Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The girl next grocery store

I have a little bit of a crush on the girl who works the cash register at the nearby supermercado.

I'm not sure of her name, nor her age. She could be anywhere from seventeen to twenty-seven, though I'm guessing she's probably in her early twenties. She's got a big round face, and long dark hair, and slightly bad skin. She smiles a lot. She speaks heavily accented Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, I think, being her native language.

So many of the supermercados down here are owned and run by Chinese immigrant families. The simple supermercado, like the panadería and the verdurería, can be found on every other block. Their layouts may differ, but they are all roughly of the same size and stock: three or four aisles, filled with flour and pastas and crackers and cookies and milk and yogurt and matches and cleaning supplies; that is, the basics. Often, in the back, they will have a glass case filled with cured meats and various cheeses. Some even come complete with a butcher's section, with the ubiquitous quiet character, the menacing shhhk shhhk of his (it's always "his") sharp knife tempered by something humorous, like a plastic chicken hanging in the back. (Today, the butcher was wearing a shirt that said California! in big cursive letters, punctuated by a Levi's logo.)

I'm interested in the dynamics of the Chinese store owners and their Argentine clientele. Buenos Aires, while more ethnographically diverse than many other South American cities, still lacks the vibrant diversity of good old Washington, DC. I find that, while people from different backgrounds do exist, they tend to blend less than I've seen in the States. Everyone has his or her role, according to their ethnicity: the Chinese run the supermercados, the black people sell watches from silver briefcases, the Colombians come here to go to college, the Bolivians clean houses and work in kitchens. White people yacht.

Anyway. Back to the grocery store girl: when Bennett and I first moved down here, we were half a block away from another mini supermercado. That store, too, had its Chinese family, complete with a young girl who worked the register a vast majority of the time. She wore thin sweatshirts too big for her, and was always one step ahead of the customer. You needed a bag? She already had it out. A spoon for your yogurt? Done. Returning your beer bottle, something new to you and still slightly confusing? She was already printing out the receipt, carefully explaining in simple Spanish that because you were buying another bottle, you didn't need to pay the deposit. We loved her.

When we moved, about a month into being in Buenos Aires, we stayed within the same neighborhood. I swore allegiance to the corner store and its register girl, even though there were three stores closer. Bennett smiled and nodded, even though he knew better -- soon, I would be head over heels for the girl next grocery store.

She's come to recognize us, and it's always nice to get a "Hola, qué tal?" when we walk in. We visit the store frequently, sometimes together, sometimes separately. I wonder if she pays any attention to the discrepancies in our purchases. When I'm alone, I pick up things like milk and butter and pasta and baking chocolate; Bennett buys vodka and Red Bull.

She has a cousin, I think, a girl about her own age, who works at the store with her. They'll sit at the same register together, our girl ringing up groceries, the cousin listlessly bagging them. They speak in rapid Chinese to one another, and laugh. The cousin is slightly more attractive, with a cooler haircut, but I've got a soft spot for the ringer.

Today, I stopped in for something and caught her, in her usual spot in the chair behind the cash machine, taking pictures of her hair using her cell phone. It was something personal, both the picture-taking and the observing, and she caught me catching her. Instead of being embarrassed (or feigning any kind of embarrassment), she gave me a big smile and a little wave. I gave her the thumbs up: her hair did look good.

She jokes around with us, too. A few nights ago, Bennett and I went in to buy a few odds and ends. Bennett paid, but instead of giving him back the five pesos in change, she handed it to me dramatically, while smiling. It's simple humor, but considering the language barrier (her average Spanish versus our mediocre mangling of it), it's all the more lovely.

What I think I like most about the grocery store girl is the feeling of warmth, of neighborhood-ness I get every time she smiles at me when I walk in. There's something universal about a slightly bored young lady, obligated to work by familial duties, who is ready to smile when a goofy, handsome young couple pays her attention. There's also something distinctly Argentine about the whole thing, which for all my griping about the little diversity in food and people, smacks suprisingly of home.

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