catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 16 :: 2011.09.16 — 2011.09.29


The way we were

When I was eight-years-old, my family moved from the suburbs to a small town: population 200. There was a blinker light at the main intersection and a town center that radiated from that crossing. To the east, there was the alleyway and then houses, to the west, the auto body shop. North of the crossing, the post office sat opposite the drug store, a variety shop and the clothing store. To the south, a gas station, bar, doctor’s office, community center (with a defunct movie theatre on the second floor) and bank faced the hardware store, auto service station, grocery store, beauty salon and coffee shop. Another gas station sat alone at the end of the row. Businesses and organizations straggled between houses along Main Street to the south: the Masonic Temple, a church, the piano teacher and, finally, the grain elevator along the railroad track.

While walking home from third grade each day, I would stop in to say “hi” to Mrs. Bechtel at the drug store and, if I had any money left from my allowance, buy a few sticks of red licorice from the jar on the soda fountain counter. When the high school kids got off the bus, they would push in and fill the five stools, ordering Coke floats and chocolate shakes.

I often pushed my way into Mrs. Ferney’s clothing shop to see the old dresses and outdated men’s suits that she had on display. The racks that filled the small space groaned with vintage wares in mostly small sizes. The store smelled of camphor and whatever she made for lunch on the hot plate in the back room. The sounds of soap operas blared from a small black-and-white TV wired to the wall above the cash register.

My favorite store, though, was the local grocery. Exactly two aisles wide, you picked up a cart as you entered, got in line for the check-out and picked up dry goods, canned goods and packaged food as you passed down each side of a u-shaped route that brought you back to the door. There was no turning around and going back for something. DeJongs carried a little bit of everything and enough to feed a small town.

The real magic in the store was the meat counter situated exactly at the crossing of the U. Casey DeJong was a meat cutter. My mom would ask for a particular cut of meat and he would don his bloodied white coat and white paper hat, select a saw or cleaver from the wall behind him, open the meat locker and duck beneath the hanging carcasses. Somewhere in that small cold closet, he cut a piece of meat, exactly the right size for our family of nine, brought it out, weighed it, wrapped it in brown paper, tied it with string, wrote the price on the paper with a black wax pencil and handed it over the meat counter. Or Mom would ask for a pound of cheese and he would lift a clear dome off the huge wheels of cheese, cut a piece, weigh it, wrap in white paper and mark the price with the same greasy black pencil.

Just after the meat counter was the only place where carts could pass in the store. A recess held the open cold storage for produce. If you had extra tomatoes, beans or cucumbers in your garden, Casey might buy them to re-sell from the refrigerated case.

Next, you passed the household cleaning products, snack foods, onions and potatoes, and then the two-door freezer for peas, TV dinners or ice cream in vanilla or chocolate. The bread display was opposite the checkout counter. Candy was behind the cash register so that the clerk could keep an eye on it.

DeJong’s Grocery was no old fashioned general store. It was a modern grocery with carts, an electric scale for the meat and a cash register with an automatic drawer. Everything from coffee to macaroni to whole wheat flour was in that jewel box of colors, textures, shapes and meaty smells.

Sufficiency and trust were the hallmarks of the local food store I remember. Local meant that Mr. deJong would order anything you wanted that he did not usually carry. Local meant that Mom could call the store while I was there and tell Casey what she forgot and it would be waiting for me at the cash register. The credit box under the cash drawer was the heart and soul of the place. I never paid for the groceries my mom sent me to get. The register tape was marked with our family name and filed alphabetically in the small green card file.  Mom paid the bill the next time she was in the store.

DeJong’s went out of business after Casey had a heart attack. He kept the store going for years despite pressure from the large grocery chain that built a new box store out along the highway seven miles north of town. Neither of his children followed him in the business. No one else wanted to keep tossing sweeping compound onto the dust in the two wooden aisles of this little shop when the variety of food had expanded to fill acres of shelves elsewhere.

I miss the simplicity of the local food store of my hometown.  I miss being known and trusted to pay for my groceries when I get a chance. I wonder if having more items to choose from really gives me more pleasure. Though I have moved on from that small-town way of life, I can’t say that scurrying from place to place through my days is an improvement. My young-adult daughter keeps telling me that she hates needing money. Maybe, one day, she will live in a small community that is self-sustaining, bartering for the goods and services she needs for living. I can hope.

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