These days it’s easier for a guy to marry a vegan than a virgin. But this guy, me, took a giant step with a member of that rare sub category of picky eaters called freegans. You know. The radical group that gathers to dine, not around a table, but around a dumpster. My love for one of these strange waste not- want- not types started in a reading room at the New York Public Library on a rainy afternoon in October.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the girl sitting at the opposite table with a stack of Mother Earth magazines in front of her. She was that 15th Century portrait that has haunted my memory for the past ten years come to life. I’d been in art school with dreams of becoming a fine artist when I first saw the portrait. Several times, I tried to paint the girl in the picture, but each time I failed to capture the image that was locked in my mind.
I pushed aside my sketch pad and the books showing female fashions of 1920s as soon as I spotted her, the delicate hands turning pages, the sway of her head from side to side, the interest on her face, and the way the light from a window behind her reflected off her long raven hair like a halo.
When she closed the last magazine, my heart fluttered like a butterfly out of fear that she was going to leave and I would lose her forever. I rushed in front of her table.
“Forgive me for staring at you. You look like a Renaissance painting. You’re a lovely girl, and I just had to tell you.”
“That’s original. But I’m more Jewish- American princess. Never been to Florence.”
“I’m Nick Grisafi,” I said timidly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Never been to Italy either. Never been further east than Jones Beach.”
The girl extended her hand. “Sarah Greenberg. I’m a native New Yorker, too.”
The disco song, Native New Yorker filled my head. I knew that I had to think of something to say fast or burst. “Do you come to the library often?” I blurted out, regretting how stupid it sounded as soon as the last word came out.
“Nice to meet you, Nick. No, I go to a branch for books, but can’t get back issues of mags there,” she said, turning her head quickly toward the next table at the sound of a mighty ‘Shhh’ coming from an old woman in jeweled eyeglasses hissing like a viper ready to strike. Sarah crossed her lips with her index finger sheepishly and whispered, “Maybe I’ll see you here again, but I have to leave now. I’m meeting friends in a couple of hours.”
“I’m ready to leave too, Sarah,” I said urgently. “Do you have time to grab a cup of coffee before you meet your friends? There’s a Starbucks two blocks away.”
Sarah stood, a tiny thing about eight inches below my six feet, thought for a moment, and said, “Okay, but no Starbucks. I refuse to feed the coffee monster. There’s an internet cafe across from Bryant Park.”
All of the tables in the internet café were occupied, and after picking up coffee at the counter we had to share a table with a nerdy looking guy poring over his laptop. I thought the nerd had nerve sitting there taking up space without a coffee cup in front of him.
Over double shots of espresso, we learned the basics about each other. I told her that I was an art director at an ad agency, researching 1920s fashion to develop storyboards for a new campaign. I learned that Sarah taught third grade at a public school in Harlem
Before we emptied our cups, I said that I wanted to see her again. We exchanged telephone numbers. Yeah, I was thinking love and marriage at first sight, but not because I was a poster boy for the Italian dude too old to still be living with la mamma. Then I learned about Sarah’s unusual activism and the wedding bells stopped ringing.
“You told me there are friends you have to meet?” I said as I hailed a waitress for the coffee check.
“Yes, I belong to a freegan group.” she said in a blasé tone that seemed like it was something she wanted to reveal without shocking me.
“A friggen group!” I said too loudly, shocked, the bitter espresso climbing up into my mouth. The nerd was shocked too. His head popped up from his laptop. “Sarah, you’re not telling me you’re into communal sex?”
“No, silly,” she laughed. “Not friggen. Free…gan.” She pronounced it like two words. As I looked at the check, placed the money on the table, a puzzled look on my face, Sarah continued: “Freegans oppose the unbridled consumption in the world. All the waste. We believe in conserving our resources. So we use what other people throw away.”
It sounded like a mission statement from the 1960s. “You mean like vegans?”
“We’re different than vegans. I love burgers.” The nerd smiled and went back to the laptop.
“I really have to go now, Nick. Kirk, one of our leaders, has uncovered a species of taraxacum that comes out in late summer. He said the studies show great nutritional benefits and it’s growing off the West Side Highway. We’ve formed a group to go harvest it.”
“Kirk?” I snapped, a picture of Spartacus flexing his muscles as competition flashed in my head.
“He’s pretty much our technical adviser. A retired PhD chemist. Taught at Berkley for years. We’d all be dead from bad mushrooms if it wasn’t for Kirk.”
“Hmm. I like Kirk. I’ll call you for a cheap date.”
She tossed her long black hair with a laugh. “Call me next week, Nick,” and hurried away. I was flying so high, I thought about walking all the way home. It won’t take long with my feet off the ground. I changed my mind at the next subway entrance.
I lived with my mother in a three-story house my father, a stone mason, built practically by himself during the depression. When Pop died and my two sisters married and moved out, I didn’t want Mom to be alone.
I couldn’t wait past Monday evening to call Sarah and set a date for the next night. “Umbrellas of Cherbourg is playing at the Gramercy. We can make the first show and have a late supper of peanuts with the pigeons in the park.” There was a moment of silence. Then the laugh I learned to love. Meet you at the Gramercy, she said. My heart melted like a Dali clock. I was depriving her third-graders of an intelligent lesson plan for a French movie, she said.
We shared a love for movies, especially foreign films: Italian neo realism, French New Wave. Silent comedies and Hollywood pictures from the 1930-40s also. On weekends, I showed off my knowledge of art at the Met, MoMa, or the Guggenheim. This lover of ossa buco was living a romantic dream with a girl who was living on turnip greens. Sharing her freegan friends also turned out to be a lot of fun.
I met Kirk, tall, thin, and white- haired who spoke with what seemed to me like an affected British accent. Sarah asked him to tell me about the steamer he invented to return stale bagels to their original texture. We gathered them from a dumpster behind a Brooklyn bakery, and bargained when day-olds didn’t sell. The old chemist, feeling fatherly about Sarah, told me that advertising doesn’t mix well with freeganism. Instead of telling him to mind his own freegan business, I held back for Sarah’s sake.
We visited Mike the Bike in his workshop for restoring old, abandoned bicycles and either giving them away or selling them at a low price to poor kids. Mike said that half the bikes parked outside Sarah’s school were restored by him. I met Etienne, head waiter at a five star restaurant. His specialty was to assemble gourmet doggy boxes from what diners left on their plates. He usually purchased a bottle of good wine at a discount when he served members of the group. I even went along on a dumpster dive behind several famous Jewish delis and was surprised at how much pastrami was hauled away.
I found a one-carat solitaire in the diamond center on 59th Street, and sprung it on her that night. “I love you, Sarah, and want to marry you,” I said without my voice cracking.
“It’s about time, Nick, and you didn’t need a ring to ask. It’s beautiful! I love you too. Yes, dear man.”
“Last night, I told my mother about our engagement. I’d like you to meet my family next Sunday.”
“Yes! Yes!” she beamed, her eyes sparkling like the diamond. “I’ll call Daddy to tell him I’ve found a wonderful guy, and if I know Sam, he’ll be sending round trip tickets to Miami very soon. That night we took a walk in the rain, got soaked, and didn’t feel a thing.
Sarah was still talking through her stuffy red nose when they arrived at the Grisafi house on Carmine Street. On the way, she’d filled her shoulder bag with used Kleenex, and kept apologizing for catching a cold. Although my head felt like an air-filled balloon I thought it wise not to mention it.
“Your house looks indestructible,” Sarah said, her head cold and my clogged ears making the word ‘indestructible’ unintelligible. I pushed the buzzer instead of the door to give fair warning to those inside. Mom answered in an instant wearing black of course, making her white hair whiter than white. We stepped inside and I said cheerfully, “Mom, I want you to meet Sarah.”
Without taking her eyes off my future bride, Mom gave me a hug, reached out for Sarah’s hand, and asked, “You feeling okay, honey?” noticing everything about Nicky’s girl including the sniffles she was straining to hide.
“Sarah has a little cold, Mom, the sudden change in the weather after the rain.”
“A little grappa for her, Nicky?
“Naw, she’s fine. Your cooking will fix her up.” I could see that Sarah wasn’t happy with Mom and me talking around her, so she jumped in: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Grisafi. Nicky told me what a wonderful cook you are. I smell something good right now.”
Still looking Sarah over, Mom said, “It’s the gravy. I cook it for five hours.” The rest of the menu would be Mom’s surprise. I’d had concerns about what my mother might spring on Sarah, but knew it was useless to try to influence her. I also had no intention of revealing anything about Sarah’s eating habits. It would all have to unfold on its own, in time, but I prayed a lot.
Sarah met my sisters seated in the living room, no husbands or kids present. “Pete is a season ticket holder at the Giants, and nothing will keep him away on game day,” Edna from Jersey said. Angie from Bensonhurst said husband, Ralph, had a long standing date to take customers fishing in his pride and joy, an 80 ft., SkyBridge Sports Yacht.
Finally, a voice from the kitchen roared, “Mangia!” and we moved to the dining room. The table was set elegantly with a floral centerpiece. My sisters helped Mom serve. I poured the Chianti. Homemade raviolis, meatballs, and a beautiful ensalada were brought to the table. Move over, Mama Leone. We all took a last meatball except Sarah. That started it, or maybe it was the chianti.
“You got a problem with meatballs?” Mom said, glaring at Sarah. “If the man likes meatballs he better find a wife who knows how to cook them.”
“Mom!” I shouted. “You expect everyone to eat meatballs the way Pop did.”
She wasn’t finished. “I get the big bedroom ready for you, and when you move in here, I teach you to cook.”
“Mom--” I started again, but Sarah took over. “That’s nice of you Miss Grisafi, but Nick and I plan to have a place of our own. I don’t think living in with family is a good idea for newlyweds.” I nodded in agreement while Mom scowled. I looked at my two sisters and saw it coming. Edna was crossing the Hudson and Angie, the East River like a Wehrmacht pincer siege on poor Sarah.
Edna with a sneer: “Your last name’s Greenberg. That’s Jewish. Ain’t it?” Angie with a wink: “I hope you’re not one of the observant kinds like we have in Brooklyn. With the licorice stick hair. Ya know what I mean?”
To her credit, Sarah never cowered, but responded sharply, first looking at Edna: “Yes, but I’m no relation to Hank.” Then turning to Angie: “I observe a lot of things, Angie, even people who talk bullshit.”
On the way back uptown in the subway car, Sarah sat in silence, hands in her lap, nervously rotating her engagement ring around her finger.
Just as Sarah predicted, tickets arrived FedEx for a round trip to Miami next weekend. We had been summoned. I felt uncomfortable, just as Sarah had been made to feel by my family, like having to appear at a command performance without knowing the words to the song. It’s just the way Sam is, Sarah said. He never means to be insulting.
We were met in the airport by Sam, bald and chubby in a loud Hawaiian shirt and sandals and his third wife, Yvette, 25 years younger, in shorts and a beaded top cut so low it looked like she was skipping rope. We followed them to a black Mercedes convertible, and Sam ran three red lights on the way to their beachfront duplex.
Sam insisted on drinks, but Sarah said no to the cigar. Her mother, Sam’s first wife, died of lung cancer from second hand smoke. Yvette went out on the patio to smoke her Virginia Slims.
Sam held the floor talking about his years building his business and selling it for a small fortune to Wellington before retiring. And he did it without advertising, a dig at my job.
“Nick, I hate to say it but advertising is a high risk profession. If the client gets a bug up his ass about you or the agency, it doesn’t matter how good your work is, the account is down the toilet. And the agency is history.”
“Daddy!” Sarah shouted.
“I’m just saying, kitten.”
“Sure, we live with that peril every day, Mr. Greenberg—“
“Call me Sam.”
But that risk is shared by most businesses today. And even though you accomplished so much without using advertising, there plenty of evidence that it’s a cost effective way to increase market share and build demand and brand awareness for a product or service.”
I was the one reciting a mission statement. Sam puffed on an imaginary cigar
Yvette came in from the patio smelling like an ashtray while her husband was reminiscing of that hopeful time in his life when he asked Sarah to move to Florida with him after Sarah Lawrence. He almost cried when he spoke of her decision to take that lousy teaching job in Harlem.
“Daddy, you know much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, college, the apartment after you moved. But I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and now I have Nick.”
Yvette was about to put the last nail in my coffin. “Sarah, honey, I almost forgot to tell you. Maury Baker was asking for you. You made an impression. Remember? The plastic surgeon I was going to in New York. You met him the day you went with me because of the anesthesia. You made an impression. He left his wife a few months ago. A real bitch, poor guy.
On the flight home, I pretended to sleep. The weekend in Florida was like two weeks with a toothache. It was clear that the families weren’t thrilled about Sarah and me. Instead of having nuclear families, Sarah and I will be fighting a nuclear war. The ‘Fasten your seatbelts announcement from the stewardess was prophetic. Sarah and I were in for a bumpy ride.
Things settled down with the families, and the wedding took place in autumn in a little chapel in the Village. A priest and a rabbi presided. Sam paid for everything, so he got his way, hiring a Klezmer band for the entertainment. They had trouble handling C’era Luna, Mezza Mare but played the hell out of Volare. Sam almost fell down doing the Hora but he and my Mom and got applause waltzing to Sunrise, Sunset.
Sarah was sitting upright in the recliner, and stood as I entered the room. She had that cat-ate-the mouse look on her face. Before I had a chance to tell her that the agency lost a food account, Sarah the cat said:
“Nicky, I went to the doctor this afternoon. Do you want to sit down?”
“Sarah, what’s wrong?” I said, rushing toward her as she stood.
“We’re going to have a baby,” the smiling cat answered.
I threw my arms around her, crushed her to my body, pulled back sharply, and said, “Whoops! I don’t wanna hurt anything.”
“Nicky, I’m so glad. Some guys don’t welcome that news.”
Last night, I didn’t sleep well, shifting side to side, with thoughts about a new baby or how to get the food account back. Sarah started to snore. I smiled at the ceiling. All shall be well. We will get the food account back, and best of all, a son—or a daughter!
Sarah hasn’t mentioned the freegens in a while. It may be over.
Sarah would never feed our kid out of a dumpster.
Born in New York City, Joe Guderian is now retired in St. Marys, GA, after a career in advertising and public relations.