Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Corner Store


My granddad was a grocer. He bought bananas and grapefruit wholesale, worried about whether his signage was adequate, and paid the Mafia a monthly retainer so they wouldn’t kick over his trashcans. My mother said that he had the soul of a poet. After work—after he unlocked the store at 5:00 in the morning for the first delivery, after he culled the rotten potatoes from the bin, after he braved the cooler in order to manhandle the wayward milk bottles into strict rows—he’d walk home, take my mother on his lap in the easy chair, and read to her from Keats.
I’m a grocer too. The store in which I’m a partner—along with a retired oncologist and a retired pathologist—is a little corner grocery in an old frame house in the middle of a liberal little Southern university town. We’re a “blend.” “Blend” is jargon for a store that sells local cheeses and Cheetos, locally made baguettes and cans of Red Bull. We’re PC but then again we ain’t.
I rather like it that way. I like that the guy who used to own this place when it was a bait and tackle shop—the store is called Johnny’s after him—can come in here and buy a Moon Pie and a little bitty Coca Cola and the woman behind him in line, who’ll get a discount for bringing her own coffee cup, can pick up a pound of organic quinoa and several packs of her favorite seaweed snack.
I didn’t expect to be a grocer. I thought that when I retired from 30 years of bookselling, that I had done with retail. But there I was, sitting on my couch and writing my novel when it occurred to me: it’s not so easy to go from the most public of jobs (behind the counter of a busy store) to the solitary life.
I’ve dabbled in writing for several decades with some moderate success. A novel of mine was published by a Big House a couple of years ago to pretty good reviews. Writing is what I do for fun. Well, not fun exactly. More like exercise. I write for exercise.
By which I mean that I write fiction in order to hone my thoughts about this cesspool we call daily life. My most recent novel, about a utopian community in the late 19th century, is my response to the Iraq War or more specifically, to those who vowed to pack up and move away in chagrin at America’s belligerence. As if, I said to myself, there’s anywhere better. America may suck, but there’s nowhere better. Shoot: I went to visit Sweden, the mothership of all that’s liberal, and my host hurried me across the street and out of the way of the thievin’ gypsies. America, I’m afraid, is as utopian as it gets.
Writing, as you’ve heard, is a solitary art. Solitude is often difficult to deal with. It gets lonely. Some people can hardly stand it. I have writer friends who exhibit a pathological need to post a Facebook status before or even as they’re in the midst of their scribbles which reads thus: “I’m writing.”
I’d never post such a status myself, mainly because I’m not completely sure what the hell writing is exactly and thus I’m not sure when I’m doing it, but I can see why someone would feel the need to shout it out. I suppose it helps them to feel that they’ll not be forgotten for the couple of hours during which they’re toiling away.
Also, writing is slow. If it’s not, you’re probably not doing it right. Good writing requires hours of labor. You write, delete and delete and delete. Deletion’s the main thing. ‘I’m on a roll’ ought to mean a couple of paragraphs, maybe a page. Much more than that and you haven’t suffered half enough.
I like the solitude. I like the need for patience. I’m willing to spend the butt in the chair time.
But I need a little human interaction too. Human interaction is built into retail-- at least, into brick and mortar retail. I don’t know what those Amazon guys do. Maybe they telecommute and work in their pajamas. Probably they have crumbs in their beards but who cares.
But it’s not just the human interaction that sustains me in the grocery store. It has as much to do with creation.
I like it when something looks good to the eye. I like those orange peppers in that red bowl. And, after years of selling the permanent (Jane Eyre, MacBeth), I like the feeling of selling the ephemeral (hormone-free half & half).
I like the immediacy of the grocery store. To wit: people need eggs. I provide the eggs. They buy their eggs and then they go home and make an omelet. It’s nice. It’s sort of hamish. It’s simple and clean. I’ve always felt that about retail. You give something to me and I give something back to you and we both feel more or less good about it. Not a lot of politics. Filthy lucre? Shoot: it makes the world go round.
Writing, on the other hand, isn’t at all clean. It’s hard to imagine more muck. Maybe all art is like sculpting: you have to chisel the melody or the choreography or the brush strokes from the hardened mess that is your mind. That’s what writing is for me. The story’s in there and it’s up to me to carve it out. It’s a muddy business. One does it only because one has no choice.
The grocery store on the other hand? Well, Johnny’s is clean and well-lighted enough for the average bear. It hearkens back to a simpler and more innocent time. That’s an illusion, of course. Back then…whenever that has ever been…was never simpler and more innocent. Nostalgia’s a trick our minds play on us. That’s what my new novel is about.