It’s 1972. My mother and I are on a crowded Philadelphia bus inching its way through traffic on a chilly April day, and my face is pressed against the window.
The street is lined with tables where stooped and craggy old men are arranging produce. Beyond them is a row of storefronts, many of them with their goods displayed outside in bins and barrels. And in between is a throng of shoppers haggling to get the best price on everything from apples to zucchini, eggplant to eggs.
To a 10-year-old girl, it’s as unnerving as it is exciting. Traffic is all but standing still, and I’m watching an impossibly old man shake a bunch of celery at a large woman in a brown coat with a fur collar. He’s yelling “Yiminey! Yiminey” at the woman, who’s inspecting the vegetable with the kind of precision you might expect from diamond buyers or drug dealers. (Years later I would find out that what he’s yelling in English but with a heavy Italian accent is “How many? How many?”)
Behind them, a woman is wrapping up fresh fish for a man holding the hand of a child who’s petting a live lamb in a pen, mercifully oblivious to the freshly skinned carcasses hanging upside down in the display window of the butcher shop next door.
As the potential buyer is trying to inspect the stalks of celery in the Yiminey Man’s hands, a wall of fire shoots up in front of my face in a flash that I’m certain is going to ignite the whole bus. Amid the flame and litany of Italian curse words bouncing against the side of the bus, it feels like Armageddon.
But in reality someone had put too much cardboard into one of the rusty, dented barrels that house smoldering fires meant to keep the vendors warm on this unseasonably cold spring day. The fire dies down, and so does the yelling, but even through the thick panes of the bus windows I still hear the sounds of bartering, bitching, laughter and the everyday hum of life in a busy shopping hub.
The bus inches forward and then shudders to a halt at the corner, and I beg my mother to not make me get off. But underneath the fear of the fire, the slaughtered animals, the chickens squawking in cages piled five and six high outside the poultry shop and the barrels full of squid and eels for sale at the fishmonger’s lies the excitement of what this day holds.
It’s the week before Easter, and it’s the day of our annual excursion to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia to choose my new outfit from the racks in the “chubby” section of Mort’s Big and Tall Girls Fashion Outlet. (Or something like that. It would take me years to see the humor in buying an Easter dress from a Jew in an Italian market.)
My mother was famous for my annual Easter outfits. One year, I looked like a biker’s kid in one that was topped off with a blue “leatherette” cap with matching purse and shoes. Another was a sunny yellow dress with brown accents, under a coat that looked like a brick wall.
But my hands-down favorite was a purple-and-white mini-skirt ensemble with white stockings and snazzy sandals, topped with a crushed-velvet, lilac-colored cape and huge matching hat with a brim so wide that a rogue breeze could make my face disappear completely (which, given the circumstances, might not have been a bad thing).
I look at photos of myself in those outfits today and laugh. No matter the clothes or how goofy I looked in them, I was out there rocking a supermodel attitude during my dad’s annual Easter photo shoot at the nearby park.
Religious affiliations aside, Easter morning always feels fresh and new, announcing the arrival of spring and the season of rebirth, of fresh starts.
Here’s wishing you a joyous Easter and a season full of happiness and hopefulness, since hope — like the thrill of a new Easter outfit — springs eternal.