In the Jewish neighborhoods he was “Morris, the Maven of Tomatoes.” The orthodox women hardly talked to him, except to call out their orders in Yiddish, enough of which he understood, or to haggle about his high prices or to complain about the accuracy of the scale that hung from the side of his wagon. Some called him Moshe and he always answered to it using the Yiddish he had learned to sweet talk the women who complained the most. “I will never get rich if all my customers are like you,” he said with a smile, always with a smile, and always throwing a little extra onto the scale to keep them happy.
On the Spanish blocks the people said he was to produce what El Exigenté, the demanding one, was to coffee. The older kids circled his wagon with their bikes like the cowboys and Indians movies they’d seen at the Loew’s Oriental on 86th Street at the Saturday matinees. The younger ones chased along beside the peddler on the sidewalk pacing his tired horse, Bianca, an old swaybacked mare that was more mottled gray than white. Some urged the horse to giddyap, while others shouted for her to whoa. Most times the old mare just ignored them. Sometimes she swatted flies with her tail or raised it before she dropped “road apples” on the pavement to the amusement of the kids. The little ones laughed and pointed, the older boys picked them up and threw them at one another like clods of dirt. Young pregnant mothers wheeling carriages waved and called to Roberto, el rey de frutas y verdures, the undisputed king of fruits and vegetables. To those who were down on their luck he handed bags of fruits and vegetables, those that were slightly bruised or the brown bananas he’d pulled from the bins on his wagon to keep his stock fresh. He prided himself on the widest selection of produce, from the succulent summer peaches to the most exotic melons, from string beans to eggplants and the squash never too young and never too old.
Bianca knew the daily routine, weaving her way slowly up and down the one way streets, stopping in front of the same houses whether he was on board holding the reins or walking beside her on the sidewalk calling, “Fruit man! Fruit man!” She knew to turn just one block before the black neighborhood began where the people wanted everything for nothing, and she headed back toward home and the Italians in Bensonhurst. That was where they lived and where she knew he would put on her feedbag.
One late afternoon of a particularly long day, Bianca was especially restless and exceptionally hungry despite the occasional apples he had fed her along the route. Like a dissatisfied woman she had complained all morning until well into afternoon. Then, while he was negotiating prices with his customers, the horse snorted, clumped her metal shoes on the warm asphalt, neighed and pulled the reins free from where they were loosely wrapped around the wooden brake next to the empty driver’s seat. Without warning Bianca began to move and the wooden wagon went with her, and in the next moment she was trotting away. He called at her to stop and cursed, shaking his fists at the horse as he chased after her on his old legs, but when she turned at the corner he watched her disappear into the traffic, pulling wagon and spilling a trail of fruits and vegetables on the street behind her.
A long hour later, hot and perspiring, wiping his face with the red bandana he always carried folded neatly in his back pocket he used as a cloth when he ate his lunch, he found Bianca standing docilely waiting for him at the curb halfway down 57th Street where every day they ate lunch in front of the Antonette Mascucci’s house. The peddler had known her and her husband from Avellino in the old country. After the Mario died he always made it a point to stop there each day and look in on her.
“What happened to you, Funz?” she called to him in Italian from her porch with easy familiarity, using the shortened form of Alfonso that was his real name. “We thought maybe you fell off your wagon and that maybe the gypsies on Second Avenue took you.”
The other women laughed. They had already picked through the fruits and vegetables and filled their own orders, weighing them before Funz arrived. They used the assorted paper bags he carried on the wagon, making change and leaving their payment in the cash box that was on the floor of the driver’s seat.
“My grandson watered Bianca with the hose and gave her a bucket to drink, but she wants to eat.”
“Grazie, signora,” he answered in the same Neapolitan dialect, “I knew she would be here.” He smacked the horse on her haunch and the sound made Bianca lift her head and turn back her ears. “This horse knows the route better than I do. She is quick to remind me where to stop and when to move on, but today she was in a hurry and made me take a long, hot walk in the sun. You are a bad horse,” he said in a scolding tone, “and should be made into glue.” But then he rubbed her spotted coat lovingly.
He found the worn leather feedbag in the seat on top of the wagon and filled it with oats. Then he slipped the bag over her muzzle and set the strap behind her ears. When she was quietly munching he retrieved his own lunch, a sandwich his wife made on Italian bread and wrapped in waxed paper, along with pieces of fruit that were bundled in a brown cloth sack. “I tell my wife, signora, I don’t need the fruit,” he said on more than one occasion, “that I have more fruit on the wagon than I could ever eat. But she insists. You know how women are. So she packs it anyway, and fresh figs from my tree.” He showed her. “And sometimes maybe a home grown tomato or two from my garden.”
He climbed up the front steps to the little table and four wooden chairs she prepared for him every day, along with a carafe of home made red wine and two thin glass tumblers. First he pulled out her chair and then his own before he opened his bandana, placed it carefully on the table and laid down the sack of food. She turned over the tumblers and poured some wine for the both of them, half a glass for her and a full one for him. It was their ritual, one they had practiced for years.
“Giuseppe,” she called to her grandson who was standing on the sidewalk watching the horse shoo flies with her flicking tail, twitching her legs when they landed there, “you go get the jar of cold water from the ice box for Funz,” she said in accented English. “And some glasses. Don’t drop them. And then you come for your lunch.”
When the screen door slammed behind the boy she reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a brown bag that she handed over to Funz. It was another of their rituals, one started more recently after her grandson, a finicky eater at best, discovered the fruit peddler’s lunch one afternoon and the man offered him part of his sandwich. Every day after that the boy looked forward to Funz’s arrival and lunchtime, relishing whatever the man unwrapped, eating food he would never consider trying when his mother made it. Over the weeks he had devoured yellow squash flowers, egg-battered and fried golden brown with onions, cold zucchini circles sliced thin and sautéed in olive oil, marinated in vinegar and garlic with fresh mint leaves that added flavor, green peppers over-stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, steamed artichokes that looked strange but tasted delicious, and even fried calamari that made his throat close whenever he smelled it cooking in his mother’s kitchen.
Soon the boy returned with the water, balancing three fragile glasses that he set down carefully on the table.
“So, Giuseppe, shall we see what Mrs. Funz packed for us to eat today?” the peddler asked, winking at the woman. He unwrapped his sandwich and nodded. “It looks like una bella frittata of potatoes and eggs, and some peppers and onions too. And for you?” He handed over the other bag that the boy opened eagerly, peeling aside the wrapping to show him. “Melanzana parmigiano,” he said, looking at the little hero sandwich, the heel of the Italian bread overflowing with eggplant in tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. ”Better than what she made for me, I think. Maybe we can trade,” he joked, but the boy bit into his sandwich and chewed contentedly.
“Your mother made eggplant last night,” his grandmother said, “and you wouldn’t even taste it.”
“That’s because her eggplant isn’t as good as the kind Mrs. Funz makes,” he said with his mouth full.
And for a few minutes they both sat in silence eating their lunch.
When Funz finished his wine she went to pour him a second glass. “No, grazie, signora,” he said. “Bianca and I still have miles to go before our day is over.” He reached into his pocket and removed a folding knife that he opened and wiped carefully on his bandana. “But maybe some of this.” He picked up the large red tomato his wife had packed for him. He cut through the skin without damaging the fruit, creating perfect precision slices uniformly thick. Holding them on the flat blade, he handed over one of the slices to each of them.
“Good luck with that,” she said biting into hers. “This boy never eats tomatoes. He even puts butter on his macaroni.”
“What?” Funz asked. “You don’t like fresh tomatoes? What kind of Italian are you? Sicilian?” he joked.
His grandmother laughed and shrugged her shoulders. “Ah, what can you do? His father’s family is from Palermo,” she said with a tone that was lost on her grandson.
“Well,” Funz said, turning his attention back on to boy, “I am a tomato expert, you know. Not only do I sell them, all kinds, plum tomatoes, the ones your grandmother makes into her delicious sauce, big red tomatoes for salads or for slicing with olive oil and oregano, I grow them too. I have eaten so many tomatoes cooked, raw, red, yellow and green, for more than sixty years. Even in my breakfast cereal! So I am quite the expert. Maybe you just think you don’t like them because you haven’t tasted these special tomatoes from my garden the way I like to eat them.” He pulled two slices of fried potato from his lunch, large almost perfect circles, and he put them on each side of the sliced tomato. “It’s a very special potato-tomato sandwich,” he said and offered it to the boy who was watching closely.
He held it between his fingers like a cookie, turned it over to examine it, and after the slightest hesitation took a bite. A smile spread across his face. “Delicious!” he said. “I love potato-tomatoes!” He gobbled it down in three bites and looked for more.
His grandmother laughed again and she shook her head. “Only from you, Funz,” she said. “Only from you.”
Funz nodded and patted the woman’s hand. “As with so many things in life, signora, it is all in the presentation,” he said.
© 2013 Joseph E. Scalia from "Different Other Different Stories." Joseph E. Scalia was born and raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn. He taught high school English and Creative Writing on LI for 33 years. He has published 6 books, and more recently discovered watercolors.