Saturday, August 1, 2015

Ink, Oasis, and Trader Joe's

The Richmond Trader Joe’s sits approximately 1.7 miles from my suburban, manicured neighborhood. The thousand or so brick-front houses that surround mine all sit feet from each other and resemble each other subtly, like siblings and cousins at an overcrowded family reunion. 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 necessary Starbucks, and more. 

What I love about my neighborhood can best be summed up on cool, dusky evenings, when the pristine sidewalks flood with families chasing tricycles, jogging dads, gossiping moms, Indian women slowly meandering in vibrant saris, silver-haired couples holding hands, and dogs of all breeds pulling owners along. Within the homes are, primarily, good, kind people, with the mandated crazies thrown in here and there. I tell myself it’s a good place to be, and mostly I believe myself, too.

What I don’t love about my neighborhood is harder to define. There are too many rooves and not enough land shaded with canopying trees, for one. Perhaps it’s the “cookie-cutter” sameness that shoves vibrancy off the streets.  Families seem interchangeable, predictable even. Make their homes here, raise their children here, pull in and out of identical driveways. Go to work. Go to school. Go to soccer, go to dance, go to lacrosse. Sleep. Wake up. Repeat. Suburban monotony. I can’t possibly be the only one dragging under its weight. Can I? 

One afternoon recently, I took time for a good, existential look around the Trader Joe’s. I realized a couple of things right away. One, I’ve never seen the store not buzzing with people. The same streetwise local harried carpool chaos pushes down the aisles at just about any time of day. Two, parking’s a bitch. It’s life or limb, and it’s your civic duty to make sure you’re not running over small children or rolling avocados. 

Why, I wondered during the drudge of my own grocery shopping routine, do these four walls of a small, boxy retailer represent such a gloriously urban oasis in the sea of suburban sameness? The same families who I share life with, and thousands more with whom I don’t, must feel the same way. We flock to Trader Joe’s for its bargain prices and because, well, it’s Trader Joe’s! Everything there is delicious. And easy. Labels say “organic,” and even the processed foods have a relatively short list of pronounceable ingredients. It’s the cool place to be.

On my recent trip, as I contemplated the above and soaked in the atmosphere, a Trader Joe’s team member sauntered by in his red Hawaiian shirt. He interrupted my reverie by asking if I needed help; standing stock-still between the quinoa-black-bean-chips-of-heaven and the all-natural-life-changing-probiotics, I must’ve looked that way. It was his deep voice that helped me realize: It’s them. The employees.

I know from previous conversations that my neighborhood friends love the nearby Trader Joe’s employees. Together, they represent urban hipness transplanted into a 1,000-sq-foot hub approximately 13 miles from Richmond City Proper. And I am lucky enough to have an additional propelling force: my brother, who also happens to work there.

Adam 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). Semi-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.

Genuine grins, ready to transform to casual conversation at the beep of a register. General devil-may-care swagger. “Hippies,” fellow suburbanites call them with tamed awe but what I realize now is clear envy; after all, they are “The City” and all things cool. In some intangible way, maybe they represent the road not traveled, or, more to the point, the road that currently seems infinitely out of sight. In the routine of everyday life, I believe that appeals to many of my friends. 

When I walk in, I feel the same, especially when I see my brother chatting it up with a customer. Adam 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. The unwieldy souvenir from the suckiest vacation ever.

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 from parental eyes 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, even lazy. After all, I don’t “believe” in tattoos for me, and struggle to understand the appeal for others. 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? Do you have to have so many? How will you ever get a real job? But as time has gone on and expectations evolve with the years, they have 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. 1984. A few years ago, after mom died, he added a tattoo to his left bicep 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 rose. He chose red, instead of yellow--her favorite--because he was told the color would fade. I’m glad he did, because the yellow would be too hard to look at. 

A few years ago, he added a new one. It’s on the inside of his left wrist and is an enormous pink ribbon. Beneath the ribbon, in neat, perfect cursive is the word, “Sisters.”  Knowing him, even as little as I do, I know getting that tattoo 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 to have quick 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 the roughest of 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 at trivialities and hurry past topics like teens. I love that. Perhaps I should look more at his ink, not just through it. I know this, though: 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. He and his coworkers don’t do it for the customers, I’m sure. Insecurely, I acquiesce that they don’t share the admiration their customers hide. They are ours to ogle, ours to study. We, the middle-aged envious anthropologists, daydreaming, quieting screaming toddlers as we stroll. The employees do it ‘cause they can; we watch them wishing we could. 

I’m quite sure even my brother doesn’t make the commute, stock the shelves, lay out his best customer servicing, work the brutal early morning hours for me.

But sometimes I like to pretend he does.