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"You people come into the market―the Greenmarket, in the open air under the down pouring sun―and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are―people of the city―and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales." So opens the title piece in this collection of John McPhee's classic essays, grouped here with four others, including "Brigade de Cuisine," a profile of an artistic and extraordinary chef; "The Keel of Lake Dickey," in which a journey down the whitewater of a wild river ends in the shadow of a huge projected dam; a report on plans for the construction of nuclear power plants that would float in the ocean; and a pinball shoot-out between two prizewinning journalists.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), The Founding Fish (2002), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Giving Good Weight
GIVING GOOD WEIGHT YOU PEOPLE COME into the market--the Greenmarket, in the open air under the downpouring sun--and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are--people of the city--and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales. "Does every sink grow on your farm?" "Yes, ma'am." "It's marvellous. Absolutely every sink?" "Some things we get from neighbors up the road." "You don't have no avocados, do you?" "Avocados don't grow in New York State." "Butter beans?" "They're a Southern crop." "Who baked this bread?" "My mother. A dollar twenty-five for the cinnamon. Ninety-five cents for the rye." "I can't eat rye bread anymore. I like it very much, but it gives me a headache." Short, born abroad, and with dark hair and quick eyes, the woman who likes rye bread comes regularly to the Brooklyn Greenmarket, at Flatbush and Atlantic. I have seen her as well at the Fifty-ninth Street Greenmarket, in Manhattan. There is abundant evidence that she likes to eat. She must have endured some spectacular hangovers from all that rye. Farm goods are sold off trucks, vans, and pickups that come into town in the dark of the morning. The site shifts with the day of the week: Tuesdays, black Harlem; Wednesdays, Brooklyn; Fridays, Amsterdam at 102nd. There are two on Saturdays--the one at Fifty-ninth Street and Second Avenue, the other in Union Square. Certain farms are represented everywhere, others at just one or two of the markets, which have been primed by foundation funds and developed under the eye of the city. If they are something good for the urban milieu--tumbling horns of fresh plenty at the people's feet--they are an even better deal for the farmers, whose disappearance from the metropolitan borders may be slowed a bit by the many thousands of city people who flow through streets and vacant lots and crowd up six deep at the trucks to admire the peppers, fight over the corn, and gratefully fill our money aprons with fresh green city lettuce. "How much are the tomatoes?" "Three pounds for a dollar." "Peaches?" "Three pounds for a dollar twenty-five." "Are they freestones?" "No charge for the pits." "How much are the tomatoes?" "Three pounds for a dollar. It says so there on the sign." "Venver the eggs laid?" "Yesterday." "Kon you eat dum raw?" We look up from the cartons, the cashbox, the scales, to see who will eat the eggs raw. She is a good-looking big-framed young blonde. "You bet. You can eat them raw." "How much are the apples?" "Three pounds for a dollar." Three pounds, as we weigh them out, are anywhere from forty-eight to fifty-two ounces. Rich Hodgson says not to charge for an extra quarter pound. He is from Hodgson Farms, of Newburgh, New York, and I (who come from western New Jersey) have been working for him off and on for three months, summer and fall. I thought at first that I would last only a week, but there is a mesmerism in the selling, in the coins and the bills, the all-day touching of hands. I am often in charge of the peppers, and, like everyone else behind the tables by our truck, I can look at a plastic sack of them now and tell its weight. "How much these weigh? Have I got three pounds?" "That's maybe two and a quarter pounds you've got there." "Weigh them, please." "There it is. Two and a quarter pounds." " Very good." "Fantastic! Fantastic! You see that? You see that? He knew exactly how much it weighed." I scuff a boot, take a break for a shiver in the bones. There are unsuspected heights in this game, moments that go right off the scale. This is the Brooklyn market, in appearance the most cornucopian of all. The trucks are drawn up in a close but ample square and spill into its center the colors of the country. Greengage plums. Ruby Red onions. Yellow crookneck squash. Sweet white Spanish onions. Starking Delicious plums. Fall pippins ("Green as grass and curl your teeth"). McIntoshes, Cortlands, Paulareds. ("Paulareds are new and are lovely apples. I'll bet they'll be in the stores in the next few years.") Pinkish-yellow Gravensteins. Gold Star cantaloupes. Patty Pan squash. Burpless cucumbers. Cranberry beans. Silver Queen corn. Sweet Sue bicolor corn, with its concise tight kernels, its well-filled tips and butts. Boston salad lettuce. Parris Island romaine lettuce. Ithaca iceberg crunchy pale lettuce. Orange tomatoes. Cherry Bell tomatoes. Moreton Hybrid, Jet Star, Setmore, Supersonic, Roma, Saladette tomatoes. Campbell 38s. Campbell 1327s. Big Boy, Big Girl, Redpak, Ramapo, Rutgers London-broil thick-slice tomatoes. Clean-shouldered, supple-globed Fantastic tomatoes. Celery (Imperial 44). Hot Portugal peppers. Four-lobed Lady Bell glossy green peppers. Aconcagua frying peppers. Parsley, carrots, collard greens. Stuttgarter onions, mustard greens. Dandelions. The people, in their throngs, are the most varied we see--orthat anyone is likely to see in one place west of Suez. This intersection is the hub if not the heart of Brooklyn, where numerous streets converge, and where Fourth Avenue comes plowing into the Flatbush-Atlantic plane. It is also a nexus of the race. "Weigh these, please." "Will you please weigh these?" Greeks. Italians. Russians. Finns. Haitians. Puerto Ricans. Nubians. Muslim women in veils of shocking pink. Sunnis in total black. Women in hiking shorts, with babies in their backpacks. Young Connecticut-looking pants-suit women. Their hair hangs long and as soft as cornsilk. There are country Jamaicans, in loose dresses, bandannas tight around their heads. "Fifty cents? Yes, dahling. Come on a sweetheart, mon." There are Jews by the minyan, Jews of all persuasions --white-bearded, black-bearded, split-bearded Jews. Down off Park Slope and Cobble Hill come the neo-bohemians, out of the money and into the arts. "Will you weigh this tomato, please?" And meantime let us discuss theatre, books, environmental impacts. Maybe half the crowd are men--men in cool Haspel cords and regimental ties, men in lipstick, men with blue eyelids. Corporate-echelon pinstripe men. Their silvered hair is perfect in coif; it appears to have been audited. Easy-going old neighborhood men with their shirts hanging open in the summer heat are walking galleries of abdominal and thoracic scars--Brooklyn Jewish Hospital's bastings and tackings. (They do good work there.) A huge clock is on a tower high above us, and as dusk comes down in the autumn months the hands glow Chinese red. The stations of the hours light up like stars. The clock is on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, a skyscraper full of dentists. They go down at five into the Long Island Rail Road, under us. Below us, too, are all the subways of the city, in ganglion assembled. "How much are the cabbages?" "Forty cents a head." "O.K. Weigh one, please." We look around at empty storefronts, at J. Rabinowitz & Sons' SECURITY FIREPROOF STORAGE, at three gold balls (Gem Jewelers Sales), at Martin Orlofsky's Midtown Florist Nursery. Orlofsky has successfully objected to our presence as competitors here, and we can sell neither plants nor flowers. "HAVE YOU HAD ANY LATELY? CLAMS, STEAMERS." Across Fourth Avenue from the Greenmarket is the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, a century and a quarter old, with what seem to be, even in the brightest morning light, black saints in its stained-glass windows. Far down Fourth, as if at rest on the paved horizon, stands a tower of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. To the northwest rises the Empire State. Not long after dawn, as trucks arrive and farmers begin to open boxes and set up wooden tables, a miscellany of whores is calling it a day--a gradual dispersal, quitting time. Their corner is Pacific and Fourth. Now and again, a big red Cadillac pauses at the curb beside them. The car's rear window is shaped like a heart. With some frequency, a squad car will slide up to the same curb--a week-in, week-out, endless duet with the Cadillac. The women hurry away. "Here come the law." The Greenmarket space, which lies between Atlantic and Pacific, was once occupied by condemned buildings--spent bars and liquor stores. The block is fenced and gravelled now, and is leased by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which charges the Greenmarket seventy-five dollars a Wednesday. The market does not fill the lot--the rest is concession parking. Here in the din of the city, in the rivers of moving metal, some customers drive to the Greenmarket as if it were a roadside stand in Rockland County, a mall in Valley Stream. On a sidewalk around the corner, people with a Coleman stove under a fifty-five-gallon drum are making sauce with our tomatoes. Tall black man in a business suit now picks up a slim hot pepper. Apparently he thinks it sweet, because he takes most of it with a single bite and chews it with anticipant relish. Three ... two ... one. The small red grenade explodes on his tongue. His eyeballs seem to smoke. By the fistful, he grabs cool stringbeans and stuffs them into his mouth. I forget to give change to a middle-aged woman with bitter eyes. I charged her forty-five cents for a pound and a third of apples and she gave me half a dollar. Now she is demanding her nickel, and her eyes are narrower than the sides of dimes. She is a round-shouldered person, beaky and short--shortchanged. In her stare at me, there is an entire judiciary system --accusation...
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