I’d planned for a tear-jerker of a post regarding how God graciously provided us a church. We’re going to save that for later though because SOMEBODY STOLE MY GROCERY STORE.
It all started as I was trying to procure a watermelon and a mattress. Anita, the kind woman I’ve hired to wash dishes and iron, and I walked to the mattress shop a block away. As we prepared to cross the street she grabbed my arm the way you grab an unruly three-year-old while navigating a busy parking lot.
Now, when I cross this particular street, I do so at the section which contains a tiny median in the middle of the four (read: twelve) lanes. Not Anita. She just chose any ol’ which way and guided me using a mixture of tugs and pulls until we got to the middle of the street WITH NO MEDIAN. There we stood, trying to flatten ourselves like vertical pancakes. A rickshaw buzzed past me from behind and honked. “Come, ma’am,” my handler laughed, pulling me closer, totally unfazed by my near death by rickshaw.
“In America, you cross different?” she asked.
“Yes, we have crosswalks,” I explained. “You push a button and it tells you when to go.”
She spied an opening and yanked me forward. “Not in India. Vee are not patient!”
We climbed some steps to the open air market and found the little door to the mattress shop. Now, just like I don’t want you imagining an ACE when you think of an Indian hardware store, please remove any images of Mattress Firm from your mind. Take down the bright lights. Shrink the space to the size of, again, a suburban laundry room. Cut the air conditioning. Line six mattresses upright against a wall. Place an old metal desk in the corner. Line another wall with brightly colored sheets wrapped in plastic. Add five barefoot Indian men. There you go. Welcome to FabFoam Mattresses of Mumbai.
Anita spoke to the men for me and explained that I needed two twin mattresses. “What kind?” the man who seemed to be in charge asked me in English.
“You sold my husband a mattress a few weeks ago. Do you know what kind that one was?” I asked.
Man in Charge strolled over to the desk and pulled out a small clipboard securing a few dozen post-it sized papers. He didn’t ask for a name, so I didn’t offer. He calmly flipped. I stared at the mini shrines dotting his bookshelf. Flowers hung before images of an elephant and a woman with many limbs.
He paused at a little piece of paper hand-written with Benson’s name and our address. Our official file.
“I will send someone to measure your bed in half hour’s past,” he offered.
“That’s perfect,” I said. Anita and I parted ways. She was headed to the Cheap and Best to find me a bucket and I planned to buy some groceries.
“Vill you be okay, ma’am?”
“Oh yeah!” I said with fake confidence. Then I mimicked being splatted across the street. She laughed and waved goodbye.
I walked to Nature’s Basket, which is like the Whole Foods of Mumbai (but not like it at all). There I found the green juice I’ve been enjoying each morning plus some marinated tandoori chicken. When the cashier asked for my member number, I proudly announced it. Look at me, having a grocery member number! That done, I set off for home.
Then I did something that Benson and I have done before. I walked past my apartment. Y’all, this place is hectic. It’s easy to get distracted and just walk right past your home.
But what a happy accident – I found myself at my beloved broken-down rickshaw veggie seller and he had watermelons! I assessed my situation. One arm held my carry bag (read: caddy bag) of juices and poultry. My purse hung across my chest. One arm free for a watermelon.
I tucked in amongst the other shoppers and waited to catch the seller’s eye. In the past, he’s always been quick to give me nod, his way of asking me what I’d like. Today he shuffled around with a bit of what looked like nervous energy, passing cash and carrots back and forth with other patrons while glancing over his shoulder. I opened my wallet in an, “I’m ready to buy that watermelon I see propped behind your perch” fashion.
An operating rickshaw stopped in the street and a man dressed all in white got out of the back and strode into the traffic. My seller locked eyes with him and but kept busy.
What is going on? Is that man in white important? Why is his rickshaw driver just stopped in the middle of the street? What’s this? A truck full of men? Are they trying to buy my watermelon? Vehicles can’t pass. Do they realize they’re causing a traffic nuisance?
The air tensed as several men hopped out of the truck. I took it as my cue to mosey on back home watermelonless, unsure of what was about to happen.
Ten minutes later one of the mattress workers showed up to measure my bed (which is its own story we’ll save for never) and when he was complete, I accompanied him back to the mattress shop to pay for my purchase. I wondered if the lithe, dark man would grab my arm like Anita, but instead he just said, “Ma’am,” when it was time to cross the street and held out his hand to stop the cars for me. (I tell ya, you’re not always guaranteed to have electricity or water or health in this country, but the customer service is impeccable.) As we crossed, I searched for my vegetable seller.
My heart sank as I saw his potatoes and onions being loaded into the truck by official looking men. His rickshaw stand sat crooked in the street.
They were stealing my grocery store! I mourned my watermelon, my sweet potatoes, my green beans and broccoli, along with my vegetable seller’s career. He stood on the sidewalk watching them shut down his business.
Back at the mattress shop the owner snapped his fingers for one of the men to bring me a chair. Man in Charge pulled out his worn price sheet and helped me select the correct foam for my trundle. The ceiling fans blew the hot Indian air through the small space, and as Man in Charge carefully wrote down my order, bracelets adorning his wrists, I asked, “Can you explain something to me?”
“My vegetable guy across the street. A lot of men showed up and are taking his vegetables. What’s happening?”
Man in Charge nodded. “It is not legal to sell where he sells. The municipality shows up. Sometimes a person pays a bribe and that’s it. Sometimes they take them down.”
He smiled. “Give it a day.” I handed over my wad of cash for the mattresses, shook hands with Man in Charge and stepped back out into the Mumbai sun. On the way home I scuttled up behind two men crossing the street. The nice thing about this part of the world is that you can stand unnaturally close to another human and it’s totally normal. Very useful when trying to avoid getting hit by a bus.
An hour later I walked to a restaurant to grab lunch and write this blog. I passed my vegetable seller still standing on the sidewalk with his friends who help him run his illegal spinach operation, all busy on their phones, their product nowhere to be seen.
As I write this, I stare out the window of my favorite restaurant and see a woman carrying what looks to be a thousand kilos of something atop her head wrapped in a plastic tarp. Two friends cross the street, one with his arm draped over the other’s shoulders. I sip my coffee and wonder what will become of my vegetable seller. I also wonder where I’ll buy vegetables for tomorrow’s dinner.
On my walk back home I saw the most wonderful sight: my vegetable seller and his helpers rapidly unloading bananas and beets from a makeshift cart covered with cardboard, quickly arranging them in bins on the street!
He gave me the half wobble, which I now interpret as “Yes.”
I gasped with joy. “Watermelon?” I asked. He snapped one up, rapped it twice with a knuckle and placed it in his scale.
“Sixty,” he said.
And that’s how you buy a mattress and a watermelon in Mumbai, India.