Saturday, June 9, 2012
A few weeks ago I was in the checkout line at Rays, one of the two grocery stores in our tiny town where really one would suffice. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a bank in our town but if you spotted the average Waldportian, you’d probably elect them “least likely to be found making a deposit.” Unless it’s in the can and bottle recycling machines outside of Rays, that is. Which do, indeed, boast the longest lines in town. If you want to eat out here we have Vicki’s Burger Bar, The Flounder Inn (which is really a watering hole), The Salty Dog (also a watering hole but with decent grub to soak it up), or the proverbial Pizza, Chinese, and Mexican restaurants. And that’s all folks. Except for fried chicken and Jojos at Rays. If you want to window shop along main street, windows are mostly what you’ll find. There are a few occupied stores with names like Knives and More but mostly there are just windows. Windows with signs that say “for rent” or “for sale” or “Meth is Death.”
I stood in line, ice cream in hand, waiting for the two scruffy guys ahead of me to buy their groceries. Being a compulsive reader, I scanned the tabloid headlines for the latest weight loss accomplishments of airbrushed women and the news of all things Hollywood while I waited my turn. I was distracted by all that life-altering information until I realized the normally hyper checkout guy at Rays was huffing and puffing and talking to himself a bit more vociferously than usual. Looking up from People, I switched to the real life drama unfolding in front of me and caught the gist of the plot, which was that the scruffy guys ahead of me didn’t have enough money for their already bagged items. Mr. Huff and Puff was getting ready to unbag their few items and they were turning to go make a deposit outside or something by the time I tuned in.
When I was a young lass grocery shopping with my mother at Starr Market in Middletown, Rhode Island, I dreaded the checkout line. I never saw a credit card or check book emerge from the depths of my mother’s purse in monetary emergencies so I have to assume they were nonexistent for the average housewife of the 1970’s. Cash was king. And my mom was not a gal for numbers. Or calculators, also not standard 70’s pocketbook stuffers. Until we hit adolescence, it was our lot to remain parked in the station wagon with our grandma, Mimi, playing the color game or Quaker meeting while Mom ran into the store for “I’ll be right back, I just need a couple of things.” Mom would emerge an hour later with a full cart while we whined and poor Mimi searched her mental closet for another game from her career as a PE teacher.
But once we hit double digits, we weren’t falling for that trick anymore. We hit the aisles with Mom, pushing the cart while she planned her weekly meals, starting with the meat and ending at the ice cream with a trail of “no’s” scattered in our wake like breadcrumbs from our every request for whatever new cereal we’d been brainwashed to want in between Speed Racer and H.R.Pufnstuf. When not uttering monosyllabic responses, Mom was occupied with keeping a running total in her head, muttering with each new addition to the cart like Mr. Pufnstuf at Rays. By the time it was our turn at the checkout line, Mom was trapped in a whirling dervish of numbers. She bravely stepped ahead to monitor the cash register, facing her demons while we emptied the cart onto the black belt. Inevitably, by the time we got to the meat section of our cart, Mom was in a panic.
Time slowed down.
These were the days before my brother’s college friend invented some UPC scanner something or other at his work-study job and retired as a bazillionaire before his cap and gown had gathered a layer of dust but I forget exactly how the prices were entered. I do remember the nifty conveyor belt which transported our groceries through a doggy door for curbside pick-up, however, and as our already approved groceries filled the bins which were destined for the belt, Mom began her ritual of selecting from the stragglers. She asked the cashier to add one packet of meat at a time, checking the total with each new addition and comparing it against the bundle of bills clutched tightly in her fist, sometimes searching the depths of her purse for more volunteers. And this was right about the time I started wishing I was out in the car with Mimi playing, “I’m thinking of something . . . green.”
While Mom struggled to reconcile the cashier’s total with the bills in hand and the cashier struggled to maintain her calm, I struggled to maintain my persona of adolescent cool. “Okay, subtract the steak and add the chicken,” was something Mom might say while the line of impatient shoppers huffed and puffed behind us and I enlisted my peripheral vision to see if I knew any of them. We lived on an island. So usually I did.
Mom’s checkout game continued until she’d completely revised our weekly menu including a yellow and green vegetable for every night right there at the register and I was left with the rejected pile of meat in front of me which we suddenly weren’t having.
“Kelly, go put those back,” Mom would say, completely oblivious to the fact that Doris Nally, the gum-snapping-most-intimidating-“colored” girl in middle school was in line right behind us and now also knew what I’d be eating all week. And what I wouldn’t. I didn’t yet know about Harry Potter and his invisibility cloak, but I sure wished I had one anyway right about then.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled, clutching packets of meat the color of my shame and squeezing past the impatient islanders behind us, avoiding eye contact with Doris, only too aware that I was the sole fish swimming upstream.
As a result of all this drama, to this day I have what I call “checkout line anxiety.” I stuff my purse with checkbooks and credit cards and some amount of cash and still I have a small moment of panic when faced with a cashier. And so it was with great empathy for my fellow scruffy shoppers that I stepped up to Mr. Huff and Puff at Rays and started to say, “Oh, I would have paid for . . .,” indicating the items he was reaching in to remove from the bag in front of him. Like Santa, H&P spoke not a word but went straight to his work, removing the groceries and placing them next to him to be reshelved. I was feeling bad that I’d been distracted by the magazine rack and was about to finish my sentence when I had my first gander at the items he was removing. Little Debbie Strawberry Shortcake bars, generic Strawberry soda, Swiss something or other that was definitely not from Switzerland, and a few other food-ish things whose first and last ingredients were sugar. “. . . those,” died right there on my Good Samaritan lips while I secretly murmured my thanks to Jessica Simpson for her baby fat. There was no way I’d buy any of those things for those guys or myself or anyone else. Meth heads, I realized.
Meth is Death, like the sign in our empty store windows say. Ours is a community that has been poisoned by meth. One in four kids at Bella’s school are homeless. Many are being raised by their grandparents, who are questionably good candidates since they also reared the previous failed generation. Too many folks on the coast here are like barnacles, clinging to the edge of the continent in serious danger of being washed out with the next turn of the economic tide. Kids come and go with such alarming regularity in Bella’s school that they really should install a revolving door. Two kids in Bella’s class moved last week, which was two weeks before school gets out. Just today Isaiah’s friend mentioned a boy whose name I didn’t recognize. “Is he new?” I asked. “No,” he said, “he’s been here since April.”
On Friday, Bella brought home her weekly packet with a notice that free camp will be held all summer for all kids with free breakfast and lunch included. The notice read, “Over half of Lincoln County students qualify for free or reduced lunch and over 80% of Waldport’s grade school students are considered economically disadvantaged. About 400 students in the district are considered homeless.” Lincoln County is 1000 square miles, which is the same size as Rhode Island. Lincoln County has 5200 students and Rhode Island has 14,000. Yet they both have roughly the same number of homeless students: 400, 420.
The school notice also read, “Oregon has higher than national average rates for hunger and food insecurity.” Food insecurity? I thought. A new term for me. But then I remembered my Starr market days. And I got it.