Every once in a while I come across something that makes me feel like a hoser/poseur. It’s an experience that I find oddly bracing, because on most days, I tend to see myself as a tough-minded and unassuming sort of man. I suppose in some minor and comparative measure, I am-compared with say, Sarah Palin or those members of the Writher’s Union who think they’re entitled to a dental plan because they’re nice people and are working for the good of the commonwealth, blah, blah. Then I’m reminded of just exactly what tough-minded and unassuming truly entails.
A man named Harlan Clark died early last week out in Port Perry, which is a small agricultural community east of Toronto near Lake Ontario. He was a small, wiry, bright-eyed man with a soft voice, and a heart attack took him at the age of 87. I knew Mr. Clark, sort of. Each Saturday for the past several years, I’ve had the same short conversation with either him or his wife Norine, who’s two years younger and like Mr. Clark, small, wiry, bright-eyed and soft-voiced.
“I’d like two dozen of the Friday Jumbos,” I say, the “Friday” meaning that the eggs were laid yesterday and I was willing to pay another ten cents a dozen for them. He or Norine, depending on which of them I’m talking to, replies, “That’s $7.20”, and I hand over the exact amount. After that, we smile at one another, and each of us thanks the other. Sometimes I say “thank you” first, sometimes they say it. But it always gets said both ways, and we’ve meant it every time. It’s one of those civil transactions that makes me realize that I live in a good and civil society, and part of the reason I’ve always thanked the Clarks is because they remind me that I’m grateful that I live in Toronto, which has many people like them.
Harlan Clark and his wife ran the egg stall at the St. Lawrence Farmers Market, and the reason I always gave them the exact change was because I’d come to understand that they’d both reached the age where making change accurately had become terribly difficult. Any number of times over the past several years I’ve observed people handing them a $20 bill for a dozen eggs, then getting $7.00 in coins and their twenty back. More than a few of them did a double take, pocketed the $20, and walked off with their booty. Most gave the $20 bill back, pointed out that it should have only be a $10 bill, and were thanked for their honesty. I’ve also seen a few people hand over a $20 for a dozen or two dozen eggs, get $3 and some smaller coins back, shrug it off, and walk away smiling: a fair deal, in their eyes. The Clark’s egg stall has been, during that time, an illuminating window on the human condition.
What I didn’t know about Harlan and Norine Clark is that they’ve been running their Saturday egg stall since 1947, which if you haven’t done the math, is 62 years. During that time they never missed a single market. Not one. I also didn’t know that in order to pack up their eggs and get to the market before it opens, they’ve had to get up at 2 AM each Saturday morning for 62 years, and that the rest of their week was spent tending the chickens, grading the eggs, and putting the eggs in pressed cardboard cartoons with the name “Harlan Clark, Port Perry, Ontario” stamped in small letters on the top.
Until twenty five years ago they also sold roasting chickens, but Mr. Clark’s first heart attack in 1984 ended that, and the work load, in recent years, had begun to overwhelm them enough that they’d hired a helper to give them a hand on market day. But they hung in there, and they got to the market every Saturday with their eggs because, well, that was their life, and people were relying on them to be there. They did take a holiday once, a four-day trip to Los Angeles to celebrate their 40th Anniversary. They scheduled it so they wouldn’t miss the Saturday market.
Their stall was open this morning, but with only half the usual volume of eggs to sell. The other half was taken up by a series of cards people were signing as condolences to Norine-and maybe to themselves, because next week, Harlan Clark’s eggs won’t be there to buy, and they won’t be available the week after that, or ever again.
I signed one of the cards, writing something that I knew instantly was both inane and inadequate. Then I got out of there, because I was teary, and I didn’t think anyone really needed to see a grown man weeping over what might seem like nothing more than the diminished supply of fresh eggs.
But after a few minutes of wandering around the market on the edge of bursting into tears, what I should have written on the card came to me: “We didn’t know how lucky we were.”
I suppose that within a month or two, a new egg-seller will replace Harlan Clark’s modest operation. The eggs will probably be similarly fresh and organic-something that the Clarks never really made a big deal of-and they’ll likely be more expensive and less fresh. But they should hang a memorial over the stall-suspend it from the roof so the new operators will understand the burden the Clarks carried with such elegant modesty.
It should read something like this:
Harlan and Norine Clark: 1947-2009
“We Don’t Know How Lucky We Are.”
891 words November 15, 2009