The Cursed Safeway and Other Grocery Stores of San Francisco

The other day, I walked to the Safeway on Diamond Heights instead of taking the train to the Safeway on Castro, which as everybody knows, is cursed. Anton LaVey cursed it, the story goes, when he attempted to bring his pet lion there and they wouldn’t let him. Ever since then something has been off about that place. And I don’t mean that as some sort of slight against its use as a place for gay men to pick up each other. Every Trader Joe’s is a place for straights to pick up each other and I’m not going to say it’s cursed.

Big grocery stores give me bad feelings because of the illusion of choice. You see 10 kinds of instant mac and cheese but God help you if you want celeriac root. Like that’s some kind of weird vegetable. It’s in the Penguin book of Cordon Bleu cooking!

The best grocery store I ever shopped at was a green market on Ocean Avenue when I was in graduate school. It was downhill from me so I’d have to take my backpack downhill and then walk up hill laden with groceries. That green market, aside from its elevation, was perfect. It had every kind of thing you might want but only one of them. So yes it had green, red, and french lentils. It had one kind of fusilli. One kind of penne. And one time someone came in looking for something, I don’t remember what anymore, artichokes maybe, and asked the grocer why he didn’t have any. He briskly informed the customer that the desired item was out of season and therefore both expensive and not very good so he didn’t carry it. Imagine that! It meant I didn’t have to have some kind of mental checklist of what was in season to buy only fresh and good things. I could just trust the green grocer.

One time I had to walk out of a big grocery store (maybe it was a Safeway too?) in Alameda because it made me ill to be there. It’s hard to really explain it. I suppose I was feeling alienation. When you have dozens of choices and you’re supposed to feel like life is bountiful but yet nothing is satisfying, it’s utterly alienating. It was better to stand in line for coffee in Communist Poland! Well maybe not better, but less corroding to the soul.

Speaking of Communist Poland, when my family first moved to the US, I loved to go grocery shopping with my mom because of all the amazing fruit and produce in the stores. We didn’t have a lot of money but we could still afford to buy one experimental fruit or vegetable. This was before the internet was really a thing so I couldn’t just for example type in “quince” and know that you have to cook quince or else they taste like wood infused with apple scent. Starfruit, kiwi, passionfruit, mango — these were all pretty great though. Kiwi is the only one that made it into our regular rotation. Hellishly, my mom thought kiwi was an acceptable substitute for strawberries in desserts and salads (it is not).

When I first moved to San Francisco I lived way out in the avenues of the Richmond District. I moved from Astoria, Queens and the thought of living walking distance to an actual sandy beach was unutterably charming so when I chose a room to rent based only on Craigslist and map data, I chose to live all the way by the edge of the Pacific. I could walk to Ocean Beach, and often did. I was kind of a night owl at the time, and there wasn’t much to do for entertainment in that part of the city, except going to the beach, or Safeway. So that’s what I did. This was before they disallowed burning bonfires on Ocean Beach wherever you pleased, so a fun thing to do was to buy some Duraflame logs at the Safeway and then have a bonfire at the beach. Or, if you wanted to do it on the cheap, you could go behind the Safeway and see if they had any damaged wood pallets you could take away. You could ask the people who worked there and a lot of time they’d give them away. I don’t know if you can still do that. I’m not so much of a night owl anymore, and I don’t live there, but I still like to go to the beach even though it’s almost an hour on Muni.

Right next to Ocean Beach, at LaPlaya and Balboa there is a large Russian grocery store called Europa Express. This place is like the spiritual opposite of a depressing Safeway. The food is amazing, largely labelled only in Cyrillic, and the staff is very Russian. By which I don’t mean they are just ethnically Russian. I mean their style of customer service pleasantly reminds me of Eastern Europe. When you’re shopping, they leave you the fuck alone. No one asks if you need help. If you need help in a grocery store, you are probably beyond help, is the thought, I imagine. When it’s time to pay there is no small talk or unnecessary smiling, not even for the Russian speaking customers. Also for whatever reason they always speak to me in Russian. I don’t know if I look so Slavic they just make the assumption (I do have a pretty classically Slavic face, big, round, pale, and with a very severe resting bitch face) or if it’s the stuff I buy, or if they just talk to everyone in Russian and assume you can sort it out. I’ll have to send my husband one day, because he looks so English there is absolutely no way you could mistake him for a Russian.  

Europa Express isn’t organized in any way I could convey to you, yet it makes perfect sense to me. Obviously the cheeses and tvarogs and kefirs are in one place, because they need refrigeration. There are glass fridges full of every kind of sausage you might want, if you’re Russian. If you’re Polish it’s just almost every kind, which is still better than Safeway which carries such abominations as Polish Kielbasa (Turkey). It’s fine I guess if you’re not expecting kielbasa or are on a diet and fat will make you sick (I had to be on a diet like that for a while and it was very sad, every time I ate something with more fat content than 1% milk I got nauseated. Horrible. Luckily I got better.)

There is of course the smoked and pickled fish section. Yes that’s a section. I have to use all my self-control not to buy every kind of herring. There is herring in oil, herring in water, herring in vinegar, herring in cream,  herring in jars and herring in shrink-wrap plastic. Unlike at Safeway where the best you can hope for is herring in wine sauce which is always very expensive, and weirdly sweet. They always have both hot smoked and cold smoked mackerel. I have to confess that the texture of cold smoked mackerel doesn’t agree with me, which makes me feel like a weakling. But what can you do?

Right across the aisle from the smoked and pickled fish are all kinds of canned fish. Not just boring (and dolphin murdering) tuna, but sprats, and mackerels and yes, herrings, and anchovies, and sardines. Next to that are all kinds of other wonderful preserves like cherries and pickled mushrooms, and pickled cabbage and pickled beets. I’m sure I’m leaving some things out. Just trust me it’s good.

They even have vaguely subversive foods. For example the other day I saw a woman buying multiple flats of fresh blackcurrants. I would have bought some too, but it turned out she bought out the entire supply. As you may not know, growing blackcurrants was banned in the US in the 1900s because they spread a tree disease that threatened the logging industry. So for nearly a century Americans lacked access to one of the world’s most wonderful fruits. In 2003 some states started lifting the ban, but no one grew up with blackcurrants, so grocery stores don’t carry them.

There’s also a tea aisle where you can get all kinds of really good black teas, and an astounding variety of herbal teas. A lot of the herbal teas are imported from Poland so it’s a bit easier for me to navigate around them. There are also what I consider to be Advanced Russian beverages like wines made out of fruits I would not normally think to ferment, and of course, kvass. Kvass is made from fermented dark rye bread, is black, and carbonated. It looks like Coca Cola but if you took a sip expecting Coca Cola you would be very surprised and probably disgusted. It’s mildly sour and tastes a bit like liquid essence of pumpernickel. It’s an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired. There’s nothing else like it though, so I imagine if you’re used to it, going without would be a hardship. What with the craze for kombucha, I’m surprised that kvass hasn’t also caught on. Perhaps it’s because it’s not gluten-free.

They used to carry Inka, a Polish chicory and roasted grain coffee substitute. It’s funny how Inka has come around. It was what we used to drink when you couldn’t get coffee because of Communist era shortages, plus it was what you could give children and people who couldn’t have caffeine and they’d get to have the pleasure of drinking something at least a bit coffee like with the healthy adults.

When I was a kid in school in Poland, we used to get mugs of Inka during break between classes in the winter. I don’t remember ever having to pay for it, or my parents having to pay for it. The mugs were big metal enamel mugs, and the Inka was milky and over-sweet. Break would happen and suddenly ladies with big tea trays laden with the mugs came into the classroom and every kid got a mug. Even though I thought it was too sweet I drank it and I liked it because it was so nice and warm. Now that I think of it, I don’t know if they gave us the Inka before or after they sent us to play in the snow for a recess. Anyway fake coffee is full of childhood nostalgia for me, and I’m a bit disappointed Europa Express no longer carries it.

They do have my other big nostalgia treats though: Delicia and Krowki. Delicie are a Polish version of Jaffa Cakes, a soft vanilla cookie coated on one side with chocolate, and with a bit of fruity gelatin in between the chocolate and the cookie. Orange and cherry seem to be the most popular flavors. Krowki are a kind of toffee. The name means “little cows” and it’s not so much a brand as a method. If you have the patience you could make your own krowki with condensed milk and sugar. But it’s a bit like making your own bread. Maybe fun as a novelty now and again, but honestly, better to leave it to the professionals who know better. In Poland there are always stands at green markets where people who have mastered the art of making krowki sell an astounding variety of them. Besides the basic, you get chocolate flavored, and then all kinds of different add ins like poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, hazelnut bits, or hazelnut flavor. Europa Express carries many of these, but truth be told, now that I am an adult and do have the choice, I prefer the simple classic. Krowki are about the size of a thumb, and individually wrapped in little bits of parchment paper, and then those parchment wrapped packets are wrapped in colorful paper wrappers with pictures of (what else) little cows on them.

Although it should go without saying, I will say that Europa Express is definitely not cursed. I would not even be surprised if it had been officially blessed.

Airplanes Over the Bog

In response to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “The Pear Tree”

Bagno. The name means bog.
The village may have been a bog
before the drainage ditches
gridded it into kolkhoz.

Crop dusters buzz in the cloudy sky—
always cloudy over Bagno,
always muddy at the kolkhoz gate
where the people’s tractor
shudders diesel smoke through a soot-blacked chimney.

Cloudy sky like a black and white
newsreel from WWII
where an airplane buzzes low,
and drops a finned black bomb
like a soda fountain cartridge
and a child runs with a black mouth
open but inaudible over the buzz. The bomb
does not hum, does not hiss, does not cry,
and I can’t tell in the black and white film
if the child’s mouth is full of shadows or blood.

In the fields black molehills
erupt like impact craters,
but we never see the blind
excavators alive.

My cousin’s model airplane
burns fuel oily and metallic,
buzzes above us in the cloudy field,
flies to the edge of radio range,
then out of range
down into the calamus,
into the cattails, into the wet edge
of the black pine forest seeping night,
and burrows its lacquered nose in peat.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

About this poem

When I was about to post this poem, I looked up Brigit Pegeen Kelly so I could link to her biography, and learned that she died last year. I no longer know what to say when someone asks me who is my favorite living poet. In 1997 I heard Brigit Pegeen Kelly read from her book Song at the Aran Islands Poetry Festival in Galway, Ireland. I was attending it as one of the winning young poets sent by the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. I was so taken with her work that I overcame my habitual shyness and went up to her afterwards to tell her how much I loved it, and I gave her the only thing I could think of, my poetry chapbook, although it seemed rather paltry in comparison to what I had just heard. I also bought her book, which I foolishly neglected to ask her to sign. I wish I had.

Over the years, I read the poems in Song and The Orchard many times. Many of my poems are inspired by hers. I meant to tell her how much her poems meant to me. I mean to send her some of them, but it seemed presumptuous. Now it’s too late.

Like Two Dogs Dancing

[Content warning: animal death]

He turns into the comforter of rain,
no umbrella or hat, just the quilted
sidewalk. The spume from wheels passing
through the deep puddle by the stopped
storm drain arcs into the wet air
like the last blood of his black dog
that as a child he once neglected to tie up,
hit by the back wheel of a parked Fiat
unseen until the car started and its blood
waved like a fox tail, like the tail of another
dog, a red dog playing with the black dog,
wrestling in the rutted red-clay road
until the black dog fell exhausted.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

The Wandering Daughter Returns to Her Neglected Patrimony

From the half-finished bunker of the concrete basement
That was to be the foundation of our now-abandoned
Familial abode that I will neither finish nor furnish
Nor people with young from my rebel womb,
I throw my gaze down the hill of dead orchard,
Across the green lake poisoned with runoff, to the far-side
Fields of sodden rye where from the lead belly of the sky
Snake tongues of violet lightning.

The air shudders with ozone and cracks;
The spear of the black iron lightning rod running
Along the red brick church tower of the old Prussian spire
Conjures down heaven’s fire through rusted-red rebar,
Down to the grounding-rod deep in red clay.

Like a spilled bag of steel bearings
The rain rolls down the fiberglass roof.

The black guard dog whimpers locked in his pen
Lest he bite me again, waiting for nightfall when he’ll pant
The perimeter of the chain link fence from hilltop spruce
To lakeside rowan, patrolling the dry orchard
My uncle let die as he drank year by year
His caretaker’s funds never believing
Anyone would return.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Church in Gryźliny, Poland.

 

Grudzień

The tall, even pines
   with sand at their feet
      brood black between their trunks.

 The winter-dried reeds
   frozen solid in the iced-over marsh
      rustle in the western wind
 
that blows from the red,
   red disk of the solstice sun
      solemnly sliding down the midwinter sky,
  
hardly illuminating the winter-plowed field
   where the good black peat bog earth
      the steel plows had cut and turned
 
has frozen solid like a sea in the midst of a storm,
   the peak of each earth wave touched with sun-blood,
      each dell breeding black shadows,

breeding night. Night seeping from the tall pines.
   Night rising from the peat field,
      the sun spilling out into the frozen bog,
  
spilling and sinking
   into the crackling ice.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

In the Park with Grandmother, Olsztyn, Poland 1981

for Babcia Wańdzia

Though she pulled it back into a bun
   black wisps of her hair haloed
      her face.

The hard blue sky behind her
   run through with a single white thread
      of a contrail.

Her skin was like walnut.
   With the sun behind her
      she smiled at me in her own shadow.

The silver plane
   preceded
      its sound.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

One July at 2 a.m.

Speeding down the kudzu highway
where Atlanta’s orange glow chokes
stars, he forced the ’82 stick-
shift Toyota too close to its
effective frequency. I thought
the vibrations would shatter us.

He forgot the front-door key and had to climb
through our bedroom window.
Poison sumac grew on the wall. He attacked
the tendrils with his serrated carbon steel
commando pocket-knife. Our sheets, always musty,
kept me awake as the fan click-clacked,
and he again refused to hold or touch me.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Translating Big Potatoes: A Kind of Review of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz

Author gesticulating in front of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern

“Ha! Definitely potatoes!” Author gesticulating in front of Embryology by Magdalena Abakanowicz at Tate Modern

The uneven, bulbous shapes reminded me of a recurring hypnagogic hallucination from my childhood, and so of course, I was immediately drawn to them, while simultaneously repulsed. Exactly like that nightmare hallucination. I walked around them, rather wishing, as I often do with sculpture, that I could get closer, touch it, or at least walk among the piles of brown – what exactly?

At first I thought of a disturbed ants nest, with worker ants carrying eggs away. But eggs would all be the same size. Then I thought of potatoes.

As I wandered around my companion read the explanatory plaque out loud:

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Embryology 1978–80.

These cocoon-like objects reflect Abakanowicz’s interest in biological systems, organic matter and regeneration, topics she discussed with scientists in her native Poland. In response to a commission to represent Poland at the Venice Biennale in 1979, she made hundreds of soft sculptures of varying shapes and sizes, ‘rounded like bellies, or elongated like mummies,’ as she described them. Abakanowicz collected old mattresses, clothing and sacks to create this ‘invented anatomy’ of forms and installed eight hundred in Venice under the title Embryology.

Ha! Definitely potatoes then! Or certainly influenced by potatoes. I could see immediately how the language of high art had been deployed to obscure a humble and low-prestige inspiration. Listen, I could be wrong, of course, I could always be wrong, but I am almost certain I am not wrong.

Let me tell you about the potato harvest.

When I was a child in the Polish People’s Republic (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa), or as we more often say, Communist Poland, schoolchildren in the upper grades participated in the potato harvest, or wykopki. I was too young to participate myself, but I heard all about it and I was very jealous. First of all, you got to leave school for the day and be outdoors all day. As I understand it, the farm machines did most of the work, and people walked behind them to pick up the irregular-sized potatoes that the machines missed. (And at the end of the day there were bonfires and fire roasted potatoes eaten hot with just salt in the cold autumn air. How I wished they would have taken me to wykopki.)

And what do you suppose that might have looked like, uneven potatoes scattered behind the machine on the uneven ground?

October, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878, oil on canvass)

October, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1878, oil on canvas)

Remarkably like the scattered objects in Embryology, I think.

I cannot prove it, but it’s very likely that Abakanowicz participated in the potato harvest as a school child, even if she never did as an adult. It’s also very likely that she saw such fields of potatoes being harvested (as I did), because potatoes are and have been a staple crop in Poland.

What’s more, her choice of materials, the burlap, is evocative of the burlap sacks potatoes were (and perhaps are?) stored in. It’s possible she used actual potato sacks to make her art. Potatoes are all over the work.

The artist herself might have rejected the potato inspiration of the form, and the potato sackcloth origin of the material, rejecting all the Communist era romance of the potato harvest. Or the description of her work as given may be deliberately high-artish, because while a potato harvest is a fit subject for Socialist Realism (which she found stifling and rejected), it isn’t high-concept enough for Art. Or is this my own class ressentiment showing?

 

Embryology is on display at the Tate Modern, in London, as a part of the permanent collection. Admission is free.

 

 

Aubade

In that moment I wonder
   was Freud right after all,
is the female nothing, nothing
   but the absence of the male?
Am I real or a black void
   of soft, organic warmth,
depersonalized fecundity, animal blood,
   alien slime, not a person,
only provisional consciousness
   that moves towards food and spawns
my animal brood? A black earth field,
   bog soil, ready for seed, but not,
never, no, never autonomous.
   A collection of parts: skin,
soft, moist openings, hair, nails,
   bones, cartilage. Not ever a sum
greater than its parts.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Intercourse

I am not a hole,
   but in this moment
I become it.
   When the act is finished
and the plug is gone
   I am no longer whole.
 
Desire covers the futility
   of the thrusting.
If for a moment I regain consciousness
   I think “how ridiculous,”
lose all suspension of disbelief
   and see sex as a child again:
A strange act, pointless, repetitive.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.