In Praise of the Neighborhood Grocer

 

The Elmwood Market

Most days, I could find my mother sitting on a high stool behind the large front plate glass window of the Elmwood Market.  She worked the register and took most incoming calls and filled incoming grocery orders as needed, in preparation for their delivery.  She knew the names of every customer and their children as well.  Same for Dad who worked with a white butcher’s apron tied around his waist.  He could be found at the meat counter  or managing the delivery boys, filling orders, chit chatting with the customers, and sometimes sneaking cigarettes if he thought Mom wouldn’t catch him. I worked there too, through high school, mostly on Saturdays, and in the summer, to fill in at the register if mom needed a day away.  I did my best to learn the names of the customers, but always fell short and felt embarrassed when I had to ask them their name to look up a charge account.  I didn’t mind working, but found some aspects of it annoying, especially when I was at the receiving end of observations the customers couldn’t help making about me, such as, you look just like your mother or you’re all grown up now !

It was a classic mom and pop business that  Dad started during the depression, just before he got married.  Like many other small grocers of that era, he offered charge accounts and free delivery to customers.  Ultimately,  Mom convinced Dad to charge for delivery.  So, he added 25 cents to each order to cover delivery charges.  That was as high as the delivery fee ever went, even as gas prices soared in the 1970’s. At the meat counter he could be heard dispensing free cooking advice, which always amused me because he never cooked a thing at home.  For any piece of meat, he’d rattle off the best way to cook it, for how long and at what temperature.  I never heard any customer accuse him of not knowing what he was talking about.  Maybe because they knew better than to follow his directions.

A  Crisis A Day

Crises at the store occurred on a relatively frequent basis.  Once or twice a year, in the middle of the night, Dad would get a call from the Holyoke Police Department letting him know that the store burglar alarm was going off.  A late night call always signaled a serious problem at our house, either burglary or the death of a far-flung family member. Dad had to go across town to the store to determine if anything had been stolen. Very little was ever taken, but it didn’t make for the best night’s sleep.

Mudgie, a kindly but alcoholic butcher, presided over the meat department.  He was the non – recovering type . He was very loyal to Dad, as Dad was to him, but caused my parents  innumerable problems when he’d go off on a bender and wouldn’t come to work for days, leaving Dad with fewer hands than he needed. Mudgie’s unpredictability usually nixed any vacations plans for my parents, much to my mother’s dissatisfaction.  If they did manage to get away for a few days, there was often a mess to contend with when they returned.

Dad hired neighborhood kids to work in the store and to deliver the groceries. Often, the boys would disappear with the truck and the groceries for several hours during delivery, probably visiting girlfriends along the way. They’d always have some cockamamie excuse as to why delivery took so long.  Half the kids in the neighborhood worked at the Elmwood Market at some time during their teen age years.  Many were sons of customers, which made firing them a bit of an issue.  A few of them were cute. That helped to liven up my hours of work.

The Little Old Lady

Things seemed to look up when a large residential home for seniors opened across the street from the store.  Unfortunately, few of the residents shopped at the store, preferring the now bright and bustling supermarkets. The ones who did come in, usually old women, became adept at shoplifting, generally preferring to steal large cans of expensive crabmeat.  Dad would often catch them in the act, and ask them to put it back. Other times, they’d come up to the check out counter with some small item they wanted to pay for, still concealing the crabmeat.  “Haven’t you forgotten something, Mrs. O’Malley? Can you show me your bag?”  They never argued, but they would return again another time to try once more.  It was a classic game of cat and mouse.

The 1950’s saw the ascent of the super market, which was a competitor that never before confronted the small merchant.  Times got tougher. Many other small grocers went out of business, unable to compete with their aggressive marketing.   Customers would come into the store to tell us that they’d seen a similar item at Stop and Shop or the A & P for less money than the Elmwood Market.  Dad would patiently explain that the supermarkets all used loss leaders to get customers into their stores, and that on other items, the Elmwood Market was often less expensive than the chain stores.

Where’s My Turkey?

The holiday season was highly anticipated as a time of increased sales, driven by the fact that the Elmwood Market sold native (New Englandese for locally raised) turkeys. Orders at that time of year would be large and were to be delivered at a specified time.  Needless to say, the telephone began ringing once the specified hour passed.  Anxious callers demanded to know “where’s my turkey?”  Response was always, “It’s on the truck.”  What time the truck would arrive with their order was another question entirely,  because it depended on the motivation of the delivery boys to get the job done quickly.  By the end of a very long day, all orders were always delivered, although invariably there were one or two items in the order that the customer was missing.  Whatever it was, he delivered it singlehandedly, arriving home and pouring himeself several stiff drinks.

The Really Big Picture

Over the years, customers were lost because of attrition and the seductive lure of the Big Store.  Except for our relatives.  They were the most loyal because they got a 20% discount, always more than the profit my Dad made on most items. As the old customers drifted away, it would be a cause for celebration if a young family moved into the neighborhood and began shopping in the store.

Somehow my Mom and Dad eked out a reasonable living from that store.  They managed to put me and my brother through college and my brother through law school!  My Dad didn’t retire until he was 75. He had no choice then, because my Mom, suffering from Alzheimer’s, had become too sick to work with him anymore. He was needed on the home front.

We threw a big party for Dad on the occasion of his 90th birthday,years after the store had closed.  When I asked him for names of folks he wanted to attend, many were former customers.  All guests were thrilled to be able to reconnect with Dad.  I listened to several moving stories of how, decades before, Dad extended lengthy months of credit to them, when they fell upon difficult times, because of illness or an unemployed spouse. It was because of Dad that they had food on their tables. He never even charged them interest.  They never forgot his kindness. Dad’s 90th birthday party was a life lesson about what matters in life.   His life was the epitome of a  life well lived.

Me and Dad
Me and Dad

 

The Absolutely Last Diet of my Whole Entire Life.

“Too thin!”I heard these words spoken about myself throughout my childhood.  After any illness, my mother would feed me milkshakes to plump me up.  The scale would barely move.  At breakfast, if I had the time, I could go through almost a whole loaf of cinnamon toast.  Two pieces after two pieces after two pieces, each one drooling with butter. No repercussions except a warm feeling of satisfaction.  I could easily go through a box of candy chocolate/caramel turtles with no concerns.  After giving birth to my first child, I actually weighed less than I did before I became pregnant.  After subsequent pregnancies, within 2 months,I could easily lose the weight I’d gained . No big deal.  Those were the days, my friends.

I got my first taste of change when I was fifty.  I began to wear looser clothing that covered up excessive poundage and told myself  I was stylin’.  Then, after an exam, the physician I saw told me, that I could lose a little weight.  I didn’t expect to hear that, but I agreed and said yes, I guess I could lose a few pounds.  As I carried his diagnostic report to the front desk of the office, I noted that he had put a check in the little box before the diagnosis of obese.  I wanted to return to his exam room and hit him.  Hard.  How dare he??

check this box

Outrage!  Indignation! Denial!  I am most definitely NOT obese, I self righteously declared to my husband that evening, certain that he would agree with me.  He was slower than usual to respond.  Well, you have put on some weight, he said, with a slight smirk that he couldn’t suppress.

There it was. The moment of truth.  I quickly faced facts, went on a diet and pretty quickly  lost my extra 12-15 pounds,  I also lost my no-waistline clothes.

I cruised along at a nice comfortable weight for the next two decades or so, when all of a sudden it seemed that my clothes had all shrunk in the wash, or had over dried.  Many items of finery languished in my closet.  Over the months, more and more items of clothing remained there.  I took long detours around the scale.

Over the past few years, I’ve made several half hearted attempts to lose it again.  But, now it’s an absolute struggle to take weight off as I used to be able to.  And now, of course, there’s more to lose.  I  manage to lose a few pounds the first week or so of almost any diet, then I quickly plateau, decide the diet isn’t working, and return to eating and drinking as I like.

My revived self disgust culminated last week when we spent a few days in Palm Springs at a lovely resort that had an enticing pool. The days were hot and all the family went swimming. I couldn’t have been paid to get into a bathing suit. The spider veins are one thing, but extra pounds are not to be shared.

I don’t think I expect my body to look as it did at 25, 30, 40 or even 50, even though I’d be happy if it did.  But I would like to be able to say, this is my 75 year old body.  Old age shouldn’t mean slinking into the dark corners of oblivion.  I secretly admire women who don’t give a shit and just do as they please with no excuses. No slinking for them. Bring on the rolls of flesh.  I’m not one of those women. Having been a dancer doesn’t help. Nor does living in California.  Vanity comes along with this territory.

I’ve promised myself I’m going to give this diet a real chance. I feel very motivated. I’m setting an alarm to get up from my computer after 20 minutes of sitting.  I’m committed to an hour of exercise each day. I stopped drinking wine and other alcoholic beverages, even though I’d just discovered a wonderful cocktail while in New Orleans, called the sazerac.  I’ve consoled myself a bit about that, since no one seems to make it very well here.  I’ve eliminated sugar and bread. Fruits and vegetables are my only snack friends.  I have no immediate trips planned. I’ve set a goal as to how much weight I’d like to lose.  I’m writing down everything I eat, although it does get tedious.  The five family Birthdays we celebrate in January have come and gone. So, now, no more excuses.

If I am not successful with this effort, I will not be pleased.  I have told myself, and now my readers, if I don’t succeed at this, I will  never, never, never try another diet again. May the Good Lord grant me acceptance.

 

Dianne & Clyde

The Setting

taxi in rain

The driver became agitated as soon as I told him I wanted to go to Brooklyn.  He began shouting at in me in an accent that was initially difficult to understand.  I knew drivers didn’t like to go to Brooklyn, but this level of anger was new to me.  He waved a wad of money in his right hand as he turned around while driving to announce that he would take me to Brooklyn, but only if I agreed that he could stop first at a bank downtown to make a deposit .  He repeatedly kept saying he couldn’t afford to pay a $40 late fee and that he had no time to waste.  If it hadn’t been pouring, I would have gotten out of the taxi then and there, but I was inside a dry vehicle that would otherwise be unattainable under the current weather and made me reluctant to move on.  Besides, I was tired.

 The Circumstances

He continued his rant, speaking far too loudly and far too rapidly.  I did not want to engage him in conversation, I just tried to assure him that we had enough time to make his deposit before 3pm when the $40 late fee would be charged. I wanted him to calm down. The traffic did its inevitable snarl as we made our way south on Park Avenue.
traffic nyc
 The theme of the conversation slowly shifted . He wanted to let me know how difficult it was for him to make any money driving a cab.  He became increasingly upset.  I told him that I understood how hard it must be, be he immediately countered that no, I didn’t understand!  He shouted that people think he must be stupid because he drives a cab, but he is not stupid, only acting that way because it makes his life easier. As we inched our way towards the bank, he went on to tell me about $90 tickets he had to pay for driving in the wrong lane. Then noting our situation, he added that it was impossible to make any money because traffic in the city moved so slowly. I kept agreeing, but it did little to help him regain his composure or assuage my nagging concern that I’d gotten myself into something I shouldn’t have.
I again considered asking him to let me off, realizing it was probably in the best interests of both of us, but I just didn’t have the energy to make a move.  His driving seemed ok, which was a big plus to stay put. Now,  about 15 minutes into the ride,  it began to feel a bit like a cool adventure and I was curious to see where it would all lead. I felt as if I was watching a a tv movie that could descend into dangerous territory at anytime, yet I also began to feel as if  I was ethically obliged to help him, maybe to show him that some people do care???

 The Plot Thickens

As we ultimately got closer to the downtown bank he needed, I asked him how he planned to make his transaction. After all, this was Manhattan.  No drive up windows here.   We had begun to have a bit of a dialogue, by now.  He’d figured out that he would find a parking spot, then shut off the meter. The plan called  for me to remain in the taxi, moving to the front seat so as to guard the cab from being stolen, as well as to guard his stuff.  Was their a gun in his stuff?  I was getting in deeper.  He told me he was from Haiti and the payment was to repay a student loan.  He had me now.  He added knowingly that cabs can easily become prey for thieves if they’re not guarded. I seemed like an unlikely candidate as a choice for a guard in NYC, but I guess he was desperate.
As we made our final approach to the bank, he looked at me and asked me why I appeared worried. Suddenly he seemed concerned with my welfare, or at least how it might impact him.   I told him I wasn’t so sure as to how his plans would work out, or as to my role in holding down the “fort.” He was undeterred and now that we were near the bank seemed  less anxious than he’d been a little earlier.  Of course, he was unable to find a parking space, so he quickly parked the cab illegally at a sharp angle in front of a mail box.  He insisted that I move to the driver’s front seat, but that seemed too weird to me.  I told him I’d only sit in the passenger seat, which he accepted.
The bank was across a very wide street. The driver told me he’d put on his emergency lights and leave the car running.  He promised to be back in two minutes.  I added a suggestion that he close all the windows first, making me feel slightly less vulnerable.  I had heard a story from another driver just that morning about being robbed at gunpoint. I wondered what I would do if someone spotted me with the intention of robbing the cab. For a fleeting minute, I realized another option I had would be to just drive away. But, where?  Never did I think of abandoning the cab. I started to reassure him, as if I were his coach.  I told him everything would be ok and even suggested that he take a deep breath. He could count on me to play my part. He departed.
There I sat as a most unlikely guardian.  I locked the doors as soon as he left.  Minutes passed and my imagination went into overdrive.  Maybe he was robbing the bank and I would become his unwitting accomplice?  An updated Bonnie & Clyde?
bonnie
At last I heard a knock on the window.  He’d returned from the bank. I quickly assessed that no one was chasing him and I heard no alarms or sirens.   I told him, ok, you can relax now.  As I was about to return to the rear passenger’s seat, he told me that I should stay in the front. I guess I’d become an ally.   Not wanting to offend him, I remained.  He was calmer now, but still shouting.  I decided  since the bank stint had been cool , it was time to learn more about him.

 Cheated Death Again

We talked like old friends all the way to Brooklyn. He quieted down dramatically. I learned he’d left Haiti 28 years ago, gotten a master’s degree in microbiology, got very sick for 6 months after working in a hospital lab, then went to medical school in Belgium where there were “terrible people” and “terrible things happened.”  He’d left medical school because of the the “terrible things” and came back to NYC.  He had no family and was working to pay off old school loans.  He seemed eager to make a change but was at a loss as to how to do it or where to go.
He displayed a broad knowledge of medicine and labs, but no longer wanted anything to do with the medical profession.    He had clearly lost his way and he was most likely suffering from mental illness or substance abuse..  From where I sat, I didn’t think it would end well. Sadly, there was nothing I felt I could do, but pay my fare and give him a generous tip, and wish him well.
My random encounter left me a bit shaken.  When I related the story to my family, they couldn’t understand why I had remained in the cab with that driver.  It was something, that to this day, I can’t fully explain.

Keep Dancin’

KeepDancingPic

 

This lovely short documentary film just crossed my path and I decided to share it with you.

It’s profound and sweet and inspirational!

on vimeo.


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/153283760″>Keep Dancing</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/gregvanderveer”>Greg Vander Veer</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>.</p>

Nice to Meet You, Mr. Sazerac.

sazerzc

“Meeting a good drink, like meeting a good man, is an unforgettable experience.”  Dianne Vapnek

Ingredients

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 2 1/2 ounces whiskey — rye whisky
  • 2 dashes Bitters — Peychaud’s bitters
  • 1 dash Bitters — Angostura bitters
  • absinthe
  • lemon peel

old-fashioned glass

Instructions:

In an Old-Fashioned glass (not a mixing glass; it’s part of the ritual), muddle a sugar cube with a few drops of water. Add several small ice cubes and the rye whiskey,* the Peychaud’s bitters, and the Angostura bitters.**

Stir well and strain into a second, chilled, Old-Fashioned glass in which you have rolled around a few drops of absinthe (no substitute really works, but you can try either a mix of Pernod and green Chartreuse, or Absenthe) until its inside is thoroughly coated, pouring off the excess. Garnish with a twist of lemon peel (some insist that this be squeezed over the drink and discarded; Handy wasn’t so picky).

* Use the good stuff, if you can find it: Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye (13 years old), or Sazerac Rye (18 years old).

** Optional. It’s not in the original recipe, but it’s traditional nonetheless, and it’s not bad.

The Back Story

While visiting New Orleans this past weekend, I was introduced to a new and welcome companion, the Sazerac cocktail.  Unassuming on the outside, Mr. Sazerac captured my immediate attention on my first sip.  He is a complex, yet subtle blend of kick -ass cocktail.

I went steady with Gin & Tonic for many years, played the field a bit, settled in with Cosmopolitan for a few years, flirted with martinis, then was captivated by Negroni and have been with him for about a decade.  Truth be told, after so many years in the relationship, I was getting a little bored and restless.

Sazerac is different from the others I’ve known and loved. Mr. S is from a pedigreed family that can trace itself backwards for generations, but there’s nothing stuffy about him.  He’s self-assured, but displays startling originality and a compelling air of mystery as well which becomes obvious as soon as you get to know him..  He doesn’t preen in lurid bright colors or lure you in with cloying sweetness.  He’s direct and authoritative, no foolish games played with him.   He delivers what you came for. Quickly.

How very nice to meet you.