IT is for them the treat of treats. Surely even the tourists riding double-decker buses in the heady scenes of downtown London don't have a better or more novel time than the children riding grownups' shopping carts in the myriad world of my local supermarket. Ensconsed in a child-seat above, or at the peekaboo level below, sometimes three to a cart, sometimes only one, they peer about them with big, alert eyes made even bigger by constant anticipation, constant readiness for the new sight waiting for them around the corner, waiting just for them, like a piece of magic never performed anywhere else.
Maybe it is a pile of tomatoes beaming with redness, like a clan of roly-poly royalty posing for a picture. Maybe it is some cucumbers so goodly and glistening and sleek they might as well be a school of whales showing off in the ocean. Maybe it is bunches of lettuce freshly watered, little forests without roots or skies and yet so real a rainbow could shimmer above them at any moment.
And after all that uninhibited pro-duce there are aisles and aisles of foodstuffs more demure but no less entrancing. Cans of soup serious in their pur-pose but playful in their roundness. Boxes of breakfast cereal that don't try to look important but simply can't help themselves. Shiny packages that give dainty giggles when squeezed. And slow descents of identical bottles, like raindrops on a windowpane, making their perfect arrival.
It is wonderful to watch the faces of the children who see all this, even when, because of a certain ogre called a budget, they can't always have what they want. In their disappointment, as in their delight, not a moment of life escapes them, not a moment of truth.
I try to watch respectfully, unobtrusively, at a distance, but of course it cannot be helped sometimes that the children will notice me. Some are overcome by shyness and look away quickly, hiding someplace in their imagination where they know I can't find them. Others meet my gaze and hold it, as if to say that they don't mind being watched, provided I let them do the same. Others just look at me a few moments and then look away, their eyes full of that defenseless innocence that makes children so beautiful. I smile at all of them the smile of a natural and harmless observer, of a friend to the entire nation of children.
I understand their temptations, too. I know what is going through their minds when they are left alone for a few minutes, in their carts, near some irresist-ibly juicy things.
When I was a boy, my mother used to take me with her to Grossman's mini-market in the poor but cheerful heart of our neighborhood. Grossman's mini-market was so small, with aisles almost as narrow as an accordion stuck in the pumped-in position, that shopping carts were not practical. Nevertheless, there were three of them, one red, one white, and one blue, a kind of patriotic fleet that Grossman maintained to give his market a certain class, a certain elevation.
I loved the blue cart, which always seemed to wink at me with sly playful-ness, promising me everything. My mother always took this cart when it was free, sat me on top, and pushed off into the cramped spaces with more heart than realistic hope of coming through her maneuverings without a scratch.
Her favorite place was also the roomiest, the fruit and vegetable section. Here she would sometimes park the cart and wander off to squeeze the oranges, heft the potatoes, breathe a wistful mist of dreams upon the seedless and expensive grapes, whispering ``shh'' to her fancy and letting her good sense tell her what to do.
One of these untended times I reached out and helped myself to a handful of blackberries piled in a big, flat crate. One handful led to another, and by the time my mother returned, the pile had shrunk to half. Purple guilt was written all over my fingers and mouth, and yet I was smiling with enormous, almost defiant complacency, as if I were the very emperor of blackberries.
My mother let out a wail and covered her face with her apron. And all of a sudden here came Mr. Grossman around the corner with a fire extinguisher, armed for calamity. When he saw it was only a crime of innocence, of simple, fruity passion, his whole being softened into a smile of forgiveness. He even said, ``The child has enjoyed himself. The berries are on the house.''
Then he and my mother, who was peeking over her apron, exchanged a look, a bittersweet look I have never forgotten. It said, ``Well, children will be children, won't they? We wish we could be children, too. But that simply isn't the way the world gets on. We all have to grow up, someday.''
And yet, somewhere deep inside me, like a kind of homebody, a child still lives, I know. I have proof.
Once, a young mother was pushing her cart up the aisle of my supermarket, her little boy of 3 or 4 sitting on top. The child was wearing a white sailor's suit complete with sailor's hat, and his eyes flashed this way and that with an excited and earnest look, as if single-handedly he were sailing a ship through stormy waves, entrusted with the preservation of his mother and himself. In a spontaneous surprise of feeling, his mother leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. ``I love you,'' she said.
As the cart/ship was going past/sail-ing by me, the little boy answered happily, ``I love you, too,'' and then, our eyes meeting, he added the nautical salutation, ``Ahoy!''
In a voice unmistakably blackberry-besmirched I sang out, ``Ahoy, mate!''