There’s a round-about a block away from my house, and on one side of it, a large parking lot and a small independent grocery story called, “The Super A.” I like the name because it reminds me of Super-8 video technology, so it implies to me something from a by-gone era, a still standing relic. Independent grocery-stores are indeed relics, fortunately most towns still have one or two. This town has a Walmart, Super Store, and an “Independent” (which is actually part of a larger chain). There’s a small organic grocer for the select few who can afford it, a couple small stores selling Asian specialty items and, the Super A.
What the Super A has going for it is proximity. When you are out of cream for your coffee – the Super A. When you are baking banana bread and realise you don’t have any butter – the Super A. If you just dropped your kid at gymnastics and need to grab a few things for supper – the Super A.
I haven’t developed a relationship with this place yet, and I still feel a little more at home in the bigger stores. In the big stores, you’re not expected to know your cashier, you don’t even have to look anyone in the eye at self-checkout stations. In the big stores, you know exactly what you’re getting, they exist so that you can fill your fridge in a completely un-meaningful and unmemorable way.
In an independent grocer, there’s room for personality, quirkiness, and character. If you work there, you probably don’t have benefits, but you might stick around anyway. Maybe you stick around because you get along with the owners, you can walk to work, or maybe, everyday you see the same people and derive some strange comfort from that familiarity. You see these people often enough, over a period of years, you actually get to know them.
I didn’t really consider all this the other day when I walked into the Super A. I just walked in and wondered: what is this place, and why is there a big open space in the middle? It would be a great place for rollerblades, or roller hockey, even. I felt slightly exposed and awkward, not feelings typically associated with grocery shopping.
I instinctively assumed that everything in here would be outrageously expensive. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t really matter, it had nothing to do with the subtle discomfort I felt. When I pulled up to the check-out aisle with my son, I noticed a giant mountain goat staring down at me from the towering interior wall. The painted goat is not alone, there are horses, a black bear, a grizzly bear and a tinhorn sheep. The woman in front of me was chatting with the people in front of her. I wondered: does she know them, or is she just being friendly? When it was her turn to pay, she addressed the woman behind the counter by name, and I was struck by a pang of loneliness.
A little more than a month ago I bought groceries at a store where I knew the person behind the counter there by name. On that particular day, the guy behind the counter looked at my son and reminded him: I’ve known you a LONG time. Longer than my boy even remembers. My boy is 10 now, and most definitely a “tween.” He savours every little bit of independence he’s got, which, in the past year, has meant getting off the bus after school and buying junk food to share with his friends before baseball practice. He thinks he’s pretty cool, but the people behind the counter know better.
It’s totally absurd, but I feel like the voices and the particular facial expressions of the people who rang through my groceries for ten years will be with me on my death-bed.
Last week, my son woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. He was crying, longing for the familiarity of his old life.
“I don’t even remember what our kitchen looks like,” he sobbed
I held him, and recreated the world he woke up to every morning until recently: there’s the baking cupboard on the far left, and the snack shelf above that. The fridge with the freezer stacked on top and the shelf full of random stuff above that…
I felt as though I was consoling a child who just lost his mother and couldn’t remember the details of her face. Subtle, seemingly insignificant details really do matter, though. I haven’t started to forget them yet, but I might panic when I do.
Before leaving, someone told me that for the first year or two in a new town, it feels like you’re dating potential friends. I went through it eleven years ago and more or less enjoyed the process: we threw a Christmas open-house and invited every single one of our neighbours; we had a baby, and I made a million dates to wander around and drink coffee with other new moms. For a while, we had quite a bustling social life with a fairly large group of friends. Over time, though, that bustling scene simmered down. Covid made the neighbourhood our core world. Specific communities emerged around the kids’ activities, and our good friends grew even closer.
As newbies in another small town, there’s no way of knowing who our people will end up being – we probably haven’t met them yet. There’s no point in looking for them – they’ll just happen, I hope. For now, I’m just looking forward to a more simple kind of familiarity, so I step up to the till and initiate a conversation with the cashier, who in-turn initiates a conversation with my son. One day I’ll know her, maybe, and I’ll know the person behind me and in front of me in line, too.