Fall, 1994. I’m eight years old, and my mother takes me grocery shopping.We live in Margate, a small town in Southern New Jersey, about two miles down the beach from the lights and excitement of Atlantic City.
It’s September, and Margate feels like a ghost town. The tourists who mob the streets all summer to enjoy the beach, or as a staging point to hit America’s Favorite Playground (as Atlantic City’s slogan still proudly proclaimed before it was “Always Turned On,” and then the even kinkiest suggestion of “Do AC.”)
It’s a locals-only town again. The beaches are empty and windy- just the way I would love them twelve years later.
Right now, I’m 8 years old and fussy, and my mom is dragging me through Casel’s.
Casel’s is a small, local supermarket. I went to school with the son of the man who owned it (we got along ok, meaning we didn’t really like each other, but he didn’t beat me up.) It was both a pillar of Margate life, and a coming-of-age rite of passage- if your first summer job wasn’t being a lifeguard at the beach, you were a bagger/ clerk at Casel’s. It was the kind of place where, if you liked the work, you stayed in Margate your whole life, and became precisely who you were meant to be- that is, a person from Margate.
As my mother hustles through the aisles, clucking at some prices and comparing others, I manage to wander away and explore the rest of the stores. Jars of stuff that look gross, bags of dried veggies and soup mixes, the epically-sized kosher section reflecting the odd upper-middle class Jewish population.
I find myself in the bakery section, staring at the sweets and cookies, and HE leans over the counter and smiles.
I don’t know his name even now, but to my 8-year-old mind, he was COOL. He was a guy in his 20s- old enough to be an adult, but still pass for a kid among kids. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the top was in a hair net. No beard, but hemp choker he was wearing marked him as a beachgoer.
“Hey man! You want a cookie?”
I looked from him to the case of brightly-colored, cheap platter-ready almond cookies. Hell yeah I wanted a freakin’ cookie.
He reached into the case with a gloved hand. I can’t remember precisely, but I think he had tattoos on his arm.
He handed me a neon-green leaf-shaped one, sandwiched with chocolate in the middle. He smiles as I eat it greedily. I’d had cookies like it before, but for some reason, this one was extra good. I smiled a goofy, buck-toothed, green-tinted grin back at him.
My mom finds me, thanks the bakeshop for the cookie, and leads me away. We check out and go home.
22 years later, today. I’m 30 years old, filling the bakery case at my job, and arranging everything so it looks right. I never took a job at Casel’s. I live in Portland, Oregon. I am the person I was always meant to be, but not someone from Margate.
I set down a plateful of Halloween-inspired French Macarons (Pumpkin Spice Jack-O-Lanterns, Pink Plum Eyeballs, and Candy Corn- all Victoria’s creations, I can claim no credit there), I look up through the glass and there’s a boy and his big sister. The boys eyes and mouth are wide open in amazement. He has buckteeth. His sister starts reading the tag, telling him what flavor each one is.
I’m just about to intone those amazing and sacred words, taught 22 years ago-
“Hey man! Want a cookie?”
… When the kids mother appears and whisks them away. She’s in a hurry.
I smile, but sadly as I watch them hustle off through the glass.
One minute faster, I could have given the world another baker in 22 years.
Thanks for letting me have the cookie, Mom.