Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Store

"I got him, Mr. Bob!  Want me to shoot him again?"

It was a balmy fall Saturday in Memphis, and my dad's grocery store had just fallen victim to yet another petty thief, this one having made a failed attempt to flee the store with pockets full of bills. The problem was that Pat, our meticulously uniformed security guard, kept a loaded pistol which he was not afraid to use, and on this particular day, he had elected to pepper the guy's ankles with bullets. It worked.

From the time I could remember, my dad's side of the family had been in the grocery business. My grandfather owned a series of small country stores where you could pick up basic canned goods, a limited selection of fresh produce, and such beatific treats as Stage Plank cookies. The men in my dad's family were always talking about this or that broker or salesman, or what was or was not selling at this time of year. It was and is a built-in frequency in my head -- I cannot go into a modern grocery store without wondering how much stock is on hand and whether there's enough back room freezer space to store what won't go on the shelf.

In the sixties and early seventies, My dad managed a Hogue & Knott (#3) market on Lamar Avenue in Memphis. Lamar starts as a trucking highway coming in from northern Mississippi, and then it becomes the typical urban boulevard, passing through some truly tough turf en route to hook up with Crump Boulevard downtown. My dad's store was at the nucleus of a mixed neighborhood -- black and white, rich and poor, decaying and sublime. He had a loyal customer base of moms, dads, maids, tiny children, preachers, winos, pimps, artists, and affluent professionals. Opera singer Marguerite Piazza was one of our regular customers, as was Robert Jones, who drank too much but was always there to help the ladies take their groceries home for a dollar.

To a sixteen year old like me, this was a veritable cultural smorgasbord. My friends at Treadwell High might be spending the weekend down at Sardis Lake or revving their cars over at Gaisman Park, but I was getting to sample life in a way that perhaps only blues music can truly communicate. And the funny thing was, I think that even back then, I realized and appreciated what I had. Interestingly enough, so did my friends -- whenever the opportunity presented itself, I would receive a surprise visit from my northeast Memphis compadres, who marveled at our vast selection of smoked meats (using parts of the pig heretofore unseen by us) and our stunning array of Shasta soft drinks. Sometimes, a little boy or girl might come up to my register just shy of the money needed to buy a candy bar, so I always kept a little spare change in my pocket to make up the difference.

From time to time, an errant out-of-towner would wander into the store, generally having stopped to pick up something in an emergency. However, our store was not laid out with emergencies in mind, and these people often became frustrated when they could not easily find the bread aisle. I recall in particular how on one Saturday morning, two women from Ohio (they made it a point to tell me where they were from) lamented at the layout of our store and how things were so hard to find. I was informed that where they came from, every aisle was clearly marked with the contents of that aisle. What fun was there in that?  It was evident that many of these people did not realize what kind of market (or what part of town) they were in.

But times were not always good. Owing to the store's location and its late operating hours, we were often the target of serious criminal activity. My dad worked long hours, and my mom was often quite worried when he would come home later than usual. To this day, I have a special sensitivity to people who work in places like this, trying to make ends meet.

In retrospect, Hogue & Knott #3 was a learning experience. It provided me a lasting dose of humility and an appreciation for what I had. The lessons I learned at the store have stayed with me all these years. Stocking a walk-in freezer made me appreciate the summer heat, and burning trash at the incinerator taught me to anticipate that first chill of autumn. And, in those days of spiraling inflation, when I dug into my pockets to make up the penny or two that a little kid might need, I realized that we were all in this together.