Characters who helped shape mine (#1 in a series) The Grocer

It is well documented that scents and smells are among the most powerful of memory triggers; I have to believe that sounds cannot be far behind.

When I began teaching, I purchased a set of self-inking stamps for classroom use, one of which I use on a daily basis: my red thumb. The thumb stamp has become one of my most versatile and effective tools with the high school kids I teach, as I use it during certain class work times to quickly update students. A ‘thumb up’ is for encouragement, a ‘thumb down’ is a silent indication they need to get on track, a ‘sideways thumb’ is my ‘rethink this’ signal – a true student agitator.

My students all know the thumbs and their meanings, and I hear about it quickly if I am not making the rounds with my stamp when they think I should be. Many will react a table or two away if they hear my now-familiar ’ca-chick, ca-chick’ stamping sound, and start writing faster.

My students periodically work in class from literature workbooks that are nicely self-contained; a literary selection, sidebar questions on every page, more extensive written work at the end of the selection. This format allows me to do a fast check of the day’s work, stamping quickly as I go through a pile of workbooks. Students can get a variety of thumbs on a given selection. If a student hasn’t done any of the work, I can blow through the selection with a rapid fire series of thumbs down in all the blank spots.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I have been doing this for quite some time, and never gave it a whole lot of thought. A few days ago I was sitting in my classroom going through some workbooks of a particularly difficult pair of students that refuse to do any work. I had tried dealing with them during class, but knew that not a thing had been written in either book. Sure enough, as I started thumbing through them, everything was blank.

‘ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

And all of a sudden, it was 1965 and I was six years old, in a SuperValu grocery store at 34th and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis; light-years literally and figuratively from my current home base of New Orleans.

The store was one of the first supermarkets in the neighborhood – huge, for the time. It was a clean, crisp shop owned by the Williams family; Joe, Marian and Randy. My parents preferred shopping at the new Red Owl supermarket a few blocks further down Chicago Avenue, but Ivar and Lila, the elderly couple that owned our duplex shopped at SuperValu. They were my de-facto grandparents in so many ways, and they would babysit me on Friday nights when my parents went bowling. Friday night was also their grocery shopping night, so after dinner, we would pile in to their red-and-black ’58 Nash-Rambler station wagon to load up for the week.

Ivar was good friends with Joe Williams, the store owner, and always referred to him as ‘Super Joe.’ Ivar was an immigrant Swede who gave all sorts of people nicknames as a course of generational, immigrant habit, I think. Every time we were in the store, the two of them would strike up a conversation while Lila and I began cruising the store aisles. One of Ivar’s many nicknames for me was ‘Little Squirt’ – usually just shortened to ‘Squirt’ – a nickname that the startched-white-apron-and-paper-hat wearing Joe then adopted whenever he would see me; “Hey, Squirt! How are you today?”

The store was also right across the street from Horace Mann Elementary School, and once in a while I would  be in the store after school with someone or another. Super Joe always greeted me heartily, which was impressive to any other kids who happened to be around: I knew Super Joe and Super Joe knew me! (This was on display vividly during Thanksgiving of my first grade year, as our teacher, Mrs.Kime, brought us all to the store to shop for a Thanksgiving feast we then prepared at school. Joe told everyone I knew the store so well I should be leading the tour and explaining things.)

Friday night bowling was a big deal for my parents, and for me: an evening with Ivar and Lila meant having dinner and going grocery shopping, maybe watch a little television or play Chinese Checkers before bedtime if we got back early enough. May not sound like much, but it was a rockin’ Friday night for me, usually kicked off with Lila gathering her shopping list and coupons and Ivar announcing in a sing-song, Swedish-tinged, “Time to go see Super Joe!”

Every trip to SuperValu with Ivar and Lila followed the same basic script: Ivar and Joe would chat, Lila and I would start shopping, Ivar would catch up to us, and I would then be on the lookout for Super Joe. Once any eye contact was made with Joe, I would immediately dash to the aisle where the baking supplies were.

The bottom shelf on one side of the baking goods aisle was reserved for all of the big bags of flour and sugar, the twenty-pounders and such. (Hey, people were still baking from scratch a lot in 1965) Once I reached the baking goods, I would find an open spot on a bottom shelf, then squeeze myself into it, pulling my knees up against my chest, and resting my chin on my knees – sort of like during a fallout shelter drill at school. It was usually a tight fit, but they didn’t call me ‘Squirt’ without cause.

Within a few seconds, I would hear Super Joe walking down the aisle, wondering about what the price of flour was that week. A furtive peek around the bag of Pillsbury Gold Medal that I was huddled next to revealed Super Joe standing at the end of the aisle, drawing his shiny silver price stamper from his holster and adjusting the little wheels on it to the correct price. The wordlessly, but usually humming or whistling to himself, he would make his way down the aisle stamping the bags of flour with their correct price:

Ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick! ca-chick…’

When he arrived at my locale, his only acknowledgement that I was scrunched up there was, in one single, smooth motion, to place his hand on my head, smack the back of it with the price-stamper, and continue on down the rest of the aisle, wordlessly heading on to some other part of the store.

‘Ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’ fading into the distance.

At this point, I would get off the shelf and run to catch up with Ivar and Lila, wherever they were in the store, and ask them to check the price on the top of my head, to which Lila would usually say “I think you’re worth more than that!” while Ivar would reply, “Ya, I tink it’s about right!” That usually got him an “Oh, Ivar” mock-scolding from Lila. We would then finish our shopping, get our S&H Green Stamps, and go home.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

1965 was also the year that Ivar and Lila retired, and moved to their lake place north of Brainerd, in Minnesota’s north woods: Horseshoe Lake was the locale where I spent my summers for the next dozen years. As my family usually shopped at Red Owl, I didn’t see Joe nearly as often.

But we weren’t through with Super Joe. He and his family visited us at the lake from time to time, and a few years after Ivar and Lila moved north, Joe and his family followed suit; they bought a small town grocery store in resort country about an hour’s drive from Ivar and Lila’s place. Both families remained friends until Joe’s untimely death a few years after that, when I was  thirteen or fourteen. I had experienced death before, family members and close friends, but I remember this was the first time I had grieved for someone that I really had no strong, tangible connection to. He was just a good guy that I knew from going to the grocery store with Ivar and Lila.

I have no idea why Super Joe and his price stamper escapades all came back to me the way they did, nearly fifty-years after the fact, sitting in an empty classroom in Louisiana. I use my stamper frequently. But return to me they did, and it gave me a smile when I needed one, being less than thrilled with the performance of my students.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

I don’t know how the flour-bag routine got started, not sure why it still resonates so strongly with me today, it just does. Ivar and Lila were a huge part of my life; de facto grandparents who hosted me at their lake place for the entire summer every year of my youth. The relationships made and the life lessons learned over all those years are immeasurable. The old SuperValu store? Now an inner social-service outreach center. Super Joe Williams? A nice guy we used to buy groceries from who took a couple of minutes each week and once on a Thanksgiving shopping trip to make a kid feel special.

That’s all there is to the story, really. Just a childhood memory that returned at the oddest of times, triggered by a now oddly familiar, new yet retro sound. Or maybe its just a fun-filled Friday night remembrance.

Whatever it is, you just can’t put a price on it.

‘ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick, ca-chick…’

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