Friday, March 28, 2008

Community Theater

As I pull up to my grocery store I see Brenda, the deli clerk, smoking on the loading dock. This does not bode well for my prospects of getting my favorite sliced turkey today. Even if I start in produce and work my way around to the deli, chances are she’ll still be puffing away by the time I’m ready to check out. When I tell people in my town I go to this particular grocery store, they wonder why I put up with the long lines, surly workers, and half-empty shelves. We live in the comfort and plenty of suburbia, but occasionally my store’s shelves look more like those in a communist country when I can find neither milk nor bread.

There are many reasons I shop there.

The biggest reason is familiarity. Very little ever changes, so I know where everything is. A couple of years ago they moved the ricotta, but other than that, it seems to be the same place it was when I was a kid. I like how the store isn’t so big that I feel I’ve had a workout going from the fruit to the cereal. I have fond memories of my mom handing me a box of Fiddle Faddle, still found on the same shelf today, to eat while we shopped. We would sheepishly hand over the half-eaten box to the clerk when it was time to check out. I’m too much of a control freak to ply my kids with the same sugary snacks, but I love that memory and those conjured up by the full-sized Snickers bars still stacked near the register.

They checkers stay the same, too. There is Mr. Ed, a gentle man who has known me since I was a kid. I remember coming into the store after having been out of state for grad school and Mr. Ed asked after my mother. I had to tell him she died. We both felt pretty awkward. I found myself going to the super-store down the street for a couple of months, looking for some anonymity, but I was drawn back to Mr. Ed and my store.

He is the same clerk I talk high school basketball with, and the one who gently accepted my 4 year old’s apology when Jake stole a pack of gum. We were halfway home when I saw Jake holding it, and back to the store we went. A quick prayer of repentance in the parking lot, then in we went to seek out Mr. Ed. I have no recollection of stealing anything from the store when I was little, but I like the idea that my own mother would have dragged me back in to Mr. Ed, too.

Another clerk, Frank, is about my age. We went to rival high schools. He always thought he might like to go back to school to become a math teacher, and he wonders when I’ll go back to teaching. We talk about that sometimes. He continues to be a checker, and I show few signs of returning to my old job.

Raoul, in Dairy, has what my neighbor refers to as “bedroom eyes.” At first I thought he was coming on to me when he gazed at me with those smoldering looks, but I may have been flattering myself as more times than not I go in the store in my comfy pants, an inch of gray, and pink clog slippers. I enjoy listening as Raoul talks about the trials of being a single father to teenaged daughters. I like how our conversation goes beyond the weather or the price of milk.

My friends’ biggest complaint is the slow service and the length of the lines. I have never seen more than 3 of the 10 check stands open. I don’t mind. This wait time lets me read Us Weekly and other magazines I’d never buy. If I choose the right line, I can get a good dose of celebrity fluff by the time my cart reaches the check stand. This is also a good chance to listen to the bickering and banter of the staff. Managers come and go here, but the checkers stay and get on each other’s nerves.

I used to tell myself that my store, although smaller and dumpier than the competition, had lower prices, but my friend David says it’s not so. He and his wife did a comparison between the two stores in town, and mine came up the price loser. Maybe it’s that LOSER image that draws me to it anyway.

When we had a hurricane about 4 years ago, many homes and businesses lost power for days. I drove down the main street in our town and saw that my store had no power, but the super-store was gleaming and fully operational. I stopped in my store to buy something, anything, to show my support. Canned corn in hand, I walked past row upon row of open freezers, filled with thawing pizzas and Lean Cuisines that would eventually be tossed in the trash. That sealed it for me. Maybe my store should have had a better plan, a back-up generator for instance, but what underdog would?

I’m just so loyal. I want my store to succeed, and I’m willing to go without turkey if need be. Perhaps demanding a higher level of service would help it succeed, but I’ve never been much into tough love. Besides, I ask myself, should we always be able to get what we want?

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