Grocery Store

I think the store is still there, although I’m not sure who owns it — when my folks did, it was called R&R International Food Center, located at E. 628 9th in Spokane.


While I was growing up, my parents rented and eventually bought a small grocery store in the local big city. Originally, they bought it to provide my newly immigrated uncle and aunt with jobs. As time went on (we eventually held on to the store for ten years, more than half of my life by the time we sold it), I came to regard the store as an unnecessarily evil drain on my time, patience, and attention span. Now, in retrospect, I see a flowering of trust and old-style virtues of locally-owned and family-run businesses.

A few days ago, I had the displeasure to read an editorial regarding “welfare leeches” (author’s terms) in the Boston Globe. I spent this morning stocking shelves and reliving memories in a local grocery store; the clickety-clack of the marking gun, rotating stock, running the carton cutter along the tape, fronting shelves, and helping customers runs in my blood.

My earliest memory of the store was shopping there with my mother once. She drove the family Cougar (a 1969 model, with a 351 Windsor, since at that time, Cougars were stretched Mustangs, instead of Thudder-bird clones) there and we got the groceries that we couldn’t get anywhere else. At the time, it (a few miles away) and several stores in Seattle (several hundred miles away) were the only ones in the region that carried any Asian groceries. The car refused to start again once we were settled inside and the items safely tucked away in the trunk; after a few minutes of futilely cranking the engine over, I noticed that several large, unkempt men were coming over. Since this store was in one of the more, ah, economically depressed neighborhoods, this caused me no end of alarm for our safety, but it turned out that they, upon assuming classical male poses around a disassembled air cleaner and opened hood (“Well, it’s obvious that these jets were put in by some sort of deranged maniac, and the mixing’s no good.” “What are you talking about? Any kind of idiot could see that the throttle linkage is shot to hell, and the primaries are only cracking open at full bore!”), knew exactly how to fix the car well enough for us to drive home, so long as we didn’t shift into neutral (and it’s more amazing to me, nearly twenty years later, that even with a mechanical engineering degree, I have no idea what they did, although I suspect that they adjusted the idle speed — or maybe they just vented out the vapor lock, but that’s enough jargon for now). Despite their appearance, they were competent and friendly.

A few years later, my aunt and uncle immigrated from China (PRC) and given that their English skills were somewhat rusty, my parents decided to do the right thing and put them into retail sales, to which end we ended up buying the same store and running it for the next ten years, even after they had learned better English than I possess and had moved on to much better jobs. The first few years were fairly idyllic, with our extended family (one set of grandparents, my parents, my uncle and aunt, my brother, and me) under one roof, all rushing off to work in the mornings and coming back early in the evenings. I would go to the store occasionally on weekends and as school allowed, so that we could help to watch the front counter while the rest of the family stocked shelves, grind beef, cut pork chops on the band saw (if you think that sawdust is messy, think about raw meat and bits of bone), and generally run the store with increasing confidence. The first day, I remember my mother smiling furiously and telling everyone with great pride that we were under new management; some family friends would drop by to wish us luck every so often and give the adults an excuse to slack off a bit from their grueling pace. I’m still in awe of my mother, who managed the store for ten hours a day, seven days a week, for ten years with very few real holidays; she did the books at night for another two hours or more each day. We used to close a couple of hours early on the holy trinity of working-class holidays (July 4, Thanksgiving, and December 25), but I don’t think that we ever completely closed the store.

We continued to be the best-stocked Asian grocery store east of the Cascades, but we were also the closest store for a lot of people in the neighborhood, so we carried a fairly complete selection of life’s necessities: a few vegetables, some chops, tofu, milk, bread, ice cream, TV dinners, cereal, and plenty of wine, beer, and cigarettes. Did I mention that we were in a neighborhood of inexpense? Some of my first efforts at origami were made from the covers of food stamp booklets, both the heavy cardstock front and the flimsy blue back; I sailed a lot of boats in the puddles that formed in the gravel alley adjoining the parking lot. My brother and I would join neighborhood children in “sledding” down a grassy hill on borrowed cardboard. We sold a lot of alcohol and tobacco, too (no, not me personally). Some particularly popular selections were the pint-flask of Thunderbird with the packet of Kool-Aid to make it palatable or the $1.25 40-ouncer; I remember that the display of free cigarettes (it was a promotion for Benson and Hedges, who had just introduced a new line) emptied within a day and even a week later, people would be asking if we still had the free smokes. It’s not so bad to live there; my biggest fears were not of some robber coming in but of killer bees and large, loud dogs.

In fact, I have many fond memories of growing up at the store. We used to study there, on desks made from splintery boards and milk crates. I read most of the original fifty-eight Hardy Boys books between customers; I learned how to make change and how many ways you could break a twenty, how to wrap coins, how to pack meat, how to rotate stock, the best way to cook a frozen pizza in a microwave (ok, that was a trick question: the answer is that it inevitably turns out to be a soggy tasty mess), and many of the skills I expect to re-use in my future career as a grocery worker. Standing in an aisle and slapping a marking gun down on cans seems as natural now as playing catch might be to someone else (don’t ask me to; I’m hopelessly un-coordinated). We had fun at the store. My uncle once made me a gun out of some baling wire that shot many rubber-band-propelled wads of paper at my brother. I used to pretend that the mop bucket was a chariot and would ride for hours in the parking lot; we used to throw frisbees at each other around the neighboring perpetually-failing business (it was a gas station, auto-repair shop, auto detailer (twice), and finally, after extensive modification and facelifting, it was a interior decorating office) after the movie TRON came out. I even consented to putting an empty mesh bag that used to hold fifty pounds of onions over myself once and being led around to various places by my brother, who would address me as “Onion Boy”. Of course, like any younger brother, I didn’t need his help to embarass myself. One day, a kid, about my age, glared at me from across the counter and snorted, “Betcha can’t spit over the counter and hit me.”
“Betcha I can.”
“Betcha you can’t.”
“Betcha I can.”
“Betcha you — ah, gross!” I won the bet, although he was somewhat surprised at the proving. He was only a couple of feet away, and I didn’t feel like prolonging the preliminary chest-beating.

Years went by and the store became more odious than pleasurable. There was always something to do, whether mopping the aisles or stocking more milk or watching the register. Sometimes customers, as some are prone to be, were abusive. Because it was a fairly hefty commute to the store and back, we were in perpetual danger of moving (and my uncle and aunt eventually moved just a few blocks away from the store). When they left for better jobs, there was that much more for us to do, even though we hired on additional clerks. I used to jump at any chance to get out of the store, even if it meant going to pick up paper towels or other assorted supplies; at least I wouldn’t have to stand behind the counter and ring up customers, or listen to people ask my mom for credit on their groceries. Especially the credit.

Some people were good about the credit and paid it off every month. One in particular had an adult son living with him; the rumor was that he had gone to study Chemical Engineering at UW and dropped out his junior year after mounting pressures had driven him mad. All I knew was that the son would drop in every day or so and, with a theatrical sigh, declare that he had “just dropped by for some tobacco.” I took a peek at the papers that he carried around with him once; they were covered with figures in red ink and he claimed that it was a proposal to NASA. Other creditors refused to pay their debts, and kept on accumulating. Of course, I didn’t understand this; every New Year, my brother and I would make the proposal to cut off all forms of credit for the coming year, at which my mother would smile and shake her head no. It made no business sense, we argued futilely. These people expect it now, we pointed out, and make no effort to get off of the dole. We couldn’t afford to keep this sort of stuff up, right? After all, it amounted to a mini-welfare state.

This is why people who hold themselves up as paragons of virtue and call others “leeches” annoy me so. Get a job, they chant. Stop making me support you. You’re dragging the rest of us down, you burden. Get sterilized. Stop drinking. Why do you have the satellite TV and food stamps? I have to admit that some points are valid, although not as easy to do as the paragons may think. Getting a job that pays significantly more than welfare benefits is next to impossible for those without the proper skills. However, getting those skills requires surplus time and money that most people simply can’t spare. Fine, then, you say — why not cut out the TV and the boozing and go to school? Shouldn’t there be enough time and money left over for anyone to spend at studies to improve one’s future? Ah, but what’s the incentive? Sure, you can train all you want for an advanced job — hell, go on and get a Ph.D. if you can afford it — but the sad truth is that you can be overtrained. One of the people I worked with this morning holds a doctorate in music from the other prominent college in Cambridge; he stocked the same shelves as me, opened the same boxes, used the same marking gun … granted, that’s an extreme example, but you know as well as I that there are more openings for microwaving burgers at McDonald’s than there are, say, as a bookkeeper or auto mechanic or lumberjack. You go on, get the education, and find that there’s no jobs for what you trained for: great. I don’t mean to condone the alcohol-and-TV lifestyle; I just can’t see much of a change without a bigger change in the quality of jobs being offered.

I am too truly horrified at the prospect of forced sterilization that was proposed in the Globe opinion piece — it smacks of eugenics and genocide. Education yes, but forcing something like that is inhumane.

Perhaps Ma Joad summed it up best, when asked about who to turn to for help; she advises us to go to the poor, who can empathize and who already know what it’s like to be turned away from the job line, or given notice, or been told to move on by more “decent” folk. Do former welfare recipients feel as though current beneficiaries are millstones about their necks? I suspect that the vast majority of those who denounce welfare and deride its recipients have never known the vast hopelessness that sets in between scant meals and fainter prospects. What sort of future do you honestly have in front of you? Imagine for a moment, then, that you have dreams no grander than leaving: leaving your past behind, leaving the area behind, leaving for a chance to play with new toys, or to get another chance at leaving again, that your children might be better off enough that they might leave, too, and climb the slippery slopes out of poverty.

It’s been said that if you’re young and conservative, you have no heart, while if you’re old and liberal, you have no head. I was heartless and now you can call me mindless, I guess. Yeah. I know; I over-romaticize and make people out to be noble savages, but I can’t help but think that the environment makes the person more than anything else (I am a big fan of Wat’s Pig, by the way).

So I think that that is why we gave credit, a hand to guide and help gain one’s feet again. It’s all that one can honestly expect from welfare, but beyond the simple financial aspects, which seem to be all that some can see, we need to put some effort in to make sure it works. You know the give a man a fish versus teaching him to fish saying, I’m sure, but it goes beyond that now: we’ve been trying to teach people to fish, but the lakes have all dried up into numerous little puddles. It’s time to start looking at ourselves and asking what we can do; we need to make sure that we can still refill the lakes; we need to remember that everyone is still human; we need to find our hearts again, like my parents did those ten years.


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