catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 13, Num 2 :: 2014.01.24 — 2014.02.06


The world is always growing old and growing up

An immigrant to Chicago named Dominic DiMatteo founded the first Dominick’s grocery store 90 years ago, and his son helped him develop the family business into a fleet of supermarkets and the second largest grocery chain in Chicago. If you live in the city or in the suburbs beyond it, you know Dominicks well. Your neighborhood probably has one, and you have likely gone there to buy a birthday cake, or some slightly fancy cheese for a dinner party, or household staples on a weekly basis. You may have said friendly, familiar hellos to the employees at the checkout.

Ours is on the corner of Schmale and Geneva roads, a mere five-minute drive away. Or rather, it was at that spot. Now it’s gone.

On Saturday, December 28, roughly sixty Dominick’s grocery stores closed their doors for good. 6,000 employees were suddenly out of work. Merry Christmas to them, right? This human cost, and the obvious setback for Chicago’s still lingering unemployment woes, was one reason that this “corporate quitting” felt painful, but it was not the only reason.

“All is flux. Nothing stays the same,” said the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. So you might say we have had a while to get used to this message, and yet we never quite feel comfortable with it. Change of any sort is difficult, especially when it is close to home and affects something longstanding that we might have thought, wrongly as it turns out, more resistant. In other words, Dominicks’ previous mix of proximity and continuity goes a long way in explaining why much of Chicagoland spent three months throughout the fall struggling with this news, and preparing for the day when the doors would close for good, even as the year ticked off its last days.

As is always the case with today’s economic landscape, there were many players involved in this decision. Dominicks’ parent company, California-based Safeway, informed the state of Illinois in October that all Dominicks’ stores would soon be closing. And the decision, according to The Chicago Tribune, did not begin with Safeway, but instead may have originated with Jana Partners, a Wall-Street hedge fund that has invested $300 million in Safeway. Dominicks, we soon discovered, had lost more than $35 million dollars during the first three quarters of 2013. If your goal is to protect your investment and maximize its return, it is not terribly hard to imagine that Jana Partners might have demanded that Safeway, now beholden to it, do something about its hemorrhaging stores in Chicago. And so in October, it did do something, and so the countdown began for the end of Dominicks.

There are other players, too, most of which remain active in this particular case of corporate reorientation and commercial-property evolution. The mayor of Chicago soon established a grocery store task force to assist workers who have lost their jobs, find new owners for vacant stores, and address possible “food deserts” (particularly on the South Shore) that Dominicks’ closings may have created. Other players include Dominicks’ grocery competitors — Jewel-Osco most prominently, but also the more fashionable, foodie upstart Mariano’s. Whole Foods may also be acquiring some of the former Dominicks locations.

One grocery store consultant has suggested that most consumers will hardly notice a difference, as long as the transition to a new grocer is smooth and occurs fairly quickly.

“If something happens a month from now, and the store gets remodeled and it becomes a new offering, it probably goes right back on the rotation anyway,” he said recently in a Tribune interview. “As the new stores open up, people are probably going to be looking at it and going, this is not such a bad thing after all. They’ll probably get over the closure sooner rather than later.”

There’s something in me that feels an urge to disagree with this consultant. To say, No, this change will be felt, and felt for a while. It matters. But, for most of us, does it? Aside from an ongoing concern for employees affected, don’t we usually just shrug our shoulders, and await our new option in the old location? And besides, how should we mark the passing of a corporation properly? I am not really sure. It does, however, feel a little maudlin to become too emotional, to raise some sort of figurative burial mound. To scatter lilies in the cold, freshly upturned earth.

Maybe our very struggles with the changes around us ensure, if we’re fortunate, a healthy disposition to encounter and respond to such changes with a general nonchalance and, what’s more, a personal recalibration to the news of change in ways that benefit us.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Rosalind, one of this great writer’s great heroines, derives a part of her power and charisma and charm from her unflinching outlook on the vagaries of a changing world and our relationships within such a world. The protagonist Orlando woos her in a conventional fashion, speaking of idealized, everlasting love and of male paramours who will die because of their mistress’s cruelty. Rosalind doesn’t buy it, and by now, she says, we should know how the world works:

The poor world is almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any man died in his own person…in a love-cause…men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.

Rosalind rejects the over-romanticized stories of tragic lovers as “all lies.” Rosalind seems to us so healthy and earthy because she looks honestly and unflinchingly upon a world whose beauties and comforts are always growing old and will soon pass away. She rejects not love but Orlando’s threadbare talk of love lasting forever, a notion that is a far greater threat to love. Everything in the world assumes its value, from a familiar grocery store to your most cherished relationship, in the stark light of its finite existence.

I guess I’m saying that we tend to respond to the extinction of things, relatively mundane or otherwise, with a Rosalind-like, no-nonsense attitude of straight talk and self-interest. “So it goes” we say, and Rosalind says what she says, after all, because she is taking full advantage of her disguise as the young man Ganymede to instruct her would-be lover Orlando how to love more genuinely, and to speak more truly and honestly about what he feels.

These days, many of us in Chicago are doing this, too, even in reaction to the closure of Dominicks. On Friday morning before the stores darkened for good on Saturday, a good friend arrived at our local Dominicks with eagle eyes, quick hands and a seriousness of purpose straight out of a Mission Impossible film. Dominicks had announced that everything in the store would be thirty-percent off till the shelves were cleared. My friend went right to the liquor department, and stocked up on craft beers, wines that were new to him, and even a rarer bottle of bourbon.

“You know, I felt a little guilty about the whole thing,” he told me, “not so much because of what I was stocking up on, but for the scavenger aspect of the thing, you know? But there it was, and it was going to go somewhere.”

I reacted to my friend’s determination more with bemusement than anything else. I do not begrudge him his wish as a budget-conscious drinker to take full advantage of the considerable discount. When things give out on us, well, this is what we do. We collect what we can, or express whatever disappointment, or store away this or that memory, and then wait patiently for the next growth ring.

An even earlier English poet, Chaucer, the delightful comic author of The Canterbury Tales, might speak of this as a “quyting” or “quitting” of the defunct object in our lives. In his great poem, one pilgrim tells his tale, and then a challenger-storyteller answers, “quyting” or quitting the previous teller. In this case, Dominicks was quitting Chicago’s grocery scene, and so my enterprising, presumably very thirsty friend was answering the store’s quitting with a “quyting” of his own.    

Unexpectedly, I found myself experiencing my own advantage-taking of Dominicks’ closings in what we might call a more posthumous way, just two days after those gloomy Saturday closings. It was my daughter’s fifteenth birthday, and we were spending the afternoon driving around and running errands. We picked up some supplies for a party that night, had lunch together at a packed, festive Portillo’s in nearby Downer’s Grove, and even fulfilled a long-promised plan of eyeballing some starter laptops at Fry’s Electronics, in search of something modest but still good enough for a high school student’s schoolwork.

My daughter and I had also been talking about some first driving lessons, and now that she was officially fifteen, she was keen to begin clocking time, gaining experience and becoming more comfortable behind the wheel. In the past year I had begun to notice how parents of young teenagers would regularly talk about ideal, low-traffic places for first driving lessons, with all of their potential for awkwardness, drama or general vehicular meltdown. A particular cemetery in our town was mentioned as a good candidate, both by parents and also by my daughter’s friends. (On both occasions I overheard the same slightly funny, slightly tasteless upside of that choice — “at least if you run over anyone there, you don’t have to worry about injuring them.”)

As we were finishing lunch and leaving the restaurant, I was thinking about possible places where we could safely carry out a first trial drive together. We approached our car, and then I looked up, and noticed, and it was like the universe was smiling upon us with its hands open wide: adjacent to the restaurant was a newly closed Dominicks, with its vast, empty parking lot. Of course I was not suddenly glad that Dominicks had closed after all (that would be perverse), but it was the case that I felt a curious peace and good fortune in this tiny, personal way — despite a general regret about the closed store and empty lot, my daughter and I, on her special day, were the beneficiaries of timing and convenience of a decision that was made long before and was much, much larger than us.

Later I e-mailed a friend about this special afternoon, and rather carelessly said that my daughter practiced driving in an “emptied-out” supermarket parking lot. My friend, not remembering the store closings, instead thought that my daughter’s erratic, unpredictable driving might have cleared out the lot. We sorted out our confusion. And on the contrary, the resulting 20 minutes of teen-aged, no-license driving went very nicely, partially because the now vacant Dominicks made for a perfect practice parking lot, and partially because of our overcautiousness. Before my daughter would remotely lift her foot from the brake, we surveyed the boundaries of the parking lot as if we were hunting pheasant, staying alert to any cars that might be exiting a nearby business or cutting through the parking lot to depart from a side exit onto a residential street.

Once we were sure that it was clear, she would release the brake and tentatively engage the accelerator. I relished this obvious “helpful, cool, caring Dad” moment, explaining patiently that she really did not want to get into the habit of using one foot per pedal, but rather she needed to grow comfortable shifting the right foot between gas and brake. I prided myself on staying calm, even when she did have that inevitable moment of locking up a bit in nervousness, reacting anxiously to the revving of the accelerator and unable to think easily about switching her foot to brake. Fortunately, we only glimpsed momentarily the out-of-control speed crisis that might have developed, and then she regained her wits and took control.

“Good, good,” I said. “You don’t want to let yourself freeze. Way to go, way to break out of that.” A usual late-adopter of television shows as well as gadgets, I have recently been watching the early episodes of Breaking Bad. A short scene in the second season made me smile, when the dark meth-making protagonist Walter White takes his son Walter Jr. for a similar first drive. I’m pleased to say that my daughter did not send a large traffic cone flying thirty feet beyond the lot, as happens in the show.  

Most of our twenty minutes were far less eventful than that. Starting, rolling slowly and stopping. It pleased me to realize that even this — quite an underwhelming session as far as driving experiences go — was thrilling to my daughter. She was behind the wheel! The car was moving! What a pleasure it was to see an innocent excitement in her that had become rare these past few years. Teenagers seem to try so hard to qualify or ironize the things that thrill them. Too often they wear the hoodie of cool-handedness and wished-for worldliness, mumbling their “whatevers” or “that’s not so great.” For a little while, my daughter lowered that hood of sullen wariness and cool down to her shoulders; she was an ecstatic kid again, realizing for the first time that she would, indeed, soon learn to drive, that she was doing so even now.

Repeatedly we turned so slowly and with great attention, as if it were all a strange, fevered, cold-medicine dream. We cruised around this lamppost, or around the now empty holding stable where the grocery carts were once collected. When we ended our lesson, I praised my daughter one last time, and as we exited our sides of the car to switch seats, I had that strong feeling in my chest that we would remember this particular birthday afternoon for a long, long time.

Her first attempt at driving will probably remain associated, for me at least, with the shutting down of that particular Dominicks store, and of all of them. And if we are able to stay in this old world together for quite some time yet, maybe we and our memories of that day will outlast even Dominicks’ replacement, whatever it will be, and the one after that, and the one after that one, too. I find myself wishing for her, and for myself, a lengthy go of it, an unwillingness to quit in various senses, something approaching a Dominicks-like, nearly century lifespan, even if it, too, will one day have to liquidate its inventory, lock its doors and close.

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