A Market Tale, Part II

By the early 1960’s the era of the small neighborhood market had come to an end.  All of the neighborhood kids would gather on the east side of Fairmont Avenue and watch as great vehicles came in and picked up and moved the best houses, while others tore down the rest and hauled what had once been kitchens where wonderful dinners had been cooked, living rooms where Bret Maverick and Marshall Dillon had been watched while eating those dinners on TV trays, and bedrooms where couples made love and then placed the sleeping results of their efforts in cradles and cribs, to an inglorious dump somewhere beyond the edge of town.  New machines cleared and leveled the ground, dug ditches for pipes, poured a foundation that looked like a concrete football field to us, and then began erecting walls.  In a few months a gigantic (for then) Safeway store occupied half of the block between Fairmont and 43rd Street, Landis and Wightman.

“I’ll never stop going to Jim’s” my mother stated, and she was as good as her word.  We had been shopping at Jim’s Market Spot, which occupied the opposite corner of Landis and Fairmont, since we moved into our house in 1952, and Mom liked Jim and liked Jim’s store.  The problem was that Mom did most of her grocery shopping on the naval base and paid prices not even Safeway could compete with, and she only resorted to Jim’s when some item was used up between monthly shopping trips.

Other residents of the area who did not have access to the Navy base were content to stretch their dollars further at the Safeway, and Jim noticed a trickle at first and finally a flood of his customers crossing the street, stepping on the big rubber mats which activated the automatic doors, and disappearing into the air-conditioned vastness that was the Safeway supermarket.  At length Jim heard the bell tolling and closed his market.  I was told that he was crying when he locked the big double front door for the last time but I don’t know if that is true; I wasn’t there to see it.

As I recall, the building remained vacant from then until I entered the Army in 1966.  Many businesses rose and fell along Fairmont; burger joints, pool halls, auto repair operations and plumbers and the like, but Jim’s old building was either too big or too small for whoever came along trying to start a business, so it sat shuttered, quiet, and lonely for my remaining years of childhood.

When I returned home from the Army however things had changed.  Jim’s Market Spot was now a lounge called “Granny’s”, and the place was doing a brisk business indeed.  I never went in there at first, since one of my old neighborhood friend’s father owned a bar a mile or two up El Cajon Boulevard, and my hours of sitting on my butt on a bar stool and piddling away my time and a large percentage of my Army severance pay were largely spent there.  A couple of years later however I had occasion to venture into Granny’s and found, to my surprise, a place very much to my liking.

Granny had an L shaped bar with the short segment angling to the left as you entered the front door; the same front door that Jim had locked a decade earlier, and the long segment continuing straight toward the back of the building, where the beer cooler from which I had tried to purchase a beer for my father once stood.  To the right were tables in a murky darkness where couples or small groups would be lost in their own conversation or listening to the juke box when live entertainment was not to be had.  But live entertainment was almost always there to be had.  Just behind the short segment of the L, the one which stretched off to the left, was a piano, and behind the piano on any given night was Freddy.

Freddy was a piano player and a singer, but equally important she was an entertainer.  I have seen many acts and have come to place musical performers into two categories: musicians and entertainers.  The Beatles were musicians.  Fabulously gifted, they wrote and played wonderful music.  When they got on a stage however they would mostly just stand there (or sit, in Ringo’s case), shake their moppy hair every once in a while to make the girls scream, and do their songs.  The Rolling Stones on the other hand were entertainers.  Oh, they were (and still are) musicians, to be sure, but in addition they, and primarily front man Mick Jagger, were amazing entertainers.  Mick would strut, gyrate, twirl the mic stand like a baton, and pout and point and leer at the people in the crowd and utterly hypnotize the audience.

Freddy was no Mick Jagger.  I never saw her do a handstand or sling her microphone like Roger Daltry of The Who.  What Freddy did however was play popular songs from multiple genres, most if not all of which we were familiar with, and some that we even knew the lyrics to, and draw the audience into the performance.  Being a person of an ebullient nature I would even sometimes sing along, as would some of my friends depending on how many pitchers of Granny’s suds we had already sent down the hatch.  Freddy’s venue was small, but she played it to perfection and Granny’s became a favorite watering hole for me and a good many of my friends.

On one particular evening five of us were perched on our bar stools along the short segment of the L where Freddy sat before her piano.  My brother Brad was to my right and long time friend Was to my left.  To the left of Wes were two friends from the construction crew of which we were all a part.  Charlie Pietermeeder sat next to Wes and Monkey star next to him.  Monkey’s real name was Andy Bandrill, and as every drywall hanger in our crew knew, Bandrill sounds like mandrill, a monkey of the Family Cercopithecidae, Genus Mandrillus, Species Mandrillus sphinx.  At least they knew it once I figured it out and shared it with them.  Anyway, all of that quickly boiled down to Monkey, and so there sat Monkey on the end of our chorus line.

It was a good night.  Freddy was on her game, the beer was flowing, we were all laughing and joking with each other, and Wes was flirting with Freddy.  Freddy was a good deal older than any of us but certainly not ready to be put in the rest home and, in an odd way, attractive.  How to describe her?  Well, plain I guess.  But plain taken to its best potential.  Her hair was well done, and although her figure was a bit more full than the willowy sweetheart whom I had waiting for my dissipated ass back at our house, she was not at all unattractive, and Wes was a man who was not afraid to make an advance to an attractive lady.  Freddy was on duty however, and while she obviously enjoyed the attention she did not materially abet Wes in his efforts.

Eventually the effects of several glasses of beer drove Brad to make his way to the men’s restroom in the back of the establishment.  Brad posted up in front of the urinal in the usual manner and was routinely taking care of his business when the door to the men’s room opened behind him and he heard the rustle of skirts.  Addled somewhat by the beer he had consumed, it took Brad a moment or two longer than it normally would have to register that skirts in a men’s room is not a combination that one comes to expect.  A quick look over his right shoulder confirmed that the rustle was indeed that of a skirt and that the skirt was being worn by Freddy, the piano player, who was at that moment disappearing into a stall in the men’s room.

This discovery produced an initial pucker, and Brad shook off the last few drops and hurried back to his stool after coming uncomfortably close to catching something in his zipper in his haste.  As soon as Brad had reclaimed his perch he leaned over and whispered to me “Freddy’s a guy.  Don’t tell Wes.”  I was initially stunned, but recovered quickly and guarded Brad’s secret.  Soon after that Freddy returned to her post and Wes took his turn in the restroom, which gave Brad and me the opportunity we were looking for to share this intelligence with Charlie and Monkey.

Those two worthy gentlemen were also surprised to learn this fact, but oddly enough nobody was put out by it, even though this was 1973 and attitudes toward this sort of thing still trended toward a hard line of opposition.  We all tended to be interested in our own business however and were not inclined to interfere into that of others, and so as long as Freddy could play a good piano and sing a good song we couldn’t care less whether her chromosomes were xx or xy.  We all agreed to keep the secret from Wes however.  We were a bunch who loved a joke, as I have written elsewhere, and the possibilities here were delicious to contemplate.

At length Wes returned and reclaimed his perch right in the middle of our line and right in front of Freddy.  Wes’ flirtation was not aggressive, in fact it was more like a fun way to play for an evening than a strong pitch to make it more than that, although one never knew where such things could lead and Wes was always up for the game.  Wes flirted with the girls in the same manner that fish swim, birds fly, and spiders are ugly; it was just his nature.  On this night however Wes’ advances generated increasingly ill-concealed chuckles from the rest of us, who were trying with all of our might to talk about the Padres’ baseball season or the war that lingered in Vietnam or the degree to which Harvey Black, the crew foreman for Earl Thurston Drywall and Finishing, was shorting our paychecks; any mundane thing to try to keep us from cracking up right there at the bar.

Wes was only a casual Casanova and his attention was far from being directed only at Freddy.  He too was interested in the Padres, the war, and getting cheated, and he joined into our general conversation.  But when his bent returned towards amorous attention to Freddy the thinly suppressed giggles became more and more obvious and impossible for him to ignore.  Wes could clearly see that it had something to do with his flirting but he knew that we had never behaved this way before, and this was far from the first that Wes, or any of us for that matter, had flirted in a bar.  Not willing to make a stink in front of the object of his attention he waited until Freddy exited her stage to go and take a break.

“OK you shitbirds, what’s so damned funny?” Wes asked as soon as the coast was clear.  At this our suppressed laughter erupted from where we had tried to cage it for the last hour.  “Man, Freddy’s a guy!” Charlie blurted out, and we all laughed harder.  Wes looked at Monkey, Brad and me, and we all nodded our affirmation.  “Yeah man, it’s true” I said.  “Freddy came in to use the crapper when Brad was taking a leak.  He saw the skirt hit the floor in the stall.”  At this point Charlie chimed in “It’s OK man.  We ain’t judging” he said and slapped Wes on the back.  “To each his own.”

Wes got red as a beet and just sat on his stool, unsure of whether he should hit somebody or just get up and walk out of the joint.  Ultimately he did neither.  Wes knew he had to face us on the job site the next morning and there was nowhere to hide.  Also, Wes could play a joke as well as the next guy, and it slowly sunk in that it was just his turn to be the butt of one.  I extended the pitcher and refilled Wes’ glass and we all had one more laugh, including Wes, and went back to enjoying our evening.

Her break concluded, Freddy returned to resume her work for the evening.  Wes’ attentions were now dramatically muted and Freddy figured out quickly that the jig was up.  We all genuinely enjoyed her music however and had no inclination to leave.  This became apparent to Freddy who discerned that nobody was going to get weird on her this night, and we all enjoyed ourselves greatly until we went home far later than we should have.

That old building continued as a lounge for a few more years, and then changed hands and became something much more unsavory, and I will go no further in describing that sad history.  At last, the old building was torn down sometime in the last thirty years, along with a couple of the adjacent houses, and now a Mexican seafood restaurant occupies the space.  In my mind’s eye however I can sometimes see the place in a vision.  It’s after closing time and when the traffic has settled down.  The neighborhood rests in the dead of the night, gathering strength for the next day’s frenetic activity at parks, schools, and businesses that have transformed the place where I grew up.  A thin, ethereal outline of an elderly woman pulling a wire shopping cart on two wheels walks arthritically through the big doors of Jim’s Market Spot, past five idiots sitting at a bar when they should be home with their wives and sweethearts.  She selects her weekly groceries as a little boy pulls a quart of beer out of a cooler.  The vision brings a smile to my face, and sometimes maybe a small tear in my eye.

A Market Tale, Part I

I was a young man in the days before the time of the supermarket.  My father was a career Navy man so we had access to the commissary on the naval base, and that would pretty nearly qualify as a supermarket in today’s sense of the word, but most of the other souls who resided in San Diego didn’t have access to that vast emporium of comestibles.  Instead, they did their shopping at small neighborhood markets.  The market in my neighborhood was Jim’s Market Spot, and there now follows a couple of stories about that business and also about the building which remained there after Safeway and FedMart and Albertson’s drove Jim and others like him out of business.

Jim’s was located in a brick building on the corner of Landis Street and Fairmont Avenue, about one block away from my house.  The building was not very large, but it was easily three or four times larger than were the tiny intra-neighborhood stores that dotted the residential areas of the city.  Jim’s occupied a corner on busy Fairmont and served the neighborhood with a variety of meats, vegetables, dairy and package goods that the little satellite stores simply couldn’t stock.  My mother did her monthly shopping at the commissary and we drove on weekends to get fresh vegetables and dairy from farms where  Interstates 8 and 805 now cross each other in Mission Valley.  At any time of the month however the baking soda or laundry soap or sugar or eggs would come up short and it was off to Jim’s Mom would go.

I was no stranger to Jim’s either.  I had little use for vegetables and only slightly more for soap, but Jim had a collection of candies that was more than enough to fulfill any young boy’s dreams.  Bubble gum, Pez candies, Likum Straws, jawbreakers, licorice; it was all there and more besides, and much of it could be had for a penny or, if there was a couple of baseball cards or some other prize to be found in every package, maybe a nickel.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that, in the mid 1950’s, pennies and nickels were not so easy to come by for a young kid in what I would later learn was a mid-lower income neighborhood.

That problem was temporarily corrected when, at the age of six, my father returned from a deployment into the Western Pacific.  His ship had been engaged in ferrying Vietnamese people who did not wish to live under the new communist government in the north down to the south of that country where an alternative government had been established.  During that deployment my father, who was a machinist, created a brass piggy bank from a spent three inch shell casing and put all of his spare change into it.  When he returned he gave that treasure trove to my brother Brad and I to saw open with the hacksaw in the garage and divide up.  This we did, and Brad poured that shining, jingling hoard out onto the workbench where we nearly drooled over our Midas-like unimaginable wealth.  We simply split the pile, half and half, and then retired to count our stash like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin.  The only problem is that I couldn’t count so well.  I certainly knew a penny from a nickel from a dime and so on, but I couldn’t really tell you what a penny plus a nickel plus a dime added up to.  Never mind.  It added up to a lot, and I was thrilled with my share.

So now I had to decide how to dispose of this bliss.  My friends, of course, had no end of ideas for the distribution of these bright coins, and more expensive items like ten cent sodas and twenty cent bags of Bell Brand Potato Chips were purchased and consumed at my house or the houses of Wes and Johnny and others, and still the money pile seemed great.  My next opportunity to share my largesse was unique however in that I was presented with the chance to give back to my giver.

Dad was in the Navy, as I have previously stated, and periodically had to deploy on sea duty for extended periods of time.  Upon his return my father would be engaged in all manner of projects, trying to put our house and grounds shipshape before his next deployment.  Painting, patching leaks around the windows, fixing electrical outlets or leaky faucets took up much of his time, as did weeding and repairing fences and many more such outdoor activities.  Dad was a country boy, Georgia farm-born, who preferred being outside to all things, and when he worked outside in the warm San Diego sunshine he would periodically enjoy a cold beer during a break in the action.

Usually it was Pabst Blue Ribbon or Eastside Old Tap Lager.  This was before the proliferation of micro brews and there was a much smaller choice of suds from which to select a favorite.  If anybody today was to taste a Schlitz, or Burgermeister, or Lucky or Blatz, my father’s preference for Pabst and Eastside would demonstrate that he had a discriminating palate indeed.  And when Dad peeled off a metal cap or punched a couple of holes in a can top with a tool that we affectionately called a church key, I would always be out there to get my swig to two from the jug.  Dad was of the opinion that alcohol should not be a mystery to kids, since mystery adds greatly to desirability.  He would therefore share with Brad and I when we were at home and under his direct supervision.  We were never given enough to make us at all wobbly, and I always loved taking a break and sitting with Dad on the big bench swing that he had built out of pipes and other pieces of metal that he cut, threaded and shaped at the machine shop on board his ship and sharing a beer while he told me stories.

It was on one sunny day when Dad was hacking rocks out of the cement-like adobe clay soil that made up our back yard, with the intention of starting a garden, that I had the bright idea to surprise him with a cold beer.  We had none of that commodity in the house and so I dipped into my booty and walked up to Jim’s.  I stepped into the cool, well-lit interior of the building and walked past the butcher counter, past the candy counter (with more than one sideways glance), past the butter and eggs and milk, and straight to the cooler filled with beer.

I was determined that this would not be a miserly show of generosity.  Dad usually bought six packs of stubby glass bottles or metal cans of beer to enjoy at various times of the day.  I had no interest in such a paltry indulgence for Dad’s break time pleasure and went straight to where the big boys rested on a shelf.  I don’t remember which brand I selected, but it was 32 ounces of cold joy which I could already see myself sharing with Dad on the swing.

I selected my purchase and carried it over to the checkout counter, waiting my turn behind a woman who was doing her weekly shopping.  Nobody noticed me, which was normal, and so when the woman concluded her purchase, loaded her bags in a sort of tall wire basket on wheels and rolled it out through the doors of the store, I stepped up and place my beer on the counter that stood a little less than eye level to me.

Jim turned to greet his next customer and just stopped dead in his tracks.  Before him was a quart of beer and a curly haired urchin (I hated that curly hair!) looking up at him with the innocence of a newborn babe.  Jim, who knew me and all of the other kids in the neighborhood, let out a peal of laughter.  As soon as he regained his composure he said “I can’t sell that to you Glenn.”  “Why not?” I asked.  “I want to surprise my dad with it.  He’s working in the back yard and I know that he would like it.”  “I believe you, and I’m sure that your father would be very happy to get your surprise,” Jim knew that Dad enjoyed a brew or three when working outside, “but I can’t sell it to you.  The law says that you have to be twenty one years old to buy it.”

I stood mute for a moment and then pled my case with the vigor and cunning of a pint-sized Perry Mason, but to no avail.  Jim was unwilling to lose his alcohol license or perhaps even his store to aid and abet my surprise gift to Dad, and in fact wouldn’t even let me put the quart bottle back on the shelf.  I left completely indignant and disappointed, and went straight to my mother to share this glaring example of injustice.

Mom laughed out loud, much like Jim had, and this did little to mollify my hurt feelings.  “He’s right” she told me.  “You have to be twenty one to drink beer.”  “But Dad lets me drink beer” I reasoned.  “That’s OK” she replied “As long as we’re here at home.  Out there,” she pointed out the window, “It isn’t allowed.  Dad doesn’t let you drink beer when we’re at the beach, or camping in the mountains does he?”  I had to admit that he did not, and it began to sink in that this surprise was not going to happen.  Mom, however, came to my rescue, as she did so many other times in my life.  “I’ll go up and get you your beer.  And you keep your quarter; I’ll pay for it.”

Cheap grace!  I get the surprise and don’t even have to pay for it.  I readily agreed and walked to Jim’s with Mom.  I stood by her side, and I’m certain that I must have been smirking just a little bit as she paid for the very bottle of beer that I had so recently been holding illegally in my felonious little hands.  Both Mom and Jim had another good laugh, an occurrence that was beginning to rankle considerably, but Jim patted me on my curly head, appreciative of the impulse behind my little role in this episode of life’s theater of the absurd.

We walked back home from Jim’s, with Mom holding the quart, and then I opened it up and went to the back yard to complete my irritatingly delayed surprise.  Dad, who was wielding a pick and shovel and had worked up a good sweat, looked up as I approached him and repaid my efforts with the look of surprise followed by a wide grin that I had looked forward to from the outset.  “Where did this come from?” he asked as he took a long and appreciative pull from the brown glass jug, handed it back to me, and led me over to the swing in the shade of a large Torrey Pine.  I took a swig and began to tell Dad the tale as we sat down.  He put his head back and roared with laughter, which confirmed my growing suspicion that all adults were either crazy or in on a plot to make me so.  He then put his arm around my shoulders however and thanked me for the beer, and that went a long way toward making the whole ordeal worth it.

This break took longer than most.  I shared a little more of the beer while Dad polished off the rest.  He told me stories of his boyhood in Georgia or adventures in China, the Philippines, Korea and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka),  or maybe just daydreamed with me about living in a cabin in the forest or starting a farm of our own.  It was a hard-won quart of beer, but the payoff was well worth it.