When I told people I lived in Brooklyn, they often replied with pep. “Ooh, I hear it’s up and coming!” They’d say it as if the entire place had been featured on Extreme Home Makeover—installed a bidet, hardwood floors, and steel kitchen appliances. Men primped their mustaches and Afros outside barbershops playing Biggie. Hipsters built coffee shops and painted murals near brownstoned streets. This may be true of some neighborhoods in Brooklyn, but these places were somewhere else, and certainly not in my hood.
I lived next to Newkirk Plaza, a 4-track subway stop from 1903 with surface-only trains every 7 minutes. It was on the dirtier side of Ditmas Park, a neighborhood split between freestanding mansions and uniform brick apartment boxes. The latter, my home, was indeed in Brooklyn, albeit farther from Manhattan than New Jersey.
My local grocery store was no Whole Foods. Nothing whole about the neighborhood C-Town Market. Just food. Call it more of a Wonder Bread kind of place, with nicotine tinted lights, narrow aisles, and steel posts in front so carts weren’t stolen.
Edamame, the delightful, curvy bean cooked al dente, would be the final touch to my Yaki Soba Asian Fusion that would thrill my well-dressed dinner guests. While I guessed it was a bit too hipster for C-Town, I was obligated to ask. I needed it like a man’s hair needed gel. Go without it, catastrophe.
I found a slender Haitian man stocking the freezer with the inferior podded vegetable, peas.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you have edamame?”
“Eduhhh…,” he wrinkled his brow and stuck out his lower lip. I repeated. He looked toward the ceiling and replayed the word in his mind the way others would count in their heads. He looked back at me again, then waved to follow him to another guy with dreadlocks in a similar blue uniform.
“We got eduhhh…,” he said to the man, turning toward me to restate this mysterious item.
“Edamame,” I said to him. The man looked even more confused. “Soy beans.” I said, thinking the simplicity would help.
He brightened up, as it must have sounded familiar. These were two things that he knew. Soy, yes. Beans, of course. But he still looked perplexed. As if putting together these two familiar words, they became something wildly different, like fruitcake.
At this point, I started to feel like a nuisance, like a guy requesting his groceries be bagged in paper and plastic. But still, the polite clerk, on a mission to understand this peculiar word assembly, motioned to follow him toward the checkout girl. The stocker, equally intrigued, followed us too. Go Team Edamame.
“Hey Cherise,” he hollered over the Pepsi cooler. “We got edamame?”
Cherise snapped her head back as if we’d interrupted something and instantly looked annoyed. She squinted like we were hard to see. First she glared at the dready guy who looked away. Then to the stocker who held up his hands like he was just there for the Pepsi. Then they all looked at me—their leader in this quest—like I’d made a wrong turn. Her eyes narrowed even more.
Right then I wanted to say forget it and I’m sorry. Frozen peas would do just fine.
But I felt loyal to this mission and my trusty, blue-uniformed clan who kept their eyes on me. My guys needed answers, and so did I. So I pushed on. “Um, soy beans?” I asked again, but this time, said it like I’d never heard of them before and was buying for someone else.
I didn’t think her face could get more wrinkled, until it did, and she glared back at me like What the hell did you just call me boy?
At this point, I wanted to run. Edamame may be a mandatory ingredient in other Brooklyn households, but here, it was apparently a four-letter word.
“We ain’t got no eda-whatevuh,” she said, and threw back her arm like saying Now get the hell out of here kid.
So I ran in shame, and I ran fast. I had to catch a train to another Brooklyn neighborhood before dinner.