By Naomi Sager
You didn’t have to speak Italian but it helped. The open-cart Italian vendors had their fruits and vegetables (very fresh, picked early that morning, or the day before) on display in wooden crates stacked on pallets tilted toward the sidewalk. It was okay to just point, pack the produce in your bag, pay, and move along.
The market stretched from Jones Street to Cornelia Street (or you might say from Ottomanelli’s butcher shop to Murray’s Cheese) on the north side of the street. By 11:00 a.m., most of “the good stuff” was gone, so you had to be there early (say, by 9:30 a.m., which is early by the Greenwich Village standards of the time).
At the end of the block, at Bleecker and Cornelia Streets, if you turned the corner, there was just one cart, with boxes of cardboard and a man standing there who could have been on stage. He had an endearingly kind, sad face. We called him‘The Sad Man’ and tried to buy from him even if some of his goods were not as fresh as others.
At that corner was the small store, Murray’s Cheese, where you could find Murray behind the counter selling the best-chosen, highest-quality French and Italian cheeses at half the price of the most exclusive uptown specialty store. Murray, a silent, somewhat portly man, was far from the image you might have of a cheese connoisseur. He did not chat with customers; he hardly spoke. But you could tell from the quality and selection that Murray knew his cheese. How and when had he acquired this knowledge?
One day, when there were no other customers in the shop, I dared to ask him about it. Had he been in Europe? Yes, he said. He had fought in Spain. Spain? Wow! The Spanish Civil War—The People’s Republic versus Franco’s Fascists (1936-1939). He had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. I was speechless. And then we had a conversation, though never another one. From then on it was only cheese. But, what a lesson! Who knows what personal history, thoughts, and convictions lie behind the faces you see every day.