CHEAP EATS The wheel came off the shopping cart and the whole thing went over. Cans clanged and rolled. Plastic milk jugs bounced, and the toddler in the kid seat crashed down with them, helpless, tangling with cereal boxes and plastic bags of produce.
Her mom, who was also holding a baby, had the look of a mom who was watching her two-year-old fall on her head. In between the bonk and the scream, there was that split second where question mark and exclamation mark meet. And stare at each other. While tumbleweeds roll silently by like a lone little wheel down Aisle 7. The sun moves a little. There's so much space in that flat, hard moment that you could land an airplane on it.
Then: the long, loud, first breathless wail, like being born all over again. In automatic sympathy, everyone else holds their breath too, thinking: Breathe, kid! Breathe! But I know how hard kids' heads are, compared to their mothers' hearts. I'm more worried about the mom. In the time it took her to drop to the grocery store floor, still cradling her baby in one arm, and gathering up her now bawling toddler in the other, a crowd had formed.
Two store managers, displaying athleticism rarely seen outside track meets, were first on the scene. Before all the cans had even stopped rolling, they were offering the hurt and/or scared shitless child Popsicles and juice boxes. But the kid was inconsolable. "I'm not feeling well," she said, between wails.
For the next 15 minutes, nothing changed. The kid cried. The baby, heroically, stayed calm. While the mother, squeezing and rocking and there-there-ing, checked her older child's head for bumps, or worse.
While the two store managers divided their labor, one serenading the mom with an endless stream of apology, the other scrambling for still brighter colors of Popsicles. While a couple of the bystanders, in a desperate attempt to be byuseful, bytapped the scattered groceries into a pile with their feet. While the woman in the business suit said, "You need to take her to see a doctor, right now."
To her credit, at least she said this just once. Whereas the woman who wasn't in a business suit, speaking on behalf of all the rest of Berkeley, Calif., where this happened, would not stop repeating one word, "Arnica."
So, then, the song goes like this:
"Oh sweetie, I'm so sorry. There, there, sweetie. Show mommy where it hurts."
Crying crying. "I'm not feeling well." Crying.
"How about purple?" Crying.
"Ma'am, do you want me to hold the little one for you? We're so sorry. Does she need ice, ma'am?"
"How about green? Do you like green?"
"Sweetie, sweetie, it's OK sweetie." Crying. "Mommy's here, sweetie. It's all right."
"Ma'am." Crying. "If there's anything at all." Crying. "We can do, Ma'am."
And on and on and onica, until finally the mother, briefly wondering why she lives where she lives, pried her attention away from her crying child to look this woman in the eye and say, "Will you please go away?"
Which is where I, in the spirit of Lou Reed singing, "I'm just the waterboy<0x2009>/the real game's not over here," admit that I wasn't there. I'd hear all about it ... how they escaped to the parking lot, to their car, only to find the store managers, through the miracle of pole vaults and sheer speed, had collected, bagged, and long-jumped their groceries to the parking lot, to their car, ahead of them. And free! I'd help put those groceries away. But I wasn't there. I was in San Francisco, in a swirl of pain and fear all my own, eating duck soup by myself at my new favorite restaurant.