The Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan is a collision of old and new. Admittedly, the new is more attractive than the old. A bakery gleams across the aisle from a wall of dusty deli cans; a trendy taco joint draws more crowds than that old Santoria religious store that's been there since time forgot. After much prodding, I caved and indulged my 9-year-old son in his latest culinary dream: making stone soup, with "one of everything." I handed him a $20 dollar bill and a basket. This is what he bought: one lime; one lemon; one yellow squash; one zucchini; two hothouse tomatoes; a giant head of some kind of green and another more bitter one; two heads of garlic; a big onion; a large, loose carrot; radishes; two red peppers; four jalapenos; and herbs -- basil, oregano, mint, sage, thyme, rosemary and fresh bay leaves. He made a special request to find a container of chicken stock. When we got home, he washed them all in a big bucket and began chopping, which scared me to death.
"Can I have the big kitchen knife that daddy uses?"
Sure, what's the worst thing that could happen? Stitches? A lost finger? I know a couple of great guys with missing fingers. And so he began to wail on the garlic and carrot, and then every other vegetable, which he insisted should reside, once cut, on its own plate before being ceremoniously dumped into the biggest pot we own. He chopped and he stirred, and he popped open each one of the herbs from their plastic snapping cases. He added some salt, and sweated the vegetables in a bit of olive oil before covering them with broth, and then water. Then, he took a baguette and tore it into three parts, and dropped them all in the soup as it began to simmer. He wanted to find a stone in his room to drop in the pot so whoever got it could get some kind of "prize," like an extra scoop of ice cream. No stone turned up, but it was the best fall soup I could remember, and very different than one I would have made. The vegetables were chunkier (more rustic, one could say) and spicier, too. He didn't seed the jalepenos and consider them before tapping in a couple of tablespoons of curry powder. I was quietly grossed out by the wet, floating bread, and then realized it was still firm on the outside and had absorbed the delicious broth on the inside, rounding it out into more of a complete meal.
Last night, I went about making a chicken pot pie and it, too, required a lot of ingredients. When Jamie and I were at the store, I was certain I already had enough carrots, but found only one limp one in the crisper. We live above a food co-op, and for the first time ever I looked at J. and asked him if he would go downstairs to buy three large carrots, or about five small ones. I had left him at home for a few minutes while I ran errands, but never had I sent him out on his own. I handed him a $5. He told me he was nervous, "but I feel empowered." Realizing the weight of this, I wanted him to experience the beginning, middle and end of this errand and so I marked the front door key with a piece of duct tape so he could let himself in without trouble.
He left, and I got to work chopping. Slowly, I filled a pot with the leeks, the celery, the mushrooms. No Jamie. It was after 5 p.m. though, and a lot of people could be shopping after work. He could be stuck in a line with an incompetent cashier; it's run by a steady supply of new volunteers, after all. I didn't want to go downstairs to check on him, because that would disrupt the flow of this impromptu act of independence.
But the minutes kept rolling by, and when I heard steps coming up the stairs, I could tell by the weight and sound of them that they weren't his steps. I gave up, put my shoes on slowly and deliberately, trying to weigh each second before dashing down the stairs, through the doors of my building and into the food co-op. What would it mean to interject his first outing with my overprotective concern?
I ask the cashier behind the counter if he'd seen a blonde kid. No, he said, looking perplexed.
Suddenly, I was nauseous. I flashed to the story of two other little boys in New York, born 25 years apart from one another, whose mother and father gave them each their first little window of independence. I did not want to go to that dark place, but there I was, and it was like being thrown off of a cliff into a black hole, a giant vacuum sound of "Then- Where- the- Hell- Is -He?" echoing in slow motion. Our UPS guy, who has delivered me many packages over the years, stood in front of our door with a cart and a pile of boxes.
"I just gave my kid 5 dollars to go buy carrots downstairs, and he's not there," I barely spoke, the words caught somewhere deep inside of my throat.
"How long ago?" he asked.
"Ten minutes," I lied. It had been closer to twenty. "Is that too young?" I asked him, like he could the ultimate judge of me, Dad of the Year.
"No, it's not too young," he tried to reassure me, as if that was the main question at hand. "Is that him? In the blue shirt?"
Trodding down the street was Jamie, carrying a yellow grocery bag that knocked around his knees in that clumsy way he has that means he never gets to carry cartons of eggs home.
"Yes, that's him." I hugged the UPS guy and he didn't hug me back.
He's so tall for his age. He could have been a solid 11-year-old carrying that bag; that's what strangers would take him for. When he saw me in front of our building, I could read the frustration with me all over his face as it twisted into a grimace.
"What are you doing out here?" he hissed.
"It's been a long time, where did you go?"
"I went to Key Food like you told me to. Here's your change." He handed me one penny. Inside of the bag were three large carrots and five small ones, hand selected with their fluffy green tops still attached, probably from the organic rack.
"I didn't tell you to go to Key Food," I said. I pointed through the window of the food co-op and into the refrigerated stand of vegetables.
"See the bottom row? See that bag? The carrots?"
It took me a minute to re-orient myself to the facts of this last half hour. He'd not heard what I said correctly, but he came home with carrots after walking three long avenue blocks, crossing two busy intersections, and spending exactly what I sent him off with, down to one penny. We went upstairs and I got busy chopping.
"Thanks for not getting mad at me," he said.
"I wasn't mad, just really, really worried. But wow, you went all the way to Key Food and back. I'm so proud of you."
Never in a million years would I have sent him on his first solo walk in New York down to Avenue A and back, but as it turned out, he handled it.
"Wow, you had a quite an adventure, didn't you?" I said in a long breath of relief.
"No, Mom. I didn't. You asked me to get carrots, and so I walked to Key Food and bought carrots."