Retirement Age Stories

DeKalb Farmers Market

Price Check?            By Octo G. Enario

As the lunch hour approached, gym-rats’ stomachs rumbled. The recurring late morning gurgles were muted, but all knew the reward for working out hard was near: lunch. “I’m having a ham sandwich on pumpernickel bread from the bakery at that wonderful DeKalb Farmer’s Market. You can’t get it around here, but the one-hour trip to Decatur in all that highway traffic is well worth it,” said a smiling senior working his biceps. I knew what he meant.

Rice Checks!” “Prize sheck!” “Pry Shek!” What’s going on here, with all these loud cries, pleas for attention…all these international faces…all these varied accents struggling with the English language? Yet, amidst this cacophony and confusion, there is a sea of calmness and pleasant affability from the placid players in this surreal scene.

Each “actor” in this tableau proudly wears a name tag—invariably displaying an exotic name along with the wearer’s country of origin; each is paired up with a partner—one having a white dot on the name tag and the other a black dot. The first-time visitor thinks, “Am I on Earth, on Mars, or have I slipped into the Twilight Zone?” No, in reality, the visitor is in the checkout room of the DeKalb Farmers Market in Decatur, Ga.

The market is contained in an oversized warehouse-like structure. It is enormous. Most shoppers patronize the mart because of its extraordinary variety of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, baked goods, nuts, and wine and beer. It has very low prices to boot. However, the shopper that merely shops and remains oblivious to its enchanting ambiance misses a lot. There is so much more than shopping for those who take the time to appreciate the rich atmosphere. Rich atmosphere? Is that not a little exaggeration? Well, it is no exaggeration for those who drink in life rather than just pass through it. Let me explain.

Upon exiting my car, my senses are aroused by the robust fragrance of roasting coffee permeating the entire parking lot. The wafting aroma carries me dreamily to the entrance.  As I enter through the double set of automatic sliding doors, I’m met with a blast of cool air, which I soon find fills the entire building. All the workers are wearing multi-layers of clothing and look like Eskimos moving about the place. Experienced shoppers wear sweaters and jackets, and first-timers sport enormous goose bumps.

The enchantment continues as I move deeper into the magical emporium. Straight ahead stands the immense fresh fish market—large whole fish laid out on beds of ice, many varieties of filleted fish and shellfish, and a large tank filled with live lobsters. Children crowd around the lobster tank, fascinated by the undulating crustaceans.  Amazingly, there are no off-putting seafood smells. Cleanliness is a watchword here. As I veer right, sweet aromas from the on-premises bakery fill my nostrils. Tilting my head back, trying to capture all the bakery smells, I see the ceiling is hung with flags from over 200 countries. These full-sized flags represent the countries of origin of current and past employees—Ghana, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and many more.

Past the bakery, I approach a massive display of various fruits and vegetables, many of which I’ve never seen before. Chest-level tables stocked with produce provide easy access for discriminating shoppers to view and evaluate their selections. Pairs of workers move from table to table, restocking the bins as quickly as shoppers remove their selections from the tables. To an observer, the scene looks like a very slow ballet, with the shoppers doing their thing while the workers do theirs. Management wants restocking as a priority, and customer relations is low, if not missing, on the priority list. Any reader of H.G, Wells’ “From the Earth to the Moon” will be reminded of the intrusive Earthmen and the native antlike moon people going about their own lives separately with no interaction between each group. Each merely abides the other.

At the end of the produce section stands a wall of spices. The variety of familiar and unusual spices is mind boggling, packed in individual plastic containers and displayed alphabetically, not unlike a library. The odors emanating from the shelves are alternately pungent and pleasantly sweet.  Americans like me are overwhelmed by the diverse and unfamiliar offerings, while shoppers dressed in exotic costumes seem to be very familiar with most of these spices. It is not uncommon to see American and immigrant shoppers engaged in pleasant conversation about how a particular spice or herb is used in cooking.

At this point, I have seen only about a quarter of the mart. There remains the flower shop; the pasta bins; the butcher shop, which sells only organic meats and poultry; the dairy area with its yogurts, cheeses, and organic milk and eggs; and even more shops, too many to be mentioned here. With my shopping cart loaded with selections, I then head for the unique checkout room, where I hear what sounds like different renditions of “Price Check!” intermittently yelled as I wait in line.

Again, “Price Sheck’ is yelled, and Mr. Chutani, the checkout room manager, runs over to assist the checkout clerk, Abel Yetemgeta, who needs some guidance about a customer problem. Chutani handles the difficulty, and the customer leaves satisfied. I figured out long ago that “Price Check” is the universal call for managerial assistance. It could be a cash register problem, a pricing question, a check authorization request, or whatever. This all-purpose code word makes a lot of sense, considering that the workers are mostly recent immigrants from over 40 countries in Asia and Africa. There certainly is no common language except very rudimentary English, and few even know the literal meaning of “price check.”  What an efficient solution—if you need anything at all, just yell out, “Price Check.”

Of course, the pronunciation of the code word is quite varied. Each worker pronounces the English words in the way that is most natural to his/her native tongue. Thus, the chorus of varied pronunciations rings out throughout the checkout area. It is charming. Mr. Chutani never fails to respond, no matter how the two words are pronounced, as long as it is loud enough for him to hear over the din.

Mr. Chutani thinks back, “Ah yes, I remember when I first came to this country 15 years ago. I spoke very little English when I began my first U.S. job here in the DeKalb Farmers Market. At that time, I was completely awestruck due to my recent emigration from my native Pakistan.  My spirit was unsettled, what with a new country, a new apartment, a new language, and a new job. I thought that dealing with the new job would be the most upsetting part of my integration into U.S. society; after all, most of my fellow recent immigrants told stories of very difficult adjustment periods at their places of business.  They were expected to understand all English communications and commands, were given little guidance, and frequently were teased about being a foreigner. After my first day at the farmers market, I discovered that this employer treats recent immigrants quite differently than most other employers. I wondered then, “Why is my experience so different from all of my fellow immigrants working in other places?”

Chutani has observed the management process at the market as he progressed up the ranks. He remembers the first day when he experienced a gentle orientation in his native tongue from a caring and friendly fellow Pakistani.  He was assigned to work with an experienced Pakistani, in order to receive on-the-job training and direction. Management had evaluated Chutani and designated him as having a contracting personality and put a black dot on his nametag. His partner and mentor had a white dot, designating an expanding personality. Chutani did not fully understand the differences right away but grew to understand their meanings over time.

A black dot means a personality comfortable with being assigned specific tasks, with clear guidance.  The white dot reflects an expanding personality—one comfortable with offering leadership and guidance. This coupling of complementing personalities is sometimes so strong that the two might remain close friends for many years, even as they change positions at the farmers market or get jobs somewhere else in Atlanta. For many reasons, this meshing of polar personalities works. So, not only does the perceptive shopper feel the magic, but there is magic for the employees as well.

Should the reader want to turn a mundane household duty into an adventure through the magical portal of Atlanta’s Narnia, a visit to the DeKalb Farmers Market is a must.  And don’t pass up the bakery. Umm, that pumpernickel bread!