentina


A Sunday afternoon in Bariloche, Argentina. I'd been recovering from pneumonia and had dragged myself out of my hostel just to see if I could. I found a green grocer in a little enclave at the top of the town, a severe little guy with needle-thin arms and a jutting "Popeye the Sailor Man," jaw. People were lined up on the sidewalk, and it didn't take long to figure out why. His fruit and vegetables looked, for want of a better descriptor, otherworldly. The smells in that shop could themselves have been bottled and sold. Every piece was ripe and ready, as if picked to be eaten within the hour. I saw him deftly trim a red pepper that could have been mistaken for a football, demanding his customer approve its quality before adding it to her shopping sack. He surveyed those of us waiting, by dint of barely perceptible winks and nods, let us know the order in which we would be served. On at least two occasions, I saw him reject the selections his patrons had brought to him, pointing out flaws, tossing the offending product(s) into the trash. Once, he set a lemon on the floor and rolled it about to test its durability. (The lemon passed, and made it into the bag, though for a while there, I had my doubts.) Who makes his living this way? But nobody complained, united as we were in a sacred process. This was as far from the big chains as one could hope to get. This was about the extolling of quality for its own sake, excellence that serves as its own best reward. This was fruit as religion, pure and simple. Finally, it was my turn to present the lone nectarine I'd selected from a sidewalk bin. He picked it up, turned it slowly gently pressing the flesh, hefting it first in one hand, then the other. The other patrons looked on, frowning nervously. For what seemed a very long time, their eyes wouldn't meet mine, and neither would his. Then the spell was broken. He looked at me appraisingly, nodded once, and rang up my order. Fleeing with my prize, I felt as if I were clutching a diploma it had taken me years to earn. Surely, everyone I passed on the street would understand what had just occurred. A certain stubborn tidiness compels me to add: that was, far and away, the sweetest, juiciest nectarine I've ever had. If I remember my trip for nothing else, I'll remember it for that. Could this alone be worth the price of having ventured forth? I know at least one Argentine green grocer for whom the answer would be a resounding, "Yes!"