One of the benefits of city living is that you generally don’t need a car–f you are willing to make certain compromises. Cargo carrying is one of them. Groceries, laundry and other bulky errands require ingenuity and planning. Groceries especially, since laundry can be put off ad infinitum.
I grew up in the supermarket era. Every week my mom would fill a hatchback with all the stuff we’d need for the duration. But when I lived in the inner city and I had no idea how to pull that off. The undignified rolling basket my grandmother employed when she lived on the Upper East Side looked ridiculous. I couldn’t picture myself with the damned thing.
I could just go commando and swipe a cart from the lot and push it to my bandit loft above the Communist bookstore, but what then? Do I push it out into traffic? Do I park it by the door and hope somebody takes it?
Then it hit me. The problem was with my thinking, my preconceptions of what “groceries” meant. I pictured boxes of pasta, bunches of lettuce, bags of fruit. But did I need all that stuff? And in bulk? Nope. I just needed something to eat. I revised my expectations downward.
Across the street was a convenience store. Like many such establishments, it was owned by Korean immigrants. They were hard-working, ever-present and distantly friendly. The store was called the Master Mart, but I called it Monster Mart. The tiny place was shoehorned in the corner of a building that had once house a grand hotel built for the 1905 Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition. Now it was a gutted shadow stripped of all ornamentation, carved nto shabby offices for shady lawyers, crooked accountants and a lone private investigator’s office.
The Monster Mart was always open, its limited shelf space packed with items popular in poor neighborhoods. Hostess products, sixteen kinds of chips, hard candy, pretzels, Spam and Hormel and Dinty Moore, all in the types of cans that did not require an opener. Behind the glassed in counter they kept the high-value items such as cigarettes, lottery tickets and pints of Thunderbird. The beer cooler took up at least a third of the space, but the selection was limited to the worst beers in the largest bottles. Budweiser was the top of the food chain .
It was the most successful business in the neighborhood. No wonder, since that corner of downtown was home to the parole office, a drug treatment center, a county-run Alzheimer’s home, and, until it burned down one winter night, an old school flophouse half-full of winos and junkies. The other half was vacant because the rooms were so dreadful that not even the most destitute person would sleep there.
The Korean family seemed happy. To them, I was a curiosity. Though a regular customer, I didn’t fit into the local demographic.I had all my teeth. I bathed. After a few months of seeing me once or twice a week, they started to know my name. The father seemed to worry about me, but was too polite to ask.
One day I was surprised to see a new guy behind the counter. A white kid. I couldn’t believe that the Koreans would hire a white kid at all, especially one that looked a disreputable as this specimen.
I learned later that they had lost their lease when the city bought the entire block, planning to tear it down to make room for the vast gentrification that was just starting (Portland is now the most gentrified city in the US, with almost 60% of low-income and affordable housing being remade and priced to fit the California budget. The retail situation is even more extreme, especially near what is now called the Pearl District but was then called “the shitty part of downtown”).
The Koreans were bought out lock, stock and barrel. The Monster Mart was deemed to serve a need, so the city ran it for a while. The staff was provided by the local halfway houses, the idea being that standing behind a counter in front of surveillance cameras was a nice segue from prison to civilian life.
I stopped going after a while. It was just too goddamned depressing.
Anyway, that’s the backstory for this entry. This was written immediately after the incident described, though I didn’t really steal the stuff. I thought it was a better ending than what really happened, which involved me waiting until the guy came out of the bathroom. I changed it to make it more interesting. Here you go. Slice of life.
I walked into the Monster Mart. There was half a piece of stale old birthday cake with garish pink frosting sitting behind the counter . It was on a paper plate and there was a plastic fork sticking out of it. The counter was clean but worn and the fluorescent lights cast a greenish hue which made the clerk look like a corpse, He was about twenty, his face and neck ravaged by acne which seemed to erupt before my eyes. He had a sparse mustache of thin hairs drooping over a lip pushed out by a set of yellow teeth. His eyes were bloodshot and his lank hair hung wetly about his face. When I got close I got a whiff of him. He smelled like a sink of unwashed dishes. He was smoking a generic cigarette, a menthol.
I grabbed a bag of chips from a wire rack and walked to the back of the store. There was a large convex mirror which hung from the ceiling. I looked up and saw my funhouse reflection. The clerk seemed very far away behind his counter, warped in the distance of the mirror. I picked up a jar of green olives and walked to the cooler. I grabbed out three 40s of Schlitz Malt Liquor. I stopped in the medicine aisle and picked up a bottle of aspirin, a box of No-Doz, a toothbrush and a pen.
I dropped all this on the counter. The olive jar was on its side and rolled down the counter toward the clerk. He didn’t even look at it. It rolled off, shattering between his feet.
“SHIT!” he yelled, jumping back. “I’M CUT!!”
He bent over and grabbed his foot, shod only in a flip-flop. A great deal of blood was spurting from a large cut on his heel. His pants leg was drenched in olive juice.
“Will you watch the counter for me?” he begged.
He hopped into the back holding his foot with both hands like he was going to jump over it.
I waited until he disappeared through the door. Then I grabbed the beer, the No-Doz and several packs of smokes from the counter and left the store, crossing the street at a jog.