The old Jewel Food Store at 3243 W North Avenue wasn’t much to look at; a chain grocery store on a busy Chicago street, large enough to have a meat department but too small to have parking. If you wanted to drive there you took your chances on North Avenue or maybe risked your car on one of the side streets. With stores now almost a block long and with parking for thousands, you don’t see the old stores that catered almost entirely to foot traffic, where the little shopping wagons belonging to the neighbors and old ladies were parked three and four deep up at the front of the store on a Saturday. The sales volume of these stores was not much by modern standards, but they could pull a decent profit margin if the store manager was careful or even more if he was cunning.
One main profit sector was the store’s tiny liquor department, located in the front next to the service desk where the staff could presumably keep an eye on it. By all rights, the liquor department should have been driven out of business a long time ago by the large cut rate bar and liquor store just down the street on the next block. Dan the manager never had sales in his liquor department. When the vendors came in and hung their little holiday sale signs up on all the six packs, having discounted a case of beer an entire buck, Dan would wait patiently until they were gone and then take all the little signs down and throw them out.
“Why don’t you ever have sales?” the store clerks would ask.
“We can’t compete with the liquor store down the street for sales. In fact, we shouldn’t be able to compete with them at all except that we perform a special service. This is where the little old ladies like to buy their quarts of beer or bottles of Mogen David or pint of brandy when they get their groceries. They have to have their bottle, but they wouldn’t be caught dead going to the little skid row down the street. I probably make more per square foot in my liquor department than the skid row down the street, even if you throw in the tavern.”
And so it went. The liquor store down the street did cater to some pretty hard type confirmed drunks that lived on cold cuts and Twinkies from the liquor store’s tiny food section, which probably sold more cold cuts and Twinkies per square foot than we did. But there was no margin in that stuff so we really didn’t care.
About three or four times a year the liquor department would have what I liked to call a bonus day. Since our booze was visible from the street and not hidden behind bricks and gratings like the liquor store, every few months a wino would throw a cinder block through the glass and make off with a couple of gallons of port. This invariably would happen in the wee hours of the morning when the bars closed and the bugs started crawling on the wino's skin. Dan would be called at home by the cops and he would have to come in and guard the store until the board-up service arrived.
While he waited, he would begin to clean up the mess, but before he did that he would take a dozen or more cases of cigarettes, brandy, and bourbon and hide them in the back of the store in the crawl space over the bathroom. When the corporate risk management team came later in morning to do their damage assessment inventory, they would find all of that stuff missing and once again they would have to write it off to the insurance company. After they went home, Dan would put the stuff back into stock and each cigarette pack and bottle of whiskey now represented a 100 percent profit. The corporate office was always bugging him to move the liquor section somewhere in the back of the store, but he was always able to argue that even though it seemed to get pilfered a lot, it needed to be watched by the staff and in any case it turned a good profit right where it was.
The little old ladies (and occasional little old men) were grateful too. They came from cultures, times and places where it wasn’t quite respectable for grandma to take a couple of nips before bed time. Not that they didn’t deserve to. Although the neighborhood had traditionally been Scandinavian, a disproportionate number of the elderly were Eastern Europeans, refugees from both sides of various European wars who had washed ashore in this neighborhood. They seemed more evident now because the neighborhood was turning Puerto Rican and most of the Scandinavians were leaving. The refugees tended to be poorer than these people and they were left behind. They were strangely socially stratified on the basis of when they had come and why.
The very oldest stratum in the neighborhood was made up of a couple of surviving Russian Jews who had fled from the pogroms in Odessa in 1905. They owned the dirty bookstore across the street; something that seemed to pain them at their middle class cores. It was probably the only dirty bookstore in the city that had a section of fine literature for sale in the back made up of the owner’s favorite books. One had to ask to go back there and it was odd to find oneself sneaking out of the porn shop with a copy of Dead Souls under one’s arm.
The next stratum was the Russians who had come over after the Revolution of 1917. These were Orthodox Russians who had two churches in the neighborhood. The poorest but most interesting one of these was in a converted synagogue building. This group had fled Russia with their bishop who amazingly was still alive and almost 100 years old. Time had stopped for this Orthodox church in 1917 and it still used the pre-revolutionary Russian script. It was a marvelous place full of donated icons and fascinating women mystics (some of whom were young and one of whom I couldn’t stop looking at with her sunken sleep-deprived eyes and pale sun-deprived skin) who would prostrate themselves down to the floor a hundred times in front of the icons of the Holy Hesychasts. A man could fall in love with the pure exoticness of it all and at Easter Matins, when they hobbled the old bishop out like a ghost in a cloud of incense, to declare with his faint faltering voice that Christ had Risen! in all the languages of the Orthodox world (Greek, Russian, Coptic, Syrian, etc.) it was like the last 500 years hadn’t even happened.
The other Russian church was newer and well-appointed inside; someone had found some money somewhere to build it. The people of the synagogue church didn’t respect these refugees because they used the post-Revolutionary Russian alphabet, took in new waves of refugees as time passed and because they believed that these Russians were secret Communists. They suspected this because it was a fact that the church would loan out its basement on Saturdays to a group of atheistic socialistic Russians who had also fled Russia. They were allowed to use the basement because the pastor was sentimental for all things Russian and he was willing to tolerate them to hold the wider community together. But still, there was a general feeling in the neighborhood, and not just from the Russians, that he really let them use the meeting room and coffee machine because Moscow wanted him to keep an eye on them.
Among the church goers of the second church was a surviving Cossack who had fought in the Russian Civil War on the White side with General Denikin and Admiral Kolchak. He shopped in my store and it was hard to imagine a man who had shrunk to a stooped five foot four swinging a cavalry sabre and getting chased all the way across Siberia to Vladivostok, where he had somehow found a boat to Yokohama and then a few years later to San Francisco. As far as I could tell he lived on chicken necks and potatoes. He didn’t have a lot to say for himself except his basic biography and he had a habit of looking over his shoulder before talking to me, although his pursuers had stopped following him over fifty years before.
There is a little old Jewish lady that I was fond of who was a sad lump of loneliness and who kept looking for excuses to stay and talk to me. She wears shoes so large that she has to hold them onto her feet with a rubber band over her instep. She likes to complain and then apologize for complaining so much. She also has a concentration camp serial number tattooed on her forearm We never talk about this. We do talk about her pet rabbit, which she kept in her front yard and which was stolen one day by one of her neighbors, for the meat.
There’s a drunken Finnish woman who thinks I look like the five brothers she lost in World War 2. She talks about this resemblance constantly and sentimentally. When she comes in drunk (which is most of the time) she speaks of them with tears in her eyes and she is prone to take my hands and start kissing them. She has a beautiful daughter that I have a little crush on. The daughter always wears tight fitting jump suits like she’s a character from a James Bond movie and she had a beautiful body, but the most attractive thing about her is the constant look of Finnish existential boredom that she has on her non-smiling very light skinned face. (Existential boredom, not shallow boredom, which would make her ugly to me). She can’t be more than twenty but she has the eyes of a fifty year old who has seen it all. I never flirt with her because I remind her mother of her five dead uncles and somehow it would be creepy.
There is a well-dressed, middle aged insane woman who picks out her fruits and vegetables in a very neurotic way, putting together in one bag a cantaloupe, three grapes, two cherry tomatoes, and a banana and folding the flap down just right. When she brings the bag to the scale she looks at me with her demented eyes and says to me “There’s a method to my madness!”. But somehow I don’t think there is.
There is a very old, very proud, very rude Polish woman who thinks that I am not smart enough to know that she shop lifts. She says something nasty to me every day and I am often tempted to bust her. But the stuff she steals is so pathetic; half a jar of bouillon cubes or a tiny tin of condensed milk. If she wasn’t poor and was instead middle class, I would suspect that she was stealing for the excitement of it all and her rudeness was part of the game. But she’s poor and I think she really needs the stuff and besides, if I bust her I know she will cry.
There’s a big man in his late fifties who lumbers like John Wayne, walking from his shoulders. He comes in every day with his German Shepherd and buys the small amount of food he will need for the next 24 hours. The bag is always small enough that the dog can carry it in its mouth. The man wears an old fashioned factory worker’s uniform of dark blue cotton. His hands are big rough worker’s hands, but at some point they were crushed in a machine so now they are always rather swollen. He likes to shake my hand when he sees me and I always fantasize that the bones in his hand are floating around freely in his soft leather grip. He always asks after my studies and tells me to stay in school, telling me that “the more you work with your head, the less you will have to work with your hands”. For some reason, he likes me enough to want me to escape the working class.
There’s a creepy ferret faced Central European man who always wears a brown fedora. He seems to interact with men all right and for some reason he likes to chat with me in the produce department. But he has an unspeakably filthy mouth if he can manage to talk to a woman when no one is around. He’s a refugee from the war and the word from the other refugees is that he’s some kind of pervert and minor war criminal. At one point he disappears and I assume that he has probably died. But one of my informants tells me that this is not the case. He has murdered someone and fled the city.
There’s a big old Polish man with a chronic look of surly discomfort on his face that makes me think at first that he’s a Russian. He’s missing a hand. But in an attempt to hide this he has replaced it with an amber colored one made of rubber that looks like it was cut off a corpse. I am always careful to hand him his bags of produce to his good hand. I am also very careful not to accidently touch the horrible dead one.
There’s an ancient Norwegian man who has almost shrunk and disappeared into his brown cap and overcoat that he wears no matter what the weather is. He lives in a room over the Norwegian Benevolent Center; a room furnished with a few sticks of fifty year old furniture like a 1920’s prison cell. I know this because I always carry his bag of groceries home for him. It’s amazing to me that he can live on his own. He is quite senile and all he ever, ever talks about is the most terrible moment of his life when the elevator he was riding plunged to the ground. He has two rotten teeth in his lower jaw and a single rotten tooth like a yellow ivory peg in his upper jaw, like a man who has lost all of his teeth in an elevator accident.
There is a local gypsy fortune teller; an immensely fat woman dressed in bright rags who tries to rip me off by pushing her thumb into or otherwise mutilating the fruits and vegetables she wants in order to try to get me to discount them because they are damaged. Sometimes I let her get away with it and sometimes I don’t, telling her that if they are damaged I am required to discard them. When she loses our little game, she’s fatalistic and doesn’t hesitate to try again the next time she comes in, in case I’m in a better mood. She’s a poor gypsy in a poor neighborhood and not to be confused with the roving gypsies who sometimes come into the store and spend a fortune on out of season fruit. She’s also a fake fortune teller according to an old Polish woman who has the unfortunate talent of actually being able to read the cards. This woman is nice and grandmotherly and I suspect that she might have a little crush on me because she always inquires about my love life and is delighted when I take up with a Polish-American girlfriend. But she always seems to carry with her the weight of someone who has seen death in the cards too many times in her life.