"Does it really need to be bigger?" I ask, noting the three closed checkout lines adjacent to ours.
"Oh yeah, we need wider aisles," says the assistant manager who knows how many cats I have at home, which laundry detergent I use and what manner of junk food I put in my kids' school lunch. "And with deeper shelves, we'll be able to stock twice as much at a time."
Though this supermarket isn't my ideal neighborhood market -- it's already too large -- it has its charms. It is situated at the end of a not-too-busy residential street. Behind it runs a bike path. My kids can safely walk there on long summer days and pick up random forgotten items, a candy bar, a pack of gum, a Coke. I almost always run into a neighbor there, and the clerks know the regulars by name.
Still, no matter how I romanticize it, my Safeway is just one small link in a giant corporate chain. It is thoroughly digitalized and largely sterile. A creepy undercover security guard dressed as an ordinary shopper roams the aisles stalking would-be shoplifters. It is as far from my ideal as the Dollar General Store is from Super Wal- Mart.
I have enjoyed a lifelong love affair with grocery stores, the kind of stores with worn, dusty wooden floors and heavy, creaking screen doors. Usually, they are named after the proprietor, first or last name, Rudy's or Wilson's. Choices are limited but adequate -- two kinds of bread, one brand of pork 'n' beans. These stores are largely nonexistent in cities any more, but they can still be found out in the country, at the intersections of state and county roads and in the smallest of towns. Whenever I travel, I stop at every one I see, knowing that soon there won't be any left.
When I was growing up, my father stocked grocery stores. He hauled in boxes of health and beauty aids and arranged them on the shelves, attaching adhesive price tags with a heavy metal stamper that tapped out a rhythmic "ka-ching!" Before he was hired by the supermarket world, he serviced smaller stores, many of them the only store in tiny Kentucky towns with names like Horse Cave, Smith's Grove, Knob Creek.
My grandfather, too, was a grocery man prior to becoming a farmer. His store stood on the main drag of the town of Pembroke, Ky. My father learned to cut meat there, and later worked for a time as a butcher. Grandaddy's store fed a town through the Great Depression, largely on credit. My father tells the story of working in Grandaddy's store as a boy, and preparing bologna sandwiches for vagrants on the days the Louisville & Nashville railroad line rolled through town.
Homeless men who hopped freight cars knew they could get a meal by showing up at the back door of the store at closing time. Two pieces of white bread smeared with oleo sandwiched a hunk of fresh cut bologna. One sandwich each. A 12-year-old boy handed them out the back door at twilight, sometimes lingering to listen to stories of hard times and life on the run. My grandmother grumbled over lost revenues, sweeping the darkened aisles inside. Grandaddy tallied the day's losses.
I try to imagine the channels a homeless person might be shuttled through if he came to one of our overstocked supermarkets in search of a bologna sandwich. The scrutiny would be unbearable. Are there unsold items somewhere in the back that can discreetly be handed out the back door? Probably not. A place to sit quietly before moving on? Definitely not. The bologna is encased in stiff plastic, the bread in bags imprinted with bar codes.
I wander the aisles of my neighborhood Safeway, overwhelmed with choices. I spend too much money on food I can't touch, can't smell. Soon my choices will multiply as the store expands, and I will still drive home longing for the taste of a simple, perfect bologna sandwich on my tongue.