by Joel Levine
Long time customer and friend of the store
We live in patterns, in daily cadences that compress time and give orderliness to our lives. In the small things, in the decisions that bear little thought, a life is woven. Threads for a new design, redolent of the familiar, are always kept on our loom.
In the town in which I live, a college town, mirroring time with gentle distortion, a grocery store has been in business for as long as anyone, including those so young as to be incapable of memory, can recall. It bears little resemblance to modernity; even the food looks like Sinatra should be playing in the background.
Outside, flanking the entrance, are two totems: one a fruit stand impregnated with whatever has just emerged from the soil and, on the other side of the door, a barbecue grill. The grill looks like a gift from John Cheever, no chrome in sight or side burner to roast brie….an almost religious pyre on which to send smoke signals, as signs of life and aspirations to the gods of fire, to the town.
The front of this store is a proscenium decorated with the illogical collection of human needs; glass tableaus for the Chaucer odyssey of music, readings, and political causes beseeching recognition or union. Windows can become living things, precious spaces yielding to human passions. Windows in the big box stores are for the economics of bananas. They advertise what James Thurber meant when he said, ‘Progress is all right. Only it went on too long”.
First impressions are important as they attach to the limbic side of our actions. Walking into a chain store…that word, chain, with its suggested punitive intent, you feel a flight or fight response. There is something soulless in the color and the foot candles of the light being reflected back from the anomaly of a full but still barren landscape.
These anonymous stores, all brands but no real name, are like subway cars. Everyone is seen but yet unseen, an accident of circumstance that brings strangers into the same place but not together. Not being truly seen has become our identity. For all our zeal to announce every millimeter of life’s details, we do so from a distance.
Even the antonym, Social Media, is hardly social. It permits a premise of revelation while keeping you safe, as you are hardly known in a Tweet, and sustains the illusion that you are connected to a world that wants to respond back to you. I asked someone if they have ever met anyone who tweeted them and was looked at aghast. Yelling our hashtags behind electronic walls is hardly a step on the road to intimacy.
The aisles in our town store are, however, lanes along familiar roads. You expect to see people you know and have not been immunized against them. In the rear of the store, the husband was the more visible. Just behind the counter where sandwiches are made, is the combination work and storage space, freezers and kitchen. It is hardly for David Chang’s pairings of salmon bladder and asparagus foam, but where her husband ground at the wheel of his life. Open and joyful, as really honest men are, just doing what they said they would do. He was the best kind of brawn to have because his honesty made others want to lift the load with him.
In the other direction, at the front of the store, she was, at times, sail or anchor. Though they were so evidently a team, she was the embodiment and it was hard to separate its purpose from hers. She tended to it as if a garden, not only making it grow but keeping it unstudied and thus capable of surprise. She made food into stories….the man with a family in Calabria who wanted to preserve the olive oil from his ancestral orchards…, the young woman, keen but anxious , showing the local pasta that she wanted to sell. It was through the language of food that people found commonality.
When you check out from the Big Box, you are really being discharged. Your work is done and the only thing left is to pack you up and send you off. In our store, leaving was the second coming. It was the place to talk a bit, just for the sake of talking and to integrate as you left. It was not the way out but the way back in. I always left the store reassured, that despite the world beyond the door, once back within I was among friends.
I have a house in Canada and, for years, have made a last stop at the store before leaving for a longish ride. Like a sailor off to the sea, I packed up the provisions, to use an old and not plastic wrapped word. It was a tender moment for me….one of those looking ahead times when, perhaps myopically, you see what you wish to see. So at the end of the ritual, she would greet me, be sure that things were just right, and thus complete each week with an act of grace.
I came back into the world on that Monday and walked my path again. When I reached the back, I suddenly realized that both it and the front were now covered in a pall ….dimmer and without animation.
When you learn that someone you know has died, has fallen from that shelf on which you keep your thoughts of them, you want it to mean the package was simply delivered to the wrong place. It could not be now empty space because it shouldn’t be. Death is loneliness put into a single word. When I was told that she had died, after a short and seemingly innocuous illness, I felt what John Witcombe Riley said,” He is not dead, he is just away”.
I went to the wake which was to begin at 3 and last until 7. I left work a bit early, imagining I would get there at 5, pay my respects, and go home for dinner. Within blocks of the funeral home, the streets were lined with cars and, as I approached it, saw the lines of people waiting to enter. They were two or three deep, families of groups of friends, coming together and in a serpentine meandering. When I joined the back of the line, it was clear that people were there not only for the present but for the past. Her life was being stretched behind her death.
Each small group was like a bead on a Rosary, separately defined but all essential to the prayer. Many were carrying gifts of memory packaged in new emotions. Some, while waiting, were unwrapped, littering the street with pieces of high school, shreds of the moments of being Thelma or Louise.
I asked someone to hold my place, the part of the catechism that was unfolding, and I walked the line, like a sentry on the perimeter of her existence. ” Kind, gentle, open, friendly, loving”, intonations that concentrated her into tears of memory. This is why people chant, knell or sway with prayer….we should have been sashaying …there should have been a drum.
It was close to 3 hours for the line to be reeled in by the fisherman at its end. Her husband was pulling to him each person, slowly and deliberately. This was not grief, at least not as yet. He was nourishing himself, each person a sustenance we need but few times in life. She was still nearby, in her familiar proximity but in atypical repose.
Repose is from the Latin, “to stop” yet she was not fully separated from him. She had been the other hand on the clock face…the space between them would vary but their point of union permitted time to pull them back together by the end of their day…Now with her stopped, he could still move, but only by himself and less sure that he will know when it is the end of night.
Men embrace at the extremes of emotion…great joy or sadness permits this comfort. Embracing mocks the perceived grandeur of their separateness. We held each other for a long time, first in silence and then with words that became a promise. “We will keep this going”, he said as if we were standing in the store. “There are so many….” his voice trailing off, incredulous to what he now understood.
They had created something and the store was their particular art. They had always understood the realities of the neighborhood store. It could never compete but needed to serve recognition at a very low cost. They were swimming against the digital tide, bracing for online ordering or drones that left your milk on the lawn. Yet what they offered was the draw of a food museum, a place to remember both the reality and mythology of a passing way of life. Without her, it was Ralph without Alice, and the honeymoon seemed over.
I went back into the store the other day. Her picture was at the register in about the same sightline as she would have occupied. There was a book on a table as you entered open to the latest page of remembrances. In that other world of 147 characters, emotions can only be hinted at. Here, in long hand written notes, she was still held close. But this was not nostalgia as much as it was about preservation.
Almost all that ties us to something is gone or being sold at a bargain price. Fast food says it all in the syntax of a paradox. Something primal now offered at a turn style. We still crave connections and look for them in stadiums or sports bars that are quickly emptied after the last score. These stores, and the few others speaking the same dialect, are now on the doorstep of regret. We miss them when they are gone and wonder why we let it happen.
So in his embrace was a moment of affirmation. Her loss was the randomness of human biology. A tragedy at a personal level but one that teaches as only great emotion can. Towns need stores like these. Stores that remind that each thing we buy sits at the end of a line of human hands passing along others dreams.
And, with apology to Shakespeare, a proper editing of perfection
“When she shall die,
Take her and cut her out in little stars,
And she will make the face of heaven so fine,
That the entire world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”