Roberta loves the rice balls that show up every year at the Italian street fair. They are the stuff of legend in the neighborhood, and have been for years. Rice balls have probably kept the entire downtown area sated for decades. Their recipe is a secret. More or less.
I have never tried them. Not because I don't want to, but because I don't want to wait in the rice ball line. I counted the number of people there one night. 25 people in line for rice balls!
But Roberta braves the line at the fair, which this year ran for five nights. She was under deadline pressure on the rice ball front. She had plans on Saturday and would never get back in time to acquire rice balls, and had a family obligation on Sunday. But she does love the rice balls, so she was determined to get some.
The first night, on Wednesday, she waited for me. I was making a Yancey-baby-quilt and the class went over. I texted Roberta at one point. "Late. Better go on."
She texted me back a short while later.
"Missed rice balls. Trying again tomorrow."
She'd waited in line but the last three rice balls had been sold to the person in front of her in line, my former next door neighbor, April, who bought three--one for herself and one for each of her kids.
Roberta had run into T the next morning. T is an older woman who lives across the street. She's a classic, with time for everyone. She does favors for the people on the block who can't get around so well, and always carries dog biscuits for her furry friends. She's best friends with A, an older woman who sold her house last year and moved into an old-folks apartment on Sixth Street. I adored A, because she was smart and practical, roamed the streets in her housedress, and had a filthy mouth. I once watched her give her flip-flops to a young Spanish mother whose new house had a basement flood. The mom had on fancier shoes, not made for wading. A stepped right out of the shoes and went home barefoot.
Roberta told T about having barely missed the last of the rice balls.
"I'm going earlier tonight," she explained. "I'll definitely get them this time."
"I don't even like rice balls," T told Roberta.
But Roberta was delayed, and on Thursday night, the rice balls sold out right in front of her again. At least she didn't know the person this time.
"You've got to get here earlier," said the woman selling the rice balls. She remembered Roberta's disappointment from when April snagged the last three the night before.
She ran into T again on Friday morning. T was upset that Roberta had missed out again.
"I'll get your rice balls," said T. "I'll go for you tonight.
"No, no," said Roberta. "I'm going to the beach for a few hours but I'll be back in plenty of time."
T shook her head and insisted. Her friend L said "T, Roberta can get her own rice balls."
"I'll call you if I'm late," promised Roberta.
But of course she wouldn't dream of calling a neighbor to pick her up some rice balls. And of course was delayed at the beach. At 8, Roberta parked her car and ran over to the fair with Tom, who also lives near us.
They weren't real thrilled when they saw the massive queue for the rice balls. But then Roberta spotted T, mid-way through the line.
"I saw your lights were off and you weren't home yet, so I came over to wait on line for you," said T.
Stunned, Roberta offered to take her place. But T wouldn't let her.
"You go have fun," said T. She waited and bought three rice balls (in case Tom wanted one) and wouldn't take money for them.
Roberta took her rice balls guiltily, but with gratititude. "Don't worry about it," said T. "I know where you are if I need you."
Which is true. Roberta has a car and in case of emergencies, T has her phone number. I remember when T got comfortable enough with me to show her where her emergency meds were kept. There are responsibilities that come along with living on an old-timer block, in an actual community.
Roberta hadn't gone ten feet from the rice ball line before she ran into April.
"Did you get your rice balls this time?"
She'd then run into L.
"Did you get them?"
"Yes! T got me three!"
She ran into more neighbors at the fair, and Tom shook his head. He has never lived on my old block but he knows it's an old-style community.
Later that evening, Roberta ran into T again.
"I ate two and saved one for tomorrow because Tom doesn't like them."
T gave Tom a high-five.
"I don't like those things either! What's all the fuss?"
I'll have to wait for next year to find out.