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The Grocery Store of the 1940's
by Amy Kenneley

The Grocery Store

On a hot summer day, Gramp and I would bang the Radio Flyer down the 4 steps to the street and up several blocks to Fisher Food Store.

It was on Euclid Ave. near E. 97th St-- the grocery store of the 1940's-- before self-serve, automatic registers, shopping carts, conveyor belts and frozen foods. We would park the red metal wagon by the door, never worrying about thieves, and go in.

Duz Did It

By today's standards the entire store would fit into the cereal section of a modern supermarket, but amazingly almost everything we needed in those days was right there. The shelves went all the way to the ceiling with the basic staples of that era-- boxes, cans, and bags. One small section held cleaning supplies: Fels Naptha and Ivory soap, Duz, Bon Ami bars, Dutch Girl Scouring Cleanser.

Waiting our Turn

Of course we would have to wait our turn for the clerk who stood behind a long counter in front of the filled shelves, patiently moving up a little at a time. The clerk was amazing! She would take your written list or your verbal directions and walk back and forth, reaching up and down, lifting off the cans of pork and beans, the tins of Spam, the Quaker Oats cylinder.

With an armful of things, she would place them on the worn counter before us for inspection. We had the right-indeed, the obligation-to reject any container that was faulty, but it had better be a BIG dent or the clerk gave us a measured look.

The Wooden Arm

Sometimes our list sent her reaching to the top of the shelves, 'way above her head. There was a ladder that ran sideways on rollers affixed midway up the shelves, which was one way to gain access to the top shelves, but clerks sometimes preferred not to climb but to use the "wooden arm" hanging on a cup hook beside the counter. It had a grip at one end of rubber and metal, and a handle at the other end that, by squeezing and opening, opened the upper gripper as well.

Up went the wooden arm towards an elusive box on the fifth shelf. With a squeeze of the handle, the gripper opened and then closed over the item. Pulling backwards with the arm, the item was levered to the edge of the shelf, where it fell into space, down, down, until it was deftly caught with the one free hand of the clerk. She was good.

A Head for Figures

Most amazing to me, though, was her head for figures. On her own head was hairnet holding down thin brown hair turning to gray. She wore a starched light green dress uniform so stiff it stood out like a paper doll dress. Like many women who stood long hours on their feet, she wore "sensible" oxford shoes.

She squinted as she wrote down the price of each item on a narrow grocery pad. Every price had been memorized. With barely a pause, she went down each column, touching her pencil lightly at the numbers, first the one's column, then the ten's, and then the dollar's. Her whispered muttering was not to be interrupted. Silence ruled in the small space around her and us as we waited.

With a firm flourish of her pencil, she produced the total. Of course you could turn the pad around and re-check her figures, but Gramp had learned that she was always correct.

He handed her the cash, dollars and change. No checks, charge cards or debit cards in those days. If she were given a large bill she counted out the change in her head. Business would go on with never a stoppage at the old grocery store...no one was dependant on a machine telling them how to count.

Our purchases were carefully settled into a grocery bag, everything fitting neatly, regular sizes for regular people .Now that staples were taken care of, it was time to get the meat.

Sawdust and Cleavers

At the back of the store was the meat counter, sporting two shiny white refrigerated display cases. Inside the cases were all the cuts of meat for sale: long lines of pink pork chops, red beef roasts, strings of wieners and knockwurst cylinders of salami and bologna, and yellow and orange blocks of cheese.

The floors behind the meat counter were unpainted wood, with sawdust sprinkled down in swirly patterns to soak up the blood from the cuts of meat. All the tools of the butcher's trade were hanging from hooks near the large butcher block.

Follow the Dots

On the wall behind the counter were colored charts showing the cuts of meat from a cow, pig and lamb. I used to stare at this dismembered drawing, with the cow's legs off in a corner, and the pig's and lamb's haunches artistically severed from the rest of them, red dotted lines defining the cuts.

At the time I thought that the animals also had dotted lines under their skin, and that the butcher had only to follow them with his knife-sort of a cut-by-dot procedure. I was never able to spot where the hot dog and bologna parts were on the chart.

The Man in Almost White

The butcher had a big white apron that wrapped around most of his body, with strings tied in the front. On his head he wore a little white sliver of cap, like a serviceman's campaign cap. I tried not to look at the front of his apron, which often had red splotches all over.

His arms bulged with muscles as he hefted the haunches of meat from the cooler in the back room to the butcher's table for slicing. Thump Thump would go that steel cleaver, severing legs from loins, hams from hocks. A huge roll of white, slick butcher's paper revolved around a black iron frame, and with a snap! he would sever a white sheet, slap it down and wrap up your ham hock or soup bones.

Making Hamburger

I loved to see the machine that made the hamburger meat. You would pick out a piece of beef chuck meat, and the butcher would trim it a little, leaving the white slivers of fat lying on the butcher block. A couple of quick chops to make the meat fit into big metal hopper of the grinder, and then the machine was turned on.

Out came the bright red hamburger in strands that fell down into a little paper boat. Watching the transformation of meat into hamburger was strangely pleasing to me. Nothing tasted quite as good as a freshly ground hamburger patty, sizzling in the frying pan.

Berry Berry Good

Tucking the two or three white paper bundles into our grocery sack, it was time to proceed to the front of the store, where the produce department nestled into the front window. If it were wintertime, the pickings would be meager. There were lots of apples in piles, potatoes, cabbages and onions and the root vegetables.

It was in the summer that the produce area bloomed with all the bounty of the countryside- berries of all colors, from dripping red strawberries to darkest-of-night blackberries. There were curly lettuces, red veined lettuces, green scented parsley, exotic ginger root. Huge tomatoes lolled on the bins.

There were peaches that still smelled of the tree, ripe and beckoning; plums so juicy you couldn't wait to bite into them. Exotic pineapples spiked the top of the counter, but Gramp never bought any fresh pineapples, ours always came from the Dole cans. By the long window counter were the giants of the produce department: the melons. There was honeydew, and cantaloupe, and the King of all: the watermelon.

The Plug

We loved watermelon! All winter long while doing dreaded long division at the blackboard or parsing sentences, my mind would picture the lovely, school-less summer, with cold watermelon slices dividing the long hot weeks. And now there they were, dark green giants oozing red sweetness.

Even the big black seeds had a compensation of their own, as I was allowed to spit them off the back porch of the apartment-as long as no one was looking. Selecting just the Right One to take home was the problem, though. Gramp would thump with the back of his finger, then bend and sniff all around, like a hounddog following a trail.

The produce man, spotting a sale, would hurry over and offer to help. "Nice one, nice one" he would say, lifting up one indistinguishable giant from the rest. Then, to prove his point, he would zip a sharp little knife out of nowhere and proceed to cut a "plug" out of the midline of the melon, a triangular line that produced a small pyramid of sample. Gramp would lift the sample off the produce manager's knife, bite, nod and agree that it was, indeed, a "nice one." A sale!

The produce manager was ecstatic, but his smile dropped only a little when Gramp allowed he would only take half the watermelon. I kept the smile on my face, though. The melon was bisected expertly, wrapped in paper and set carefully into the bottom of the Radio Flyer. The packages of meat and bag of groceries were nestled in too and we were off.

The half-melon lolled in the wagon, and I smiled to myself knowing something the produce man hadn't. Gramp wasn't stingy about the price of the watermelon-but a half was all we could cram into our little apartment refrigerator.


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