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Jacob Sackin

It's Good to be Close to Your Food

I just spent $143.73 at the grocery store. I pushed my cart quietly down the produce aisle, passing the other people filling clear plastic bags with vegetables and fruit. No one was talking. There was only the sound of soft music coming down from speakers on the ceiling. An automatic sprinkler came on and watered the shiny clean peppers, neatly organized into sections of green, red and yellow. In the checkout line, I read headlines and looked at pictures of famous people on the covers of the magazines sitting by the candy, until it was my turn. A teenage girl wearing a red-checkered visor and shirt that matched the interior of the store picked up my items as they came down the black conveyer belt and swept them over the scanner. We both stared into space while waiting for the computer to okay the secret code I typed into the keypad. She told me to have a nice day and I thanked her before leaving through the automatic doors.

A friend of mine broke down crying in the grocery store a few days after she had come back from India. “We are so isolated and separate from each other,” she told me on the phone after it happened. “It makes me so sad.” A year later, now that I too have come back from a trip to India, I understand a bit more why she broke down. Buying food in India was much different than it was this morning at the grocery store. You have to be awake and mean what you say when bartering with an old woman for potatoes and onions. She sends a boy around the corner to her friend’s stall to ask for change. He comes back and chases away a cow nibbling on a head of lettuce. Sometimes there is eggplant and sometimes there isn’t. It all depends on what is in season or what has come in on the trucks, ox-carts or bicycles that morning.

My first time buying food in India was in a large outdoor market in Calcutta. It was still early morning, and hundreds of people were out on the sidewalks and curbs washing their bodies and chewing on small bacteria-killing sticks that prevent oral diseases and strengthen gums. Children in uniforms walked to school and rode in taxis or rickshaws pulled by men running in flip-flops through the streets. When I reached the market, I wandered through the narrow dirt aisles, passing row after row of stalls selling saris, cloth, board games, books, tapes, toys, shoes, spices, dried beans, and rice. I stopped at a stall selling American brand products and laughed at how out of place they seemed. There were all the familiar brand names, characters and patterns on peanut butter jars, bottles of syrup, boxes of cereal, and containers of chocolate milk mix. I turned the corner and saw a scene so foreign to me that it is still engrained in my memory.

There was a long cage filled with chickens and a man standing behind a table with a sharp blade sticking out of it. Another man, without shoes or a shirt, crawled inside the cage and the chickens squawked and moved to the far side. He pulled one out and handed it to the other, who ran its neck along the blade. The head fell into a wooden box on the dirt floor, and the shirtless man handed the body to an old woman after she paid. I watched the men kill two more chickens and left, thinking about how in grocery stores back at home death is hidden behind closed doors and you only see the packages of sliced honey-cured ham and salmon steaks or clean white chicken legs, nicely arranged on Styrofoam trays.

I remember sitting in a rickshaw at an intersection after leaving the market with a bag full of fruit and a few new tapes to listen to on my walkman. The driver was Sikh and wore a black turban and long white beard. Standing on the median, between the sixteen lanes of traffic, a beggar reached inside the window of the rickshaw and put her baby’s limp arm on my shoulder, asking for money. On the sidewalk, in front of stalls filled with old rusty bicycle parts, a wandering sadhu with dreadlocks, wearing only a white sheet, stood holding a staff and looking out into the traffic.

A Swedish man I had met in Varanasi told me he had learned while driving his bus through Calcutta that India is working chaos. “You can not pay any attention to the lines,” he told me. “You must feel the traffic moving all around you. And if you try to bring western order to the chaos, if you try to keep everyone separated with the same amount of space around each vehicle, all nicely divided up by yellow lines, everything will come to a standstill.”

When the light changed to green, the policeman in a tower wearing a white face mask motioned for us to go, and all the cars, busses, bicycles, ox-drawn carts, and rickshaws lunged into motion, weaving and flowing around each other like a swarm of bees.

This morning, as I drive through the suburban sprawl stretching down the peninsula south of San Francisco, the rest of the world does not seem so alive. Inside my car, with the perfect temperature and distance from my feet to the pedals, I feel very separate from everything outside of my controlled space. I watch the other people passing in their own cars, listening to their own music. The exotic trees on the median are neatly trimmed and equally spaced. On the hills above the highway, each house has its own small square fenced-in-yard. One has a dog tied to a tree, barking at a jogger who listens to music on his headphones. Even in the park by my house, where I sometimes go to read, I know that I am on an island, separated from everything else. The trees feel like animals in the zoo.

In Calcutta, the taxi dropped me off at the train station and I bought a third-class ticket to Konark, twelve hours down the coast. I had been teaching English in northern India for nine months, and was spending my last month traveling on the eastern coast. I watched six barefoot beggar boys playing soccer with a piece of trash in front of the bathroom, and then pushed my way through people carrying luggage and giant burlap bags full of goods onto the train. I spent most of the trip talking with the two other men who shared my berth and watching the Indian countryside pass by. Old men rode bicycles down narrow dirt paths and women carried water jugs through the fields. Children who were herding cattle and sheep waved.

Each time the train stopped, dozens of people crowded on selling food and goods. A boy with no legs swept under everyone’s feet and asked for money. I took pictures with each of the men sitting next to me and talked late into the night, until we all decided together to pull down the other two berths from the wall so we could sleep. A friend of a couple sitting across from me slept sitting up at the end of my berth, and I quickly became annoyed. I tried to nudge him off but finally gave up, realizing that in India, people are more used to sharing their personal space.

The first-class train ride I had taken from Delhi to Calcutta the week before was much different. The car had been empty except for a few westerners listening to music on headphones or talking quietly over their guidebooks. No one had come into the car when the train stopped. The doors were closed and locked from the inside. Each bed and compartment was separated from the others with curtains. I had spoken to no one, turned on the personal lamp on the ceiling, and read well into the night.

When I arrived in Konark in the third-class car, I said goodbye to the two men who slept above me and checked into a small hotel. On the beach, I met a fisherman named Santibabo, who I convinced to take me in his boat out to sea, but we came back only an hour later with no fish. “The sea is empty,” he told me, pointing at the cranes on the big boats in the distance. “The machines have taken all the fish.” He invited me back to his home, and we walked across the sand, past several piles of dried up fish and two young girls in dusty flowered dresses, smiling and carrying small bundles of sticks on their heads. A skinny, scabby dog with cuts on its face limped in front of us with her teats dragging in the dust, and two small puppies following behind. The fisherman’s wife, who was washing clothes on a rock, met us with cold dark eyes, and after they yelled at each other for awhile, I followed him inside. There was a small naked child, drooling on herself, standing in the middle of the room, and Santibabo picked her up and set her outside in the dust. He sent his son off to get some “smoke” and began cooking rice, even though I had said I wasn’t hungry. A few minutes later the boy came back with some marijuana rolled up in a bit of newspaper. Santibabo pulled down a stone chillum from the thatch roof of his hut and we smoked.

When the rice was ready, he put out a basket of small onions and some fish. “Some will you have?” he asked, and I nodded. He got me a fork and laughed, telling me that it was bad to eat the western way. I was nervous, finding that the fish was cold, and played with it as he watched me intensely. Santibabo became frustrated and grabbed the fork from my hand. “No good,” he said, and put it away. He gave me a quick demonstration on how to eat with your hand, scooping up the food and pushing it into the mouth with the thumb. Not wanting to insult him, I began stuffing the cold fish into my mouth along with the rice. Some spilled on the table and he laughed. “It is good to be close to your food,” he said. He picked up the fork and showed it to me. “Not so far away.”

I left the hut and bought a coconut from a man who cut it from a tree he climbed right in front of me. The beach was covered with dead sea turtles, each with a number and some Hindi painted on the shells in red paint. I drank from the coconut and looked at them curiously as I walked along the beach, until a barefoot Indian scientist came from the other direction with a bucket and brush. When I asked him why the turtles had died, he pointed at the boats out at sea and told me that around 10,000 are found dead on Indian beaches each year, mostly because of trawling by shrimp boats and gill nets that can be more than 35 miles long. Sea turtles breathe air, and although they can hold their breath for up to eight hours, they get caught in the nets, struggle, and drown. The man said that a net they found last month had 200 dead turtles in it. He told me that around 500,000 female turtles normally come to the east coast of India each year to dig nests and lay around 100 eggs a piece, but the population is still endangered, since only 1 in 1000 lives to be an adult.

I said goodbye to the scientist, and then swam in the Bay of Bengal until I found a dried up sea snake with long pointy teeth on the beach. In the distance, I saw an Indian man squatting in the surf. I walked toward him, and then realized that his pants were down, and quickly changed directions. But there were more crouching men, each about twenty yards apart, with their pants at their ankles. At first I thought it was disgusting, but then realized that the tide was coming in, and that each of their piles would soon be taken out toward the moon and eaten by the fish and zooplankton in the water.

There is no toilet paper in most of the bathrooms in India, only faucets and little plastic pitchers to pour the water down the small of your back and wipe quickly with your left hand. Sometimes, back in my apartment, I try to picture where the toilet paper, shit, and urine go as they swirl around the toilet bowl, but I can’t. All of the pipes hidden under the ground are too complicated and far away. It is also hard to see the sea turtles one kills by buying shrimp at the grocery store, but yet they are being drowned every day.

In most American supermarkets, the average food item travels two thousand miles. There are strawberries, blueberries, and coconuts sitting neatly arranged in the warm store, while outside the temperature may be close to freezing. Each box of microwave popcorn on the shelves is separated from the others by cardboard, and each of the individual paper packages of kernels inside is separated again by plastic-wrapping. This is why my friend broke down at the grocery store. She saw how the people passing by her down the aisle were as separate from each other as they were from all the packaged food surrounding them.

I am often paralyzed trying to make decisions at the grocery store. On every shelf of every aisle I look at all the different sales, sizes, and brand names, and my head starts to spin. It’s like that with every item -- mayonnaise, cold medicine, laundry detergent, everything. Should I pay $2.19 for six organic eggs instead of $.99 for twelve of the regular? I stop at the meat counter and think about over-fishing and the chickens, pigs, turkeys, and cows stuffed together in cages and pens, unable to move, being pumped full of drugs and milked with machines. The decisions pile up on my shoulders and become a part of who I am. Rice milk, whole milk, organic, soy, 2%, half, carton, jug, gallon. I am frozen.

The reason that every decision is so complicated, the reason I waste and destroy so much without even knowing it, is because I am so separated from the natural world around me. It is easier to see that you are connected to your environment when what you use to brush your teeth comes from local trees and the trash is not whisked off to landfills by trucks, but piles up on a nearby street corner. The man washing water buffaloes in the Ganges river, the monkeys in dumpsters in the Himalayan mountains, the chickens, donkeys, elephants, camels, stray cats, dogs and cows I saw sleeping and creeping in the alleyways made me feel a part of something bigger than myself and not as alone as I did this morning buying groceries and driving through the suburban sprawl south of San Francisco.

Often in the suburbs south of San Francisco, it helps me to walk down the street and think about how everything around me comes from the Earth. The glass in the stoplights and windows is sand. The sidewalks and roads are mountains, the receipts, trees. The plastic bags I take from the grocery store used to be oil, used to be animals and plants millions of years ago that were smashed and burned inside the Earth.

Psychologist Walter Goldschmidt has said that “the central importance of entering into worlds other than our own lies in the fact that the experience leads us to understand that our own world is also a cultural construct. By experiencing other worlds, we see our own for what it is and are thereby enabled also to see fleetingly what the real world, the one between our own cultural construct and those other worlds, must in fact be like.” In the same way, the closer we are to the environment around us, instead of alone and separated like packages behind fences and walls, the easier it is to understand what life on Earth really is, and to feel connected to it.

©2004 by Jacob Sackin

Jacob Sackin is a writer and teacher at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Born in Columbia, Missouri, and graduating from the University of Kansas, Jacob has spent the past five years teaching outdoor education in California, volunteering in South America, and teaching English in India, where he began writing this essay.

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