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Once or twice a year, I fly from the New York City area to South Carolina to visit my Pop. When I exit the terminal in Charleston, I always take a deep breath to smell the air of the Lowcountry. It’s a mix of salt from the ocean, the fecund pluff mud in the marshes, and maybe a little smoke from the paper mill. That visceral reminder of my youth is a marker that I have returned. Another marker is the drive out to Pop’s house on Highway 61. The journey is slower these days because of the increase in traffic. But that two-lane road will probably never be widened since it is flanked by majestic oak trees that go back perhaps a hundred years or more. I have the luxury of enjoying those moss-covered oaks because I don’t fight the vehicle congestion they create each day. As we drive, I take in anything that is new among the churches, restaurants, and strips of shops along the highway. When we pass the Timbo man selling boiled peanuts, I feel a sense of relief that he is still there. I don’t even eat boiled peanuts but seeing Timbo’s orange trailer, and the customers around it, reminds me of the days when I travelled down that stretch of highway in the bus going to a high school named for a colonial rice plantation. Ironic that the plantation is still with us, but my high school is gone.
Not far from an area called Church Creek we pass a vacant lot with nothing but patches of worn asphalt that have grass and weeds growing up through their cracks. Sometimes truck drivers park their rigs there overnight. It seems unusual to see this large empty space, like a pockmark on an increasingly crowded landscape. When we drive by this place it never fails that a lump develops in the back of my throat and I must blink several times to hold back tears. In this hollow there used to be a lively, functioning grocery store. It was a neighbourhood market where people knew each other and smiled when they passed at the door. It seems especially cruel that not only did the Piggly Wiggly store close, but it was completely razed and now it is as if it never existed. Why did no one else want to take it over? Why leave this sad hole in the geography without even a sign of what was? It was a place that meant a lot to me. But, like many things in life, I did not realize how deeply it had touched me until years later.
The summer before my senior year of high school I worked as a cashier at the Church Creek Piggly Wiggly. It was my first real job and I was determined to perform well. The name on my tag said “Lindsey” officially but, unofficially, my name was “Ryan’s sister.” My older brother had been working at the store for several years, and I lived in dread of embarrassing him. He knew all the ropes and could do any job at the store with ease and good humour. It was the early 1990s when small grocery stores, like ours, still had young men hired as baggers who packed up an order, wheeled it out in a cart, and loaded it in the customer’s car. Store policy was that baggers shouldn’t be tipped because this polite action was simply part of the job. Nevertheless, baggers were given pats on the back, smiles from the teachers, churchgoers, and small business owners who frequented the store, and the occasional rumpled dollar bill or two. My brother started as a bagger and quickly became popular among the staff and clientele for his gregarious manner. He was tall and quite slim, constantly swerving through the aisles with swiftness and grace. He did not play sports in high school, but he could unload a delivery truck, stock the shelves, and shag (that is: retrieve from the parking lot) carts in double time. His quickness extended to math where he could fill in for a missing cashier or help calculate the night deposit with no trouble. From my vantage point looking up at him, it seemed there was little he could not do efficiently.
Well before I started working at the Pig, as it’s affectionately known, my family shopped there all the time. Ours was the kind of local store where lots of people dashed in for just a loaf of bread and milk in the morning or to grab some ice cream and cookies right before closing. Families also depended on the store for weekly provisions. I often accompanied my Mom on Saturday shopping trips for a large order of groceries. Our list was organized around the ingredients for six nightly family dinners and a Sunday supper after church. We started in the modest but adequate produce section and moved through the aisles of dry goods and frozen foods to the meat counter and, finally, the deli/bakery. Familiar faces were everywhere. Didn’t see the cut of meat you needed? We’ll get that for Ryan’s family. Need a coffee cake for a home Bible study tomorrow? No problem. Some new flowers just came in. Would you like a bouquet? If we struggled to find an item, I would flag down my brother, or one of his friends, to ask:
“Hey, where are you hiding the pinto beans?”
“Aisle four right-hand side, half-way down.”
“Pickled pigs’ feet?”
“Aisle seven, bottom shelf. Y’all aren’t really buying those?”
“Nope, just testing you!”
There were one or two career cashiers at the store but most of the employees were young people from my high school. These guys never balked at early morning stocking or staying late to mop and wax the floors. And they still had time to zip by our cart on Saturday afternoons to fill it with mysterious items we hadn’t intended to buy. Their chuckles echoed down the aisle as my mom and I looked at each other quizzically wondering who put the calf’s liver or extra smoked ham hock in our buggy. Sometimes our list would have items added to it like a new car or some new sneakers. How did they do that without us seeing them, I would wonder scanning the aisle up and down.
At the registers, customers amiably chatted about the weather, the tides, or idle gossip. Lots of people wrote out checks to pay and no one seemed to mind much if the line was a little slow. Someone would inevitably ask me about school and who I had for such-and-such a subject:
“Watch out for Mr. Blankenship, the history teacher. He’ll throw an eraser at your head if you fall asleep! Is he still working over at Middleton?”
“Yep, I have him now.”
“Well, watch yourself in there. He doesn’t suffer fools.”
If we picked up something special, like my sixteenth birthday cake, everyone made a small fuss.
“Ooh, is this for you? Sixteen already?”
“Hey y’all, it’s Ryan’s sister’s birthday.”
“Bless your heart. Y’all having a cookout?”
I was a celebrity for the few minutes it took to pay and leave the store. If it had started raining when we were ready to go, a bagger would grab a raincoat and pull our car to the front door then load our groceries for us. “Have a good one,” was the refrain when anyone exited.
My interview to work at the Pig consisted of a short conversation with the store operator, a man who I had only seen from a distance. Being Ryan’s sister meant I was quickly hired, but I was nervous about the cashier’s job. The registers were a little old fashioned so there was much to learn. Food stamps and WIC purchases had to be confirmed and entered manually. IDs had to be studied and phone numbers recorded when accepting a personal check. If someone wanted to pay with credit card, I had to take it to the office to have the shift manager run it. I also had to go to the office to get the key for the cabinet that held cigarettes. Knowing nothing about smoking meant this frequently became an extended errand that irritated the customer. Coupons were the bane of my existence as they had to be entered individually and by hand. Inevitably the coupon cutters would end up in my line during a weekend rush. If a customer wanted to buy postage stamps, I had to add on the cost to the total in my head (and hope it came out right at the end of a shift). Those small round stickers attached to all produce these days had not been invented yet (or hadn’t made it to our store). We had to memorize all the codes along with which fruits were weighed and which vegetables were sold by count. The office was basically a slightly raised platform at the end of the row of about five registers. It had walls of plywood and plexiglass that went up about chest-high if I was standing in there counting down a till. There was a board in the office with the names of all cashiers and their average scanning speed. Mine was usually toward the bottom. In retrospect, I don’t think the office was all that secure considering it was where the money was handled. But, at the time, I never worried for a moment about safety. This was where my brother worked with his friends and where we shopped. How could it not be safe?
I always felt slow and awkward compared to my brother and his buddies. How could they remember all those codes? Why couldn’t I keep up with cleaning my register, serving the customers, and fronting (that is: straightening all items and pulling them to the front of the shelves) my assigned aisles? I stumbled home after a shift exhausted while my brother would run home in his old brown Mazda pick-up, shower, change clothes, and go catch a late movie or do some surf casting at the beach if the sun was up. On top of that, his jobs at the store were much harder and more physical than mine. I had to stand all day, but he darted around filling the dairy case, getting extra supplies for the registers, bagging for customers, or cleaning up a spill on aisle five. Usually the moments I was feeling vulnerable were when my brother or one of his friends started their shenanigans. I’d reach for the cigarette key only to find it in a new place. There’d be a brown paper bag over my till when it popped open so I momentarily couldn’t access money to make change. My rag would disappear just as a customer came through with a leaky carton of milk. My heart would stop as they snickered. How did they move so fast and know exactly what would cause the most trouble? I wasn’t around much for the after-hours pranks. But I heard stories about shopping cart races, blasting music, and burping contests over the loudspeaker. The night manager was a middle-aged African American man named Mr. Crummy who had been with the company a long time. He seemed outwardly quiet and spoke in a kind of gravelly voice. But if you listened closely, he had a wry sense of humour. I think that’s why he liked my brother and their crew who worked diligently but never let a good joke go unspoken or a jibe untested.
The only adverse event I ever heard about the store was when the cash deposit got stolen one time. It was due to the negligence of the head cashier who had gone to eat lunch before dropping the money at the bank. Other than that, the store seemed to me to run like clockwork. Even though I was pretty hopeless as a competent cashier, I was glad to be there. I always got excited when my Mom and Pop came to shop while I was working. I blushed when a cute boy from school bagged groceries in my line. When classmates stopped by, I was proud that they could see I was part of the workforce, earning my own spending money. I felt rooted when I looked out the front windows and saw my brother’s truck parked in the back of the lot. Even if I didn’t always see him in the store, I knew he was there and that was comforting. I also learned vital lessons about work ethic and attitude that have stayed with me.
When the summer ended, I stopped cashiering at the Pig to focus on my senior year course work. At that time, my biggest worry was whether I would get my braces off before class pictures (I didn’t). My brother had already graduated from high school and was working at the Pig full-time. There was talk of him working his way up into management. The autumn proceeded as usual and I buckled down on my studies while applying to colleges. Then the bottom fell out of my world completely: the day after Thanksgiving my Mom announced she was divorcing my Pop and moving out. A new apartment had already been leased and movers booked. There was no warning, only shock. I experienced utter devastation for the first time in my life. Shortly after my Mom left, my brother decided that the Piggly Wiggly was not going to be in his future. He joined the Army and was stationed overseas. Several of his buddies from the Pig joined up as well. There were no more Saturday afternoon shopping trips with my Mom. There were no more jokes on the grocery list, no family dinners with the four of us together. There was no more laughter echoing down the grocery aisles. Going to that store became a sad remembrance of times past. My Pop and I stopped in occasionally to pick up a few items. Now people asked questions like:
“Where’s your brother been stationed?”
“Well, let’s hope he doesn’t get mixed up in that mess in Bosnia.”
“He’s been there, ma’am, but he’s okay.”
My heart ached. My family was unalterably broken. The sense of community I had experienced at the Piggly Wiggly had disappeared and was never to be restored.
Not long after I went away to college, our Piggly Wiggly closed. For years, our Pig sat empty in a state of decay until it was eventually torn down leaving the chasm in the landscape that remains today. I don’t know why no one has ever tried to fill that plot. It looks just as hollow as my heart feels. To me, that space represents the hole that was left in my life when I lost my family and community. But that summer working at the Piggly Wiggly stands out in my mind as a halcyon moment before the storm hit, a moment when everything clicked together perfectly, and I could only take it for granted because I had no idea how fragile it really was.
There must have been grumpy complaints from aggravated customers, workers who shirked their list of chores, and all manner of human behaviour at our Piggly Wiggly. But it lives in my memory as a safe place with friendly people who got the job done each day and didn’t mind a little laughter to help the time go by faster. Maybe I’ve long since forgotten the hardships of working there. Or maybe I was too young and naïve to understand the gritty side to life at the Pig. Or maybe it really was a quaint place that created a beautiful moment of human connectedness, one that did not last. But they never do.
Dedicated to Ryan, James, Joe, Willie, and Mr. Crummy.
Lindsey R. Swindall has a doctorate in African American Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has written several books in that field including The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World and The Politics of Paul Robeson's Othello. Her writing has also been published in James Baldwin Review, The Volunteer, New Jersey Studies, Lunch Ticket and The MacGuffin. Working with actor Grant Cooper, Swindall created a dramatic program on the life of Paul Robeson based on her biography of him. They have presented this program to schools, colleges and community groups. More information about this program is available at winfieldartists.com.