Sunday afternoon downtown, listening to sappy languid music, looking out the window at the old Federal building. For the boomers, I believe, it was a house of dread, since that’s where the draft board was located during ‘Nam. For crooks it was that place they never thought twice about until they got caught, in which case it assumed a large and all-consuming role. This used to be a busy part of town, back when the train station next door was actually a train station instead of an ice rink / hotel. Across the street, bars and shops and cafes; by
the time the 40s rolled around it was skid row; when the area was new it looked nice on a spring day before the streets got torn up, the blueflies came out, and the flu began the yearly swing of the scythe. All relative, of course. I still would have loved to be here in the 20s and 30s; I can see the old Telephone Building out one window, and it’s not just that I like the building; I like the culture that could come up with something like that. Now behind it stands a dull wall of while marble from the SOM hack-factory of the 70s. The windows of the Telephone building move up; the windows of the Pillsbury building scuttle sideways. There’s a reason.

(Besides advances in construction technology.)

Wife and child off doing mom & daughter things; I will finish up here then go to the grocery store. (Alone. Our Sunday grocery store trips, which she once took uncomplainingly, are apparently a thing of the past, even though she enjoys it when I drag her along during the week. I make one big stop on Sunday to get everything I need, and still end up going every other day.) I drove around Northeast this afternoon taking pictures; the best will run above in the usual spot. (And there’s a site where I’ve posted somewhat larger versions, for reasons I cannot imagine other than vanity and self-delusion.) I stopped off at the convenience store where I used to work; it’s a dump. It was a dump then, but it was a special kind of dump, and it was our dump. I’ll give you two examples. We had a banana tree in the back corner by the phone. Everyone has forgotten about banana trees, but they were common in the 60s and 70s. (I worked at R & Js in the mid 80s, and I don’t recall it the banana tree was gone by then.) It was a cylinder about five feet high covered with brown crinkly plastic, topped with green plastic leaves, studded with hooks on which you, the stockboy, hung bunches of bananas. It turned all the way around, so you – as was your right as an American – could inspect the full range of banana options without moving. As a space-saver, it was a great idea; as grocery-store kitsch, it was delightful. Then one day you wake up and they’re all gone. No ordinary convenience store would have those. They’d have one banana in a basket by the door, the obligatory Warning Bowl of Fruit that reminds you to eat something now and then not made of ground-up pig sphincters, or dusted with finely granulated pig sphincters.

The other thing: we had a meat department. Mind you, the place had two aisles, and we still had our own meat department. The store had a big walk-in cooler devoted to beer and soda and milk, but it had one small cooler for things like hamburger and chops. We got the meat from the wholesaler, weighed it, put it in the plastic trays, wrapped it in plastic and pressed the plastic against the iron to seal it. Then we weighed it and added a label bearing the store’s name.

No ordinary convenience store would have such things today. They would have Slim Jims in two sizes, which seem to be “snack” and “whale penis,” and they would have bags of pemmican carved from beasts who were slaughtered in the time of the Pharoahs.

A man could walk into this place, nod hello to the clerk, select a bunch of bananas, get some hamburger, a six pack, a pack of Barclay cigarettes and a newspaper, and walk back across the street to his apartment without feeling as though he had just entered some sticky-floored machine whose entire purpose, and whose profit margins, revolved around the sale of sugary slush in flavors like “Totally Tropical.” I mean, what the hell does that mean? How did “tropical” become a flavor? It’s like asking the clerk to make your Slushee “slightly more equatorial.”

And we had matches, by God. Custom matches designed to fool the ru
bes, but I’ve told that story here before. No? Newcomer? Well, they printed the striker on the front. The real striker was on the back. So you’d see the rubes and newbies take a match and try to strike it on the ink. Haw haw! They were good matches, too – thick stems, quality paper. If you wanted to do the one-handed lighting trick, you couldn’t do better than a matchbook from R & J’s.


Ah well. The new owners ripped out everything, put a café in the main area, and moved the convenience store next door where “Positively 4th Street” used to be. It’s now named after a Middle Eastern soccer player, I think. They sell hookahs, too. Hookahs. We sold rolling paper, and that was it. You wanted a hookah, well . . . you went next door to the record store.

Jury duty let out on Thursday, much to everyone’s surprise. I spent the entire day sitting in a chair reading “I Am Charlotte Simmons” (short review, tendered with the assumption that we all know I have about as much right to criticize Tom Wolfe as George Galloway does to slag on Gandhi: the last fourth is very taxing, and the book sinks up to its hips in the interior lives of its characters. It gains momentum quickly and gets back on its feet, but it could have been 100 pages shorter. Halfway through the book I wanted it to be 100 pages longer) and waiting for the Dreaded Red Card to go up. We’d been told that three judges had definitely requested juries; by Thursday the pool had become so depleted they were calling up the reserves. Which meant that everyone in the room would go up. First call: I was not on the list. Second call: I was not on the list. Now we wait. I looked up at the monitor: Thirty-seven cases left on the day’s docket.

I looked up an hour later: five cases.

And then nothing! It’s all a game of chicken, and in the end someone always blinks; the defendant looks at the faces of the jury and thinks you know, I believe they’re serious about this whole trial thing. We were dismissed for the week, but I’m on call for this entire week, and it’s possible Friday afternoon I may be chosen for a jury that will take three weeks to finish. So this state of involuntary sucktitude continues until Friday noon, when I will be released for two years.

Which is why I’m sitting in a coffee house on a brilliant Sunday afternoon working. Getting things done ahead of time. Besides, weekends are when I start to work; for me, Friday is Saturday, and Saturday is really Sunday, with all the duty and ambivalent sense of relief-from-labors / rest-thy-sweating-brow stuff that Sunday means for some. Sunday is Monday, but since it’s really not, I get a great sense of accomplishment.

And now back to work. Sunday 'Fence is available if you haven't read it; new matchbook; Screedblog returns Wednesday, along with the weekly update.

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