A few months ago our neighborhood grocery store, Albertson’s, sold its Florida stores to the fine Lakeland-based Publix chain. Our store was closed, employees and customers displaced, scattered to the high winds.
I began to stop in at the Winn Dixie on Highway 29 with my short list. “Welcome Albertson’s Pharmacy customers!” the banner read. The Winn Dixie is an old store, and their produce department is kind of sad, but all in all, it’s a good yeoman store that has struggled to stay bright, clean and meet their demographic.
That store is closest to our local post office, where I stop in every other day to be teased about our high volume of mail (mostly books, magazines and the occasional rejection letter, some with fancy stationery and the rare personal note). When an acceptance letter arrives, the scene is chaotic, letter carriers dodging this crazy woman’s impromptu leaping tap dance on the vinyl floor. They have learned, over time, that I am a little touched, but harmless.
Local grocery stores are my own personal town square, where conversations with clerks or other customers confirm my own and each other’s humanity. Yesterday, for example, an 85 year old clerk at the Winn Dixie bagged my groceries and we talked about that universally safe subject: the weather. That morning, a thick white frost dredged up snow memories in some of us around here, and wishes to see real snow in others. The clerk looked like a plumped up version of Granny Clampett, her long white hair twisted up into an early 20th century rural “do.” I could more easily conjure her in a farm kitchen putting up jams and jellies than here in this suburban grocery story putting my purchases carefully into plastic bags.
Is it just me, or have you noticed the influx of elderly store clerks ? I’m not talking newly retired. I mean elderly.
The weather talk led her to tell me about her late husband. He was a long haul truck driver. She often rode along. One time, they hit a patch of black ice in the North Carolina mountains. She said she was crying and shaking and praying all at the same time. Her husband said, “Just stay calm! I’ll get us out of this.” The truck spun and then slid over to the very edge of the road, where it came to a teetering rest — one wheel hanging off into the clear air of the ridgetop.
A fellow trucker came along, saw they were in trouble and was able to stop and help. He connected a chain from the back of his truck to the front of theirs, and pulled them to a place of safety.
My bags were in the cart by then. She offered to take them to the car for me. While I know her to be strong and vigorous, I declined and pulled the bags out of the cart myself, hooked them over my arms and perambulated toward the parking lot, soaking up shoppers’ conversations by osmosis, all the way to the car.