The Richmond Trader Joe’s sits approximately 1.7 miles from my suburban, manicured neighborhood. It’s a planned community, with an impressive new high school across the street from an adorable elementary school. These are equidistant from the four-pool-and-tennis-court complex (dotted with screaming children and forty- and fifty-something moms who still look amazing in bikinis and tennis skirts) and the strip mall, replete with all essentials for today’s American family: a McDonald’s, a vet, a Subway, a grocery store, a neighborhood pub, a Mexican restaurant famous for Dollar Taco Thursday, the nearest Starbucks (there are five more within a three-mile radius), and more.
These same families and many more flock to Trader Joe’s for its bargain prices and because, well, it’s Trader Joe’s! Everything there is delicious. Labels say “organic,” and even the processed foods have a relatively short list of pronounceable ingredients. Like everyone else, I adore this urban oasis in the sea of suburban sameness. I’ve never seen the store not buzzing with people. The local harried carpool chaos pushes down the aisles at just about any time of day. Parking’s a bitch, besides. But still, I love going to Trader Joe’s.
Why? My brother works there. He is almost forty, but the sight of my baby brother behind the register most certainly pulls me out of this suburban life I don’t quite belong to and brings me home.
My neighborhood friends love the Trader Joe’s employees. Together, they represent urban hipness transplanted into a 1,000-sq-foot hub approximately 13 miles from Richmond City Proper. My brother is the perfect representative of your basic TJ employee all rolled into one: scraggly hair that could use a good cut (or even a comb). Manicured beard that now ventures well below the chin. Jeans that sag around a hidden tush. Sad, wrinkled hole in an earlobe, where the giant plastic disc used to be. Piercings of some kind, some where. Birkenstocks. Happiness.
“Hippies,” suburbanites call them with awe and clear envy; after all, they are “The City” and all things cool. Genuine grins, ready to transform to casual conversation at the beep of a register. General devil-may-care swagger. In some ways, they represent the road not traveled, and in the routine of everyday life, that appeals to many of my cohorts.
When I walk in, I feel the same, especially when I see my brother chatting it up with a customer. He stands as described, except he’s a bit different. When I say that he works at Trader Joe’s, my friends ask, “Oh, which one is he?” “He’s the short one,” I say begrudgingly. I don’t want to describe him that way, and yet, amidst all of the beards and piercings, that’s his unique identifier. Adam is 5’1” tall, noticeably short for a man. And, at 5’8” in flats, I’m noticeably taller. I hate his height for him; and because it’s a result of chemotherapy throughout his youth, I hate it even more.
Like the other employees, he’s all of the above rolled into a tiny, smiling man. And a microcosm of tattoos.
He collects tattoos the way I collect trinkets, cheap art, things to decorate our home. I don’t put anything on walls or shelves that doesn’t have some sentimental significance. Same with my brother’s body. He decorates himself with meaning.
It started years ago, in his teens, when he kept two, then four, then who-knows-how-many hidden under tee-shirts and board-shirts at the beach. With his tongue piercing came a bold sense of “who gives a shit,” and he started broadcasting his ink and collecting more in earnest. He may have twenty by now . . . perhaps more in places sisters don’t see.
I used to be of the old school and believed all those tattoos made him look rough, angsty. Defiant, perhaps even lazy. After all, I don’t believe in tattoos. So I offer the usual arguments of people who just don’t get it (which includes meddling, know-it-all big sisters): what will all of that look like when you’re 80? How will you ever get a real job? Do you have to have so many? But as time has gone on and expectations evolve with the years, they’ve become a part of who he is. Each new tattoo a new piece of my brother.
I feel like I should know each of them. I should know their significances, their purposes. But I don’t. Somewhere, there’s a creepy skull, a souvenir of a darker period in his life. There are artsy scrolls and swirls here and there. I do know one on his right forearm (part of a “sleeve” he’s been working on for years). It’s a giant ship, on blackish waters, clearly moving forward and out of rough weather. It represents his cancer freedom, and features the date the doctors gave him the all-clear. I should know that date, and I can guess at it, but I don’t. After mom died, he added a tattoo to his shoulder as a tribute to her, its enormous size emblematic of the space she continues to occupy in his heart. I should know what that says, too, but all I can remember seeing is a yellow rose, her favorite flower. It’s hard to look at.
A few years ago, he added a new one. It’s on the inside of his left wrist. It’s an enormous pink ribbon. Beneath the ribbon, in neat, perfect cursive is the word, “Sisters.” It was the only thing he felt he could do to share the pain that my sister and I felt as we both discovered we carried the BRCA 1 gene mutation. We each had double mastectomies--my sister prophylactically and me to remove the multiple tumors growing within. It was a dark time in our family’s life for sure, and after we were through it, both he and my sister got the matching tattoo as a tribute to survival. A reminder of family.
Oddly, it’s a gift to me. One that he keeps, but I cherish.
Adam is somewhat foreign to me; we are just now getting to the point in our relationship in which we hang out and discuss things like adults, not pick and hurry past topics like teens. I love that. Perhaps I should look more at his ink, not just through it. But I know this: Underneath all that color is a gooey, emotional man whose love for family is as fierce as his looks. He melts for my girls and celebrates the smallest of successes with relish. One of our only commonalities through the years has always been music: we both would drop just about anything to see live performances or listen to new albums. When I’m lucky, we go together to shows. Other times, on a night off, he’ll tag along to a neighborhood picnic, always the good sport and sincerely happy to be with my friends whose name he’ll never remember. He laughs at stupid “boy things” like prat falls and the Three Stooges, and I laugh at him for laughing at them.
If I could change one thing, I would wish he had more love in his life. He is single, but he lives with a roommate who is, in his words, “like a brother,” and is content with the love of our small immediate family and his growing group of groovy friends. He drives twenty minutes from his city house, from his urban, cool, craft-beer tasting, music-jamming, cornhole-tossing life to work in my suburban world because he loves it. I’m quite sure he doesn’t do it for me. But sometimes I like to pretend he does.