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.

 

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