Covert Matters

Covert Matters

Supermarkets on the Corner

— Labor Day is a perfect time to revisit the first day of the first job. The experience sticks with most people no matter the passage of time.

A neighborhood grocery store sticks out because the customers phoned in orders, they were charged, bills were cleared up usually on Friday paydays and orders were delivered by bicycle, if within a few blocks and by panel truck otherwise.

Supermarkets were few. Family-owned stores were simply neighborly, usually stopping-in points. Children could slip by for chewing gum or small candy after school. Morris, the proprietor, never refused anybody. He merely put the pennies on a family’s running account, kept on small white notepads. Sometimes, during the summer, out of the kindness of his heart, soft drinks made the charge account.

Fortunately I visited the store almost daily either for mother, grandmother or neighbors Mrs. Jones or Mrs. Gaskins. They gave me a nickel, sometimes a dime, for my services. Mother gave me supper.

Mrs. Jones always called in her order, mostly bread and milk and snuff. I noticed there was always a small lump around her lips and finally learned that snuff was a popular habit among lots of women. It never attracted my interest.

Morris discovered he needed some help since his delivery man got sick. He would have to drive. He asked if I’d like a job on Saturday, pay would be 50 cents an hour starting at 7 o’clock in the morning sharp.

There were several aspects I didn’t learn until the first day. I had to sweep the floor from the back door, through the meat department refrigerator and out the front door to the sidewalk.

Second duty was to take egg crates and fill-up egg cartons, making sure each egg was free of any straw or other unwanted chicken coop debris. Third I had to fill up the drink machine with iced water, load it with the sugar-filled drinks of the period.

As the lone telephone began to ring with anxious customers calling in weekly orders work began on the egg cartons, all white eggs, no browns. No organic products.

Ashley the delivery man doubled as a meat grinder — preparing hamburger, sausage and slicing pork chops. He was doing his work slowly this day.

For some reason, before going about my egg duties, I quietly picked up three eggs and decided to practice juggling. I’d watched a juggler in tuxedo on television. I knew I could do that too.

The first three attempts at throwing the eggs into the air went well. Really proud of myself. The front door opened. In walked Mrs. Saunders’ statuesque daughter. My head turned only briefly for an ogle. Then crash, splat. I dropped all three eggs and almost lost it all. I managed to save the crate from falling. The girl looked at me and just laughed.

My career as a juggler ended quickly. From then on every time the “girl” saw me she just giggled even in high school. Later that summer she won the beauty contest at the local recreation center. She shocked the entire neighborhood mind you, wearing a two-piece bathing suit. I watched.

Morris took pity on me, didn’t scream or deduct the cost of the broken eggs. He sent me to the meat table where Ashley was grinding, chopping and wrapping. I became the official packager.

Ashley was talking non-stop, complaining about all the work he had to do. He was filling the grinder, pushing the meat with his fingers. Suddenly he screamed. He jerked his hand out of the apparatus. The index finger to the second knuckle remained in the ground beef.

It’s not necessary to describe what happened then. Morris grabbed white linen towels, wrapped the hand and raced to the hospital. A couple of hours later all stitched up Ashley returned to the store and watched me clean up the butcher board, grinder and floor. Whenever Morris walked to the meat area, Ashley moaned.

Quite an opening day of course. Within six months the official truck-driving delivery boy was me at 15 . The job extended to after school where I loaded the 1946 model truck and made certain all groceries reached the destinations. Radios were always blaring with the soap operas, “One Man’s Family,” “Just Plain Bill,” “The Guiding Light”, “Ma Perkins”, “Our Gal Sunday” and many more.

Radio talk shows hadn’t been invented, thankfully. The gasbags weren’t around. Radio had distinctive on-the-hour “station identification.” My favorite was “From Dawn til Dark at the 1270 Mark.” Another was “En-bee-cee” and the chimes.

There still remains something special about neighborhood groceries. They were wonderful gathering spots — gossip about everything, local politics, high school sports and the new products hitting the stores. Nolde’s Bread had pictures of The Cisco Kid on each loaf, Cokes, Pepsis, RC’s and Grapettes, Rinso soap powder and Old Dutch Cleanser were popular.

Drinks were a nickel for a 12-ounce bottle (no cans). Nolde’s bread was 18 cents. Almost forgot. Bond Bread had Hopalong Cassidy labels. There were no frozen foods to speak of.

I loved the first job. Pay that day was $5, no deductions. It was the only time I ever forgot to ask for it. Morris called my house that night and said, “don’t ever forget to get your money.” Never have.

Grocery shopping to this day has always been a pleasure.

On this week honoring workers, I remember how to fill grocery paper bags, grind ground beef, and always know where the fingers are. I still like prattling on about who’s doing what and think of the joyful days of reading local papers, mornings and afternoons.

In those days I didn’t know anything about left-wingers or right-wingers. I did know what was right and wrong as well as the difference between boys and girls.