March 13, 2011

Consumer Notes Without Purpose


Ilsa, She-Wolf of the Food Mart

There are two grocery stores in my neighborhood. They’re roughly equidistant from my apartment, and stand about seven blocks apart along the same stretch of avenue. The first is bright, clean, large, and absurdly well-stocked. The produce is shipped in daily and practically glows in all the intense shades of the rainbow. The prices are reasonable and the checkout girls are friendly. It’s a popular and beloved store around here—a simple given for grocery shoppers.

            The second supermarket is probably best described as “seedy.” In fact I’ve often heard that very word used to describe it. Folks who can’t recall the exact name offhand simply refer to it as “the seedy one.” The lighting is dim, the floor is filthy, the shelves are not only ill-stocked, but randomly stocked. The meat department is questionable, they offer no cheeses that haven’t been sliced and individually wrapped in plastic, and the produce is drab, sickly and gray. There’s nothing special about the prices and the only person I’ve ever seen working the register is a surly German woman in her fifties.

            As a result, I will only do my shopping at the seedy supermarket—more for the surly German woman than anything else. Her contemptuous growl always brightens my morning.

            The first time I was there she asked me if I had a store card—one of those gimmicks that makes suckers believe they’re getting special discounts and what-not when all it really is is an insidious marketing tool.

            I told her I didn’t have one.

            “You vant vun?”

            “No, I’m fine, thanks.”

            That was the end of the discussion. She seemed strangely pissed about my refusal. No matter, I figured. I paid and left.

            The next time I approached the checkout she started to ask me if I had a card, but stopped herself.

            “No,” she snarled. “You don’t haff vun, you don’t vant vun, you’re fine.”

            I didn’t think it was necessary to go into a long explanation about my deep-seated paranoia and how everything we do is tracked enough in this world without some damn cut-rate supermarket database maintaining a running account of everything I’m buying. Especially when I’m always buying the same things anyway.

            After that she stopped asking me about the card, but apparently still felt compelled to say something. And in doing so, only seems to grow snippier every time I stop by. I’ve come to look forward to it, standing there at the register with a smile on my face, waiting.

            “Ja, hallo, good morning, how are you,” she said one recent morning. While there was nothing neighborly in her machine gun tone, no question mark at the end of her question, I still decided to call her on it.

            “Oh, I guess I’m doing just fine today,” I said. “And how about yourself?”

            “Ja, sank you, sure,” she said quickly, looking away, responding by rote to some question I hadn’t asked. When I laughed, she glared at me.

            Yup, they’ve got my business. That other fancy-ass clean store with the nice employees can go fuck itself.


Deli Man on the Roof

On the other end of the spectrum, the Pakistani who runs the bodega I most frequently frequent always seems not just happy to see me, but absurdly happy to see me. I don’t know why this is—I’m not exactly the chatty type—but I suspect it’s because I’m usually buying something more than a morning paper and a small coffee.

            He’s apparently so delighted to see me, in fact, that over the past week he’s fallen into a new habit. Whenever I approach the counter with my beer, he sings a little song. He may sing it to other customers as well, but I haven’t heard it. I don’t know if it’s from a commercial or is a composition of his very own, but it goes like this:

Hello! Hello!

Long time no see!

With lettuce, tomato, and American cheese!

            He always pauses expectantly when he’s finished, but I’m never quite sure how to respond. I just hope he’s not waiting for a reply song.


It’s in the Acme Building

I recently returned to my old neighborhood in order to swing by Joe’s Taxes and get my, umm . . . taxes done. I first went to Joe’s for the simple and obvious reason that it was called “Joe’s Taxes.’ Big sign over the front door said as much. What choice did I have? I’ve continued going there every year for the past twelve or fifteen years. They’ve grown considerably in that time, both in terms of the staff and the customer base. Every year there are more people in the waiting room. They’ve even expanded the office itself a few times. All those things usually make me very uncomfortable, but it’s remained at heart a family operation. They’re always nice to me, they charge me a fraction of what a place like H&R Block would, I’m in and out of there in a flash, and they know how to deal with a blindo who’s always clinging just this side of destitute.

            It’s a bit of a trek to get to Joe’s Taxes these days, especially considering there’s a tax place half a block from my apartment, but I would never go anyplace else. Sure, there are all those reasons I listed above and they certainly count for something, but more importantly, it’s Joe’s Taxes.


How Many Hakkenflots Does It Take?

My sister has been a teacher in the Green Bay public school system for some thirty-odd years now, so I’ve heard quite a bit about the recent protests in Wisconsin over the governor’s proposed budget cuts and his assault on the unions. Because of the governor’s plan, her job is now in jeopardy. It’s left the family a little tense.

            I’ve always been a big supporter of teachers, always thought they were criminally underpaid as it was (especially while I was teaching that semester), and all this hubbubery in Wisconsin got me thinking about them again.

            I was lucky enough in the Green Bay public schools to have had a number of teachers who were very good at what they did. Not everybody can or is willing to claim such a thing. But I was far luckier still to have encountered a small handful of teachers throughout the years who were honestly great, who went beyond the lesson plans and the standard textbooks, and who, god help them, encouraged me to pursue some of my more deranged and arcane interests.

            Back in the sixth grade at Allouez Elementary I had a teacher named Ms. Hakkenflot (of course given that it was 1976 it would’ve been Mrs. Hakkenflot). She taught history, social studies, a catch-all of anything that didn’t fall under any of the other basics. She was probably in her early thirties at the time, was obviously very smart, had a sense of humor and never bothered to talk down to the students.

            I recall very clearly her last words to me before I left her class at the end of the year: “keep reading—it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.”

            She was right. I did and it was.

            A few years down the line she transferred to East High school. I’d graduated from East a year earlier, and I recall being disappointed she hadn’t made the move sooner. Not that I didn’t have some fine teachers in high school—I did—but none of them were of her caliber.

            On a whim the other day I did some checking, and so far as I could tell Ms. Hakkenflot was not only still teaching, but still at my old high school, some thirty-five years after she taught me sixth grade social studies. That was a relief. See, one night when I was sixteen or so I was with a friend who got a little too hopped up on Pepsi. He began ranting about an awful grade school teacher who’d made his life a living hell. The rant culminated in his decision to call this woman at home and tell her what an awful teacher she’d been. Before I could remind him that the woman was probably in her seventies at that point and that it was eleven o’clock at night, he grabbed the phone book, looked up her number, dialed the phone, and woke her husband. My hopped-up friend demanded to talk to his former teacher.

            When the husband informed him that she had died four years earlier, my friend apologized for calling, then laughed and laughed and laughed.

            Anyway, I was glad to see Ms. Hakkenflot was still alive. So on another whim, I wrote her a little note. I had no illusions that she would remember me after thirty-five years, but what the hell? Given all the awful things people had been saying about teachers in Wisconsin, I figured it couldn’t hurt. I sent the note off to her email address at the school, and went on with my business.

            About an hour later I received a reply. Ms. Hakkenflot was very grateful, she said. It was something she really needed to hear at that moment with so much ugliness swirling around Wisconsin. It brightened her day considerably.

            Unfortunately, I’d sent the note to the wrong Hakkenflot.


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