Night at the Fresh Factor
Thursday night, 4:37 pm, in the dairy freezer of the Fresh Factor supermarket in College Point, Queens. Joey DiSpirito is seated on a crate of Edy’s Slow-Churned French Vanilla and takes the joint that is passed to him by Gavin O’Flaherty. Gavin is only a few years older than Joey, but he’s worked here forever, is a burn-out and doesn’t give a damn about anything. Joey doesn’t want to idolize Gavin, because the guy has no ideas and has nothing going for him, but right now the way Gavin is casually dealing with the joint as if this frigid icebox with its crates of dairy products stacked everywhere was his own backyard is deserving of praise.
Both Joey and Gavin are wearing their white lab coats over their green smocks to keep them circulating in their frozen labor. They look like two scientists in the tundra, taking a moment out of their penguin studies to remind themselves of warmer places in the world.
The pot is weak, so it will not affect Joey too much. Gavin is in a permanent state of high so it won’t affect him much either. It’s just a small, funny moment that began with Joey asking Gavin about how his band was going. This was a natural progression of events.
They take turns exhaling their smoke into a soda bottle that is stuffed with a fabric softener sheet and poked with little holes at the base. According to Gavin, this filters the skunky odor, rendering it undetectable. Joey could not tell if this was true or not, but found himself not caring too much either way. This is what apathy is like, he learns.
The apathy continues for several minutes, and the organic milk cartons remain stacked-by-six in their crates. If they could just get up off their asses and roll a few cartons down the rack into the display shelves, this would buy them a little more time. But Joey doesn’t feel like moving, and Gavin’s not going anywhere either.
“Enemas?” An elderly woman asks Joey, point blank and without context, as he stacks the Light-n-Lively cottage cheese in the dairy case.
The immediacy of the request nearly draws a snicker from him, but he recovers and directs her to the proper aisle. As the grateful old biddy shuffles off to the designated direction, Joey is suddenly seized with regret. He actually knew where the enemas were and this meant he had been there too long. Five years was too long.
The Fresh Factor had been his first and only job. He began it the summer before his freshman year of college and continued during the extended holiday breaks between semesters. The lifestyle had been manageable then; it was something to occupy his time and fill his pockets until it was time to head back to school. Life at the imbecilic upstate campus had its points of ridicule, but Joey knew that nothing would be better than that. Friends, interests, intrigues, passions—it was the time of his life, no doubt. The Fresh Factor had always been meant as a place holder between school sessions, and was bearable as such. At the very least it gave him insight into the true nature of his College Point townsfolk.
Two hundred years ago, College Point got its name from the fact that it hosted an actual school of higher learning within its perimeter. This lasted very briefly, but the name stuck. Nowadays it was mostly known for being one of the most inaccessible neighborhoods in the city of New York, where patches of ancient swampland swallowed most of the recent attempts at commercial development, and where a single highway was all that one could opt for to enter or leave the town. Its isolation gave way to slow progress in all fashions, and its citizens were distinct in their profound ignorance and old-fashioned idiosyncrasy. By and large they were cheap, simplistic, racist Catholic hypocrites who constantly voted against their own interests and spent their money on bulk, worthless crap.
Joey caught wind of this from a young age—as soon as he was able to start taking the subway by himself and comparing the lifestyles of other New Yorkers—but it didn’t really hit home until he started working at the Fresh Factor as a cashier. He overheard the stupidest conversations from that vantage, and oversaw the dumbest buying habits in contemporary history. People would buy frozen turkeys on Thanksgiving morning, thinking they would be available to eat that evening. Everyone would buy four jugs of powdered milk whenever they were on sale (limit four per customer), and would never buy it again until a new sale was offered. Others would brazenly attempt to purchase live lobsters with food stamps, or hold up the line for hours to squabble about the price of a tabloid magazine, or demand that he take four dollars off the price of pre-packaged watermelon slices to accommodate the lofty weight of the styrofoam and cellophane packaging.
But the real kicker, the single event that forever cemented in Joey’s mind that he lived in a town of assholes, involved the Queens-wide blackout two years ago. This had been the result of some sort of power plant fire, and throughout the course of the night the power was restored to most neighborhoods one at a time. College Point came dead last in the chain of repowering, leaving most of its denizens with a lifelong belief that the mayor had given them last priority. Joey had to admit that this was possible. At any rate, Joey was at his register when the lights flickered off mid-scan. Customers cried out in fear and confusion, even while the backup generator quickly rolled in and reignited the place. Then, everyone made a bee line to the courtesy counter with their desperate purchases of flashlights, batteries, portable radios and candles, haggling the price of each item instinctively and slowing everything to a panicked, slow motion standstill.
After these customers left and the mood calmed somewhat, the lights of the outside College Point world flickered back on for a cruel, taunting moment. The moment lasted long enough for all of these same people to come back to the store and return their emergency purchases, since clearly such things as flashlights and batteries had no place in a non-blackout situation. Again, the line was long and details were haggled as receipts were waved in the air like war banners. Junior Berkowitz, the fat little courtesy desk man who spent his days complaining about everyone and everything, handled each attempted return as its own special little enterprise, thereby holding up the angry line even more. Before the massive caravan of returns could even be completed, however, the lights once again went black, and the generator chime din again, and these very same people who placed their returns now attempted to repurchase their emergency items with equal panic and fury, as if the Fresh Factor itself were playing cruel games on their minds and wallets with a light switch.
Joey watched this all go down with amazement and quiet insight. Everyone here is an asshole, he concluded, and that was that.
7:51 pm. Joey has been called to open a register by Junior over the P.A. system to deal with long lines at the front end. He hates being up there, and assumed that by requesting a move to the dairy department a few months ago that he’d never have to do it again. He was wrong.
He throws the items across the scanner with reckless speed down the conveyor belt. This angers some customers, who want him treat their purchases with sacred respect. They are complaining to the wrong person when they complain to Joey.
Vicki Velez is manning the register next to his. She is very tall and pale and wears heavy purple lipstick, dangly hoop earrings and a mop of matted braids, but she is exotically pretty. She represents a new breed of College Pointer, being that she is ethnic and is not related to everyone, although her family is quite huge and most of them work here also. She is bored and her mind is far off, probably somewhere with her loser boyfriend Mannie in his parked Saab under the Whitestone Bridge. He catches her eye, and she smiles at him, and his face goes hot with blushing.
“When’s your lunch, Joey?” she coos flirtatiously. Customers try to zone her out because they feel underappreciated when cashiers talk to each other over them.
“8:30,” Joey replies. His voice cracks when he says it, and he sounds twelve.
“Not much longer, hang in there, baby.” She flirts with him all the time, probably because she gets a kick out of how Joey blushes and doesn’t flirt back.
8:30 pm. Joey sits on a park bench in front of the store, sucking down a cigarette. Vicki and Gavin stand not far away from him, illuminated by the green fluorescence of the Fresh Factor logo above them. She is laughing at something Gavin is telling her, which is funny in itself because Gavin rarely says much of anything. Joey can’t help but smile. He liked watching Vicki laugh, even if it was at somebody else’s dumb jokes.
She turns to him again.
“When you going back to school, Joey?”
“I’m not,” he calls back, voice cracking again, face heating again. “I’m done. I graduated in May.”
Vicki laughs again as her eyes widen in joyful amazement. “Then why the fuck you still here, Joey?”
Joey grins and lowers his head to inspect the pavement. He ignores a rat that races under his legs, crossing through the Fresh Factor parking lot between swamps.
“I dunno,” he responds. “I’m looking.”
He wasn’t really looking. He didn’t know what exactly he was supposed to be looking for. He wanted to tell her he was waiting for something to happen, something he couldn’t identify now, some sort of signal. But he didn’t tell her this.
11:25 pm. After another small rush at the front end, Junior’s voice on the P.A. announces that customers should bring up their final purchases for check-out before the store switched shifts to the overnight crew. Joey has about an hour left on the clock. He is exhausted and bored, and his brief conversation with Vicki outside has left a strange little hole inside of him. He is headed to the back room to grab a box of on-sale yogurt to fill the whole in the aisle case. The yogurt was hit hard today and he could barely keep up with it.
In the corner of his eye he sees a figure rushing forward. The figure is a small naked man in his middle years, Mexican-ish and pot-bellied. Deep bloody slashes criss-crossed the man’s arms and legs and belly, and little dabbles of blood left a trail behind him. The man covers his bare penis with one cupped hand and reached out pleadingly to Joey with the other.
This was a lot to take in a brief instant and Joey lurches back with a jolt. The man’s face is a portrait of fear and humiliation.
“What do I do? what do I do? what do I do?” Joey hears himself ask aloud in panicked squeals.
The man cannot articulate verbally what he wanted, but as his desperate gaze shoots around the store to spot onlookers, he begins to paw at Joey’s smock. His white coat was left in the freezer, so Joey shoves the smock into the man’s hand and begins running. He passes a few shocked customers who have seen the strange new visitor and now try to get Joey’s attention as he ran.
“I know!” Joey exclaims to all of them. Of course he knew, why else would he be running?
He finds himself at the courtesy desk, where an older man is complaining about some aspect of the bottle recycling stations outside to Junior Berkowitz. Junior seems typically irritated with the man but he continues to thunderously explain some store policy or another, as if he is Moses introducing the Commandments to the Jews.
“Call the police!” Joey exclaims. “Call the ambulance!”
“What are you talking about?” Junior wheezes with a frown. Junior has no patience for anyone because everyone is beneath him.
“There’s a guy bleeding in the back, he’s all cut up and he’s got no clothes on!” As Joey shouts this, everything suddenly seems quite real and his heart thumps against his ribs.
This only annoys Junior further. “Keep your voice down!” he urges.
“What, where?” asked the old bottle-complainer, twisting his head around in eager search. “I didn’t see no naked guy. Where?”
“Back there!” Joey exclaims, throwing a pointing finger aimlessly at a direction behind him as he fumbles for the phone near Junior. Junior seems prone to stop him, but then resigns, knowing it would take effort to handle him.
Vicki and Carla emerge from the central cereal aisle, pale as cadavers, which is even paler than usual for the both of them. Carla is a forty-ish cashier, frumpy and easy-going. The expression on her face now is as foreign as could be. She has seen the man; they both have.
“Junior, something happened!” is all Carla can say.
“Joey, call the police!” Vicki adds.
Joey continues his business with the phone. 9-1-1. Never dialed that one before, it feels weird. Next up is a rapid-fire, rambling recount with the dispatcher, and now an address must be given. Joey blanks. Don’t they have one of those automated systems? No, they don’t.
“Six eighty-two-dash-fourteen, Twentieth Ave!” Junior barks when asked. He wasn’t suffering fools today.
Carla had backtracked for a moment to recon, but is now returned.
“He’s walkin’ around the store again!” she announces. “He’s bleeding all over the store!” She looks sickly.
“Yusuf, bring a mop to aisles nine through twelve!” That was Junior over the P.A. Asshole.
“I’m gonna get my coat in the back,” Joey thinks aloud, “Then we can bring him outside for the cops and ambulance.”
He races back down the cleaning supplies aisle, and freezes before the rubber glove selection, remembering the strange man’s blood.
Junior is reading his mind. “Take the Fresh Factor generic ones!” He reminds him. Asshole.
11:42 pm. Joey now has his coat, and is following the trails of blood specks to find his quarry. In time, Vicki and Carla join him. Carla knows where the man is and leads them down the pasta aisle.
The man is slumped against a display. Joey’s smock is now a tight red ball on the floor, and a big bag of rice is now solely concealing his privates. There are few customers left in the store at this hour, but they have all found themselves standing at either end of the aisle, pointing and discussing. Joey hears one woman say, “Somebody should do somethin’!” with extreme profundity. The next aisle over, he can hear the squeaks of Yusuf’s mop. Peter Frampton on the easy listening Fresh Factor Radio mix now croaks a demented dirge, loving baby’s way, night and day.
The bleeder clutches the rice to his groin, but his modesty is fading. Joey can see the ripples of the man’s skin at the sides of a deep bleeding gash on his arm. His face, a crude and grizzled mug that could be any face on the 7 train, now begins to darken into a numbness of pain.
Vicki sees this change and screams. Joey runs forward, clutching the lab coat in his gloved hands. Joey wants to scream too.
12:17 a.m. The police and the ambulance do not come. The man sits on the bench outside, where Joey himself sat a few hours ago, swaddled in the white coat, which now darkened with burgundy patches. Carla’s husband had come to pick her up. He didn’t want to let the bleeding Mexican into his car, so he took her home. Carla was not happy to go. She was invigorated by the drama and intrigue.
The wounded man’s head was rolled back over the bench. He had whispered in Spanish to Vicki his version of events, and Vicki chimed in to quietly translate after every few lines. His name is Luis and he met three women at a gas station who needed a ride to the Fresh Factor to pick up some baby formula. He is a Good Samaritan so he agrees. They ask him to park in back, where the trucks unload. An odd request, but he agrees. They than rob him and strip him and slice him with box cutters and drive off with his car and everything else, leaving him for dead. Joey and Vicki agree that this last part was probably true.
Vicki wants to call Luis’ wife. Luis moans back to life for a moment in protest, but Vicki convinces him that she will find out one way or another, best to tell her now.
“Si, si,” he reluctantly complies with a grave sigh, and rattles off a Spanish chain of numbers. Vicki dials her cell phone and speaks in her own clippie Spanish to someone on the other end. The introduction is cordial but things get heated quickly, and Vicki is soon angry and swings her finger in the air at no one as she rolls her words furiously. Luis gestures her with a sleepy wave of his hand, and Vicki catches herself and brings it down several notches. She soon ends the call with what sounds like a sincere connection, a bonding moment between strangers.
“She is mad and does not believe him,” Vicki tells Joey, her eyes graver than he’d ever seen them. “She thinks he picked up prostitutes and wouldn’t pay them, so they robbed him. She thought I was a prostitute myself. But now she is on her way because she loves him.”
She follows up with Luis in a clearly more edited Spanish exchange. Luis nods with a sad smile.
A police car arrives with no sirens. The officer is confused, and it turns out the call was made incorrectly by the dispatcher. This was not some nude buffoon in public hijinks, this man was injured. The cop apologizes and radios for backup.
1:07 a.m. Joey’s buddies from home come to pick him up in the parking for a crawl at the neighboring Bayside dives. They work days at the Factor and are appalled when Joey and Vicki recount what they missed. Vicki politely accepts their offer for a ride home, but will not go to the bar with them. She doesn’t like bars and has had a long day already besides.
She and Joey grin at each other in the back seat. They’ve somehow connected and Joey doesn’t have to blush.
After Vicki is gone, the car rolls down 20th Avenue towards the Whitestone Expressway, the only way in or out of this dumb town. Joey’s friends have changed the subject: they’re going on now about floor tiling and wall-to-wall carpeting in a new apartment someone wants to rent.
Joey drowns it out and is watching the patches of swamp on one side of the avenue: silvery glades reflecting the moon, unaffected by College Point stupidity.
But now nothing seemed real and everything was questionable. What was this place? What did it all mean? What mattered, and why?
The car turns onto the Expressway and the swamps fade into the distance. Anything is possible, Joey ponders. At any moment, some crazy thing can run up into his face. Nothing is what it seems.
He takes a breath.