serving writers and publishers since 1988

The Pickle Lady

Three times a week, wire shopping cart in tow, Mom and I set out for Avenue J. While jumping over cracks in sidewalks, skipping, or hopping on one foot, I thought of the treat I would savor at the end of the shopping trip, making the long, five-city-block trek bearable.

First came the bank with its veined marble floors inlayed with shinny geometric gold lines and tellers sitting high behind their cages, handing out money. I remember thinking I would also have marble floors like that when I grew up.

Arms laden with another week’s worn shirts, we went next door to the tiny laundry. From the back room, steam irons hissed out loud, rhythmic noises that mingled with the voices of the Chinese workers. Exchanging tickets, the unsmiling man, face glistening with sweat, handed Mom a stack of my dad’s laundered shirts. Stiffly starched, each was individually folded around a grey cardboard secured with blue paper bands.

From the laundry, a veritable sauna of heat and humidity, we were next engulfed into a space of floury whiteness. There, a sugary sweet aroma beckoned you to an array of perfectly arranged breads and pastries. The bakery women wore white nurses shoes and spotless white aprons with bows tied neatly behind their backs. Fine, white, hair nets like surgical caps covered their heads. From beds of lacy white doilies, they cut portions of cakes and pies with operating room precision, placing them in glossy white cardboard boxes then on a special machine, which miraculously secured the boxes perfectly four times around with fine white string.

The dreaded fish store was next. It smelled, well, fishy. My five year old blues were directly level with those cold glassy eyed cod and sole staring from their icy coffin display case. I always tried to divert my eyes from those lifeless creatures, feeling somewhat guilty about having to eat one for dinner.

The grocery store came last. I could feel the anticipation growing. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw her. My treat was moments away. Nobody seemed to know her name. She rarely engaged customers in conversation. For years, she remained rooted there in front of the grocery store as strongly as the tree that shaded the sidewalk. Fabulous aromas wafted up from fat wooden barrels sporting fading signs that read “ten cents for one, three for a quarter.” Richly colored like fertile earth, they were filled with dark, briny pools of spices swimming with pickles. Her concoction was pure ambrosia to pickle aficionados like myself. This minute, not even charlotte russes, bubble gum, or strawberry ice cream in a pink sugar cone drenched with sprinkles could compete with my desire for a crunchy, tangy, garlicky run-down-your-chin-juicy pickle experience.

The pickle lady's face was a landscape of bumps and groves resembling the pickles she scooped out of her barrels. Her leathery skin was darkened with spots, weathered from years exposed to the elements. Deep brown eyes wore an expression of weariness. Sometimes a stray, mousy, brown hair worked its way out, refusing to stay restrained under the babushka covering her head. Ample breasts waterfalled downward to her heavy waist, straining against an ancient greenish-brown sweater she wore on chilly days. There was a hole at the right elbow caused by the repetitive motion of her arm as she stirred the concoction with a large wooden spoon.

Her hands were wide and puffy, not soft with manicured nails like my mother’s. The art of pickle making had its consequences. No French perfume could mask or soap wash away the lasting odor that saturated every line and pore of every finger. In cold weather, she wore woolen fingerless gloves. Just the palms of her hands were covered, giving the appearance of little brown puppies wearing sweaters with legs and tails sticking out. Bundled up in a blanket against the coldest days, she would rub her two thick flounder-hands together over a barrel of smoldering coals. The laces of her black shoes, with soles as thick as her facial features, peeked out from under the hem of an acorn-brown skirt stained with pickle juice. In warm weather, she hiked up her skirt, revealing calves encased in stockings that ended in tight little rolls beneath bare hammy knees.

1 would furtively sneak glances, watching her stir her brew, never making eye contact. This was a far more serious matter than averting my eyes away from some lifeless fish. 1 thought she looked like the old woman who caged Hansel and Gretel, fattening them up so she could eat them. I wasn't totally convinced wicked witches lived only in fairy tales, but the pure deliciousness of her infusion pulled me like a bee to nectar in spite of my wariness. I stood on tiptoes just inches away from the pickle lady, peering into the cauldrons of marinating cukes with my mom safely beside me. With wide hands, she ladled up the largest pickle she could find, handing it to me in a waxy paper. I would eat it slowly, deliberately, on the way home, savoring every crunchy bite.

Within the next ten years, Avenue J became a monopoly board. Some stores bought out others, forcing the old mom-and-pop establishments out of business. Greeting you at the entrance on revolving shelves, éclairs, mile-high layer cakes, large butter cookies, all manner of creme pies were gobbled up for desert in the new, large, family-type restaurant. You could eat and get your cake too. The old bakery closed. They said it was time to retire. When the FRENCH Cleaners opened across from the Chinese laundry, they offered specials on men’s shirts that the little laundry couldn't compete with. They closed the laundry, sold their pressing machines, and went to work in a cousin's restaurant. Chinese cuisine was the new exotic food rage. Almost every family carried take out Sunday nights.

Unfortunately, the fish store hung on, trying to offer a wider selection like mussels and clams. Clothing stores and a hole-in-the-wall pizza place opened next to the bank, which also changed hands (but not the marble floors). The new pizza place had the best fold-up crust, cheese and perfectly seasoned sauce oozing from within and the perfect amount of oil dripping out with every bite I took. But, that is another story.

The little grocery store, with its iceberg lettuce and American cheese or Velveeta that my dad spread on his morning toast, was replaced by a new supermarket with all kinds of frozen foods and exotic fruits. Gone too, was the pickle lady. I never saw her again.

In my adult years I have tasted pickles from New York to California in my search to find the perfect pickle. Some were too sweet, too salty, too soft, too tastless. Pale slices served with sandwiches. Pickles in jars each promising crunchiness, sourness, half sourness, bread and butter pickles, deli and gourmet pickles. l have tried them all.

Many years ago, frustrated in my search, I decided to make my own. Finally, I thought, I could duplicate those wonderful pickles. I bought a heavy brown ceramic crock pot and cucumbers at the height of ripeness. I tried one recipe after another with dogged determination. I tried tweaking the recipes, with no success. I left them to marinate in the pot for longer or shorter periods, sometimes adding more garlic, more peppercorns, less vinegar, more pickling spices. No success. I finally surrendered. The only success I had with that crock pot was when I sold it at my garage sale the following year.

Was it because I was five that a pickle could taste so heavenly? Am I searching to recreate an experience that I have exaggerated in my memory? I will never know. I do know that the pickle lady with a name I never knew, who lived an ordinary and hardworking life, elevated the art of pickle making to a higher level and took it with her. Disregarded in life, she lives on with special reverence in my heart.