In Street Hungry by Bill Kent, Shep Ladderback, the Philadelphia Press's aged obit writer, mentors the young Andrea (Andy) Cosicki, fledgling journalist and daughter of the late political fixer, Benny the Lunch Cosicki. Ladderback (who knows everything about everyone in the city) wants Andy to cover the death of a street fruit and vegetable salesman, which seems to him to be suspicious. But Andy has a date for lunch at the Loup Garu, a so-hot-you-can't-get-a-reservation-for-three-months restaurant with a new "culinary concept" (which seems to be horrible food combinations, trumpeted as Transylvanian-Caribbean-fusion) and turns him down. (Ladderback knows that Loup Garu means werewolf; Andy does not.) But Andy ends up in a big story anyhow, when one of the country's most notable food critics drops dead at her table.
About the Author
Bill Kent is a writer, journalist, critic and author of fiction and non-fiction books, including the novels Street Hungry and Street Fire. His writing has appeared in more than 40 regional and national publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Magazine. He lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, with his wife and son.
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By Bill Kent
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2003 Bill Kent
All rights reserved.
The name of the man with the vegetables was Wisnitz but everybody who bought from him, and even a few that didn't, called him Weight. He'd stop his truck in front of a bus stop, a fire hydrant, up on the curb, maybe even in front of somebody's garage door, and he wouldn't care, because he knew he was providing a service to the community, and, in the city, if you're providing a service — if you're a cop, a plumber, a carpenter, an ambulance driver, a tow truck operator, a delivery man — then you put your vehicle where you have to and you don't care if the bus can get to the corner or you back up traffic all the way into the next neighborhood.
If you provide a service in a neighborhood, the rules of decorum do not apply.
On that morning, the rush hour had come and gone. The streets were clear of the drivers who will kill you if they are a minute late to work.
The man known as Weight Wisnitz didn't shave that morning. He simply didn't feel like it, and, in his line of work, if you don't feel like doing something, you don't do it. His father had been boss at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and because of that, or, maybe, because Weight's father had been born in Poland and was lucky enough to make it in the Land of the Free where you were free to shave every day of the week, Tadieuz Wisnitz shaved every day.
His son was self-employed and when you're self-employed you are free to shave whenever you want, unless you are meeting the public. The public, of course, has expectations and if you sell produce for cheap, the public doesn't expect you should be making so much money that you'd be dressing decent and shaving every day.
So, in the land of the free, even unto the second generation, the freedom had more to do with what people thought of you, than what you thought of yourself.
Wisnitz wore shorts and a GO PHILLIES! T-shirt that, long ago, might have been white. The shorts/shirt combo, while affecting a decidedly casual air, made him look scrawnier than a scarecrow. Stuck halfway down his twisted nose were a pair of glasses grimy enough to be portholes on an ocean liner that had already sunk.
Weight did not get out of the truck as much as he swung one leg out, and then another, like a Pony Express rider who has braved the elements and stared down, or outrun, all kinds of nasty types, to be here, at this corner, to perform his service for the four people who now stood on the sidewalk beside the truck.
He went to the open flatbed of his truck, gazed past the jumble of crates and boxes. Then he impulsively plucked a handful of supremely purple plums from a box and, to prove that they were exactly what they appeared to be, bit into one so the juice exploded all over his face. He put the plum in his mouth, holding it between his teeth, and then came around and popped a plum into the hand of the breathtakingly beautiful girl in the running shorts and the T-shirt with BUY ART printed across her chest. He gave her a wink that said, "I got what you want."
This did not please the old woman in black next to her. She was wearing the uniform of a professional widow: a shapeless black dress, black sweater, black shoes and shawl. The woman was a little bit miffed that she'd known Weight before this half-naked girl was even born. More than that, this widow had become something of a local celebrity, appearing as an extra in two movies and one TV show (or was it two TV shows and one movie?) shot in South Philly, so that, whenever anybody recognized her on the street, she had to say that fame was not what it was cracked up to be, and that she had to spring for the video upgrade for her alarm system, and that, fame being what it is, the one thing she wanted was to be treated just like a normal person, even if the truth was she was talked into the upgrade by a no-good rip-off artist, and she really and truly enjoyed being treated like a celebrity, that she could get used to being treated like a celebrity.
So instead of treating her as she deserved, Weight Wisnitz gave the plum to the half-naked girl first! This was a low blow.
Behind the widow was a dignified man in a dark sport coat, white shirt, dark tie and black jef cap. His brown brogans gleamed.
For the old man, a peach or a pear or a coconut from Weight Wisnitz was a reason to be on the street, and smell the air and feel the sunlight on your face, and see all the changes in the neighborhood. It was also a chance to talk about everything except what he did for a living.
Weight Wisnitz liked seeing him, but Weight Wisnitz liked seeing just about anyone who would take from him. Talking to the customers Weight Wisnitz met on his route was part of the service he provided. It was a way of keeping in touch.
The man in the jef cap would typically wait until Weight had sold whatever he was selling to the last person, and then they'd talk about people they knew, or once knew. The conversation would frequently turn to the professional types that were coming into some of the neighborhoods and buying all the properties and kicking out the widows and the widowers and then reselling the places to even more professional types who never said hello when you passed them on the street, like the one that was standing next to the girl, trying not to jump all over her.
The man in the cap did not appreciate the professional types moving in, like this fellow who was trying not to stare at the girl in the shorts and T-shirt. You'd think a self-respecting person would keep his eyes to himself, but this young fellow was absolutely entranced with the girl.
The professional type had moved in a few months ago, into the second floor of a subdivided Smartt Street rowhouse. He'd picked the Brideshead section of South Philly to live in because he'd heard that South Philly is the city where you can park a car — even the old, classic BMW that he owned — anywhere you damn well want to — in the middle of the street, on the sidewalk, even — and not get a ticket. Exactly why this was so was never explained to him, but he believed it probably had something to do with South Philly also being the home of The Mob.
He had heard all kinds of things about the neighborhood when he moved in, but when you're working sixteen-hour days you don't have time to so much as walk around, but now that he'd been laid off he was sleeping late, and this asshole with the megaphone had to wake him up, telling him that he should eat, like he wasn't doing enough of that already, and now that he was up, he just had to see who it was who was being such an asshole and that brought him to the window of his apartment where he saw this blonde goddess in the oversized T-shirt and the undersized running shorts and he threw on some clothes and hoped he could get a conversation going and do something other than drink espresso, cruise the net and play computer solitaire, and instead of dropping one of a half-dozen of the lines that had gotten conversations going at bars with high-end microbrews, he found himself standing in front of a dorky geezer with plum slime dripping down his mouth.
Weight winked at the professional type. He stuck the sticky plum in professional type's hand. Then he removed the plum that he had been holding in his mouth, breathed plum breath at the professional type, winked and said, "A plum this good'll put lead in your pencil."
Right then, right there, the professional type decided that there was no way he was buying a plum from this man.
Weight popped the half-eaten plum back into his mouth and was going back to the truck when he heard the widow say, "Feh!" which is what old women are supposed to say when the worst that can possibly happen, happens.
Weight turned around and saw that the professional type dropped the plum. He opened his hand and it fell right out, hit the side walk, bounced off the curb and fell into the sewer grate.
The professional type had made a big mistake and he knew it, and his instinct was to pull out some money and buy something, when he stopped. He smelled a scam. The produce seller had put that plum in the professional type's hand in such a way that it fell right out, and if the professional type was inclined to feel like it was his fault, why, he'd be more likely to buy one of those plums, wouldn't he?
Sure enough, the produce seller pulled a plastic bag off a rack in the back of his truck, loaded it up with plums, dropped it on the hanging scale so the little arrow spun around like a pressure valve about to blow and then handed the bag to the professional guy, took the plum out of his mouth, and proclaimed, "You got weight!"
The professional guy didn't take the bag. He just stood there and said, "How much for the tomatoes?"
At this point, it would have been convenient if somebody standing next to him would have mentioned why people called Weight Wisnitz "Weight" instead of whatever his first name was: because, when you bought from Wisnitz, the plum he gave you to taste may not have been even remotely similar to those that went into the bag, but when Weight Wisnitz handed you pocked, bruised, squishy-on-one-side plums that had been sitting in his truck a little too long, that came from cases marked DIT (damaged in transit) from the Food Distribution Center down in South Philadelphia, he'd tell you that you got weight, as if to say that a pound of squishy plums may not look great or taste great, but they weighed every bit as much as a pound of plums should, if not maybe a little bit more.
If you watched what went into your bag, and watched even more carefully what went into the bags of some of Weight's regulars, you'd see that the man not only played favorites, but he had a way of slipping in all kinds of things.
The one thing you're not supposed to do, though, was talk price. Weight told you his price on the megaphone, and it didn't matter that the echoing buildings had turned it all to a garbled, incomprehensible mess of words. Just by standing there, you indicated your need for the service he was providing. What the hell else would you be doing on a street corner at 10:16 A.M.?
Weight Wisnitz had a rule about comparison shoppers, and the rule was, you don't say a thing to them. You pretend you don't hear and you stick something in your mouth so you can't talk, and you start filling another bag and then you hand it to them, take their money and hope they go away.
So Wisnitz clamped down on the plum with the few teeth he had left, tossed the bag of plums back in the truck, swaggered around to the flat bed where the produce lay in open cases under the September sun. He winked at the girl, and nodded at the old man and the widow.
Then he put both hands on the wad of plastic bags hanging from the rack by the truck's scale. Weight Wisnitz ripped one of those bags off the rack like a real man, a man with experience, a man who knows how to do things right.
He began filling the bag with Jersey beefsteaks, tossing them in such a way the professional guy would not see the tomatoes with bruises, the cracks, the blotches and green spots.
The professional-type guy became nervous, and it didn't help that he was at a loss for a conversational opening with the brilliantly blond woman. Though only in his mid-20s, he had learned how to work those insanely long hours that indicate that you're on the fast track, even if you're not. And he became an expert at the kind of women who would have absolutely nothing to do with him. This female next to him could go either way. She clearly kept herself in top physical condition, with that thin elastic skin stretched tight over the muscles, and he knew that women who keep themselves in shape don't always go for guys who keep themselves in shape because women who keep themselves in shape spend a lot of time in gyms and the guys who spend a lot of time in gyms are gay or unemployed, usually both. While it wasn't yet obvious that he was unemployed, the last time he had been in a gym was to find a payphone because he forgot to charge the battery on his cell phone and it had died and he needed to find out if the work on his BMW was done.
He told himself he could at least pretend that she might nevertheless be intrigued by a single, highly educated, formerly well-paid professional who, as a relatively new resident of the neighborhood, had a passionate commitment to urban pleasures, used but still functional BMWs, and the various lifestyle upgrades to which he considered himself entitled. Even if he personally hated exercise, he knew his way around imported beers and was proud of his intuitive grasp of inventory control software, though he hadn't been keeping up with the latest developments since he'd been laid off.
As he watched Weight fill the flimsy plastic bag with tomatoes, he imagined — no, he prayed — that this female goddess see through his unremarkable exterior and would use, as a pretext, a rather large collection of vegetables to begin a relationship that might ...
Then he saw that one of the tomatoes tumbling into the bag was bruised. "Those better not be for me," he said.
Weight Wisnitz wasn't stupid. He could tell a guy who wanted to buy tomatoes from a guy who was trying to prevent himself from getting wall-eyed over a girl. For a moment, Weight Wisnitz wished he had his flask with him, but, somehow, a swig of cheap bourbon wasn't fitting on a day like today, with that girl looking at him. Here he was, 62 years old, but a girl in teeny-tiny shorts would still look his way.
As for the guy, well, Weight Wisnitz sold to many like him on his route, most of them stumbling out of their rowhouses, blinking and yawning, some of them in their overpriced pajamas and none of them happy, but all of them with money in their hands, in their pockets, in those stupid zipper bags they wore on a belt.
They'd come out complaining about spending the whole night awake, working on this or that, and here they were, sleeping until Weight came by, blasting them out of bed with his megaphone. They'd ask him if he had a permit for that megaphone, but then they'd check out his prices and they'd spend money because everybody wants to get a deal, and if nobody gave them a deal in their entire lives, Weight would give them a deal.
Such deals, you wouldn't believe them: three heads of iceberg lettuce for the price of two (he tried to unload iceberg fast because it wilts in the sun and gets gray and dirty after a few hours in the back of the truck with all the crud and dust blowing around). And then, they got that look in their eyes and they were pulling out the money, that's when he'd jack up the prices on the asparagus and endive and those shit-ta-tacky mushrooms because these professionals figured that the only stuff that's worth having is what costs too much.
"I'd still like to hear a price for those tomatoes," the professional guy said, glancing at the girl as if to show he was being reasonable. He had to show her that he was reasonable, that he had to make sure that he wasn't being ripped off. Because, when he wasn't laid off, he worked insanely long hours in air-conditioned buildings where the delivery boys would try to rip him off, when they brought up the lattes and the pannini sandwiches, by pretending not to understand English, or to not have enough change in their pockets, hoping that he'd just hand over a $20 and say, "Keep it."
He didn't let the delivery boys rip him off, and he wasn't going to let this human bean pole rip him off, either. The guy said, "Excuse me, but I didn't hear the price."
Weight kept loading up the tomatoes. Then he dropped them briefly on the scale, let the arm of the scale flap wildly about, then turned to the professional guy, and said, through the half-eaten plum between his teeth, "I old oo, oo cot ate."
The widow translated: "He's saying 'I told you, you got weight.'"
The widow pitied the professional guy because the professional guy was holding a $20 in his hand like he was trying to get the attention of a hot dog vendor at a Phillies game. You don't do that with Weight Wisnitz. Weight Wisnitz was no hot dog vendor, selling the same damn thing to the same damn people as fast as possible.
No, Weight had been a part of her life before she became a widow. For upwards of thirty years, she saw him twice a week, and maybe a third time if he came around on the Friday before a holiday. And though she didn't buy as much now that her husband was dead, she still watched every damned thing Weight put in a bag because, now that she was a little bit famous, you'd think Weight would give her the better selection but, no, he was sticking her more and more with the worst, as if she was just some no-name nobody. If she wanted the no-name nobody treatment, she could go to the Italian Market, which wasn't even Italian anymore, with all the Vietnamese taking it over, selling bags of mushrooms and eggplants and not even with a thank you.
The way she saw it, when you were getting charged the same price for good vegetables as bad, and there were only so many perfect vegetables to go around, you either had to demand perfection, which never worked with Weight (he'd just load up a bag with banged-up peppers and tell her, "You got perfect!"), or you had to let him turn his back and, while he was pretending not to notice, take what he should've given you in the first place.
Excerpted from Street Hungry by Bill Kent. Copyright © 2003 Bill Kent. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Dead Weight,
2. A Question for Mr. Action,
3. Compliments of the House,
5. Conflict of Interest,
6. From Hunger,
7. Stay Out of the Kitchen,
8. A Black Swan,
9. The View from the Seventy-Third Floor,
10. Sentimental Resonance,
11. Le Truck,
13. Two Little Words,
14. The Art of Restoration,
15. Happy with What You Have to be Happy with,
16. The Wall,
17. Street Hungry,
18. Copy to Title,
19. Road Test,
20. Just Deserts,
Also by Bill Kent,