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  • All Offers Are Valid Only While Supplies Last
  • Benjamin Stein (bio)

I am in line at the neighborhood grocery, behind a man in a winter coat and a grandmother who is built like a linebacker, or a fireman. The muscles in the old woman's shoulder flex imposingly as she gestures to the produce section, asking the cashier to check the price on radishes, because the advertised price was different from the one marked. The cashier, conscientious and customer-centric does not ring into any PA system, but needs only take the dozen or so steps to check the price, make a correction with a magic marker, and ring the old woman out. The man in line ahead of me is strikingly short; the top of his head comes up to my chest. And he has spectacular sideburns. Recognizing him, smiling, the cashier greets him by name. He is purchasing two shrink-wrapped half sandwiches—ham and cheese. I look at his gray jacket, his mustache, his eyebrows. The posture of every hair on his head and face has a windswept quality, as though he has been climbing mountains. He turns and glances down at my slippers, my pajamas. I am embarrassed. It is four o'clock in the afternoon.

As the man leaves and the cashier smiles at me and makes conversation, a papery, gray woman picks up her paycheck and is on her way out. She is wearing a red baseball cap with a comically squarish front and a nametag pinned to the side: LOIS, and underneath, SUBMARINE EXPERT. I imagine her in coveralls, wrench in hand, ducking through corridors in The Hunt for Red October. As she passes through the automatic sliding doors she unwraps a piece of hard candy and places it on the tip of her tongue. The cashier drops my loaf of bread into the bottom of a bag, hands me a penny and a receipt and tells me to have a good one.

On my way out I pass a woman who is holding her child up to press the buttons on a pay phone mounted to the wall across from the shopping carts. I've tried to use that phone, and I know that when the woman holds [End Page 128] it to her ear the receiver will be dead. No one's used the phone in months; it has been disconnected. And it occurs to me that the neighborhood grocery is going the way of the pay phone, the way of the freight train, the way, perhaps, in what I've heard referred to as a "post-literate" culture, of the printed page. That is, the neighborhood grocery is becoming obsolete. This one, across the street from my apartment, is diminutive, understocked, archaic compared to the colossus of the Wegmans just a couple of miles up the road.

I return the next day with a pencil and three plastic bags full of other plastic bags. I find Marcy, the manager, with whom I am conversant, even friendly, because she once had to help me get my driver's license and a twenty dollar bill out of the inner workings of a conveyor belt. I'd set them on it, and as the cashier scrolled the belt forward to pick up my six-pack of beer they fell inside. There is, she revealed to me, a small door on the side of the checkout conveyor belt that is built in for this reason. Marcy, I think, finds me sort of endearingly eccentric because I wander the aisles, bemused, sometimes two or three times in the same day, having forgotten to pick up a carton of eggs, or a bottle of olive oil. Also because, maybe once a month, I return all the plastic bags that accumulate in my apartment from my frequent trips to her store.

She smiles and says, "Another load of bags? So that's where they all went!" I smile to myself, tell myself I am well liked here. I decide to tell Marcy of the piece I'm writing about the sad, slow, dwindling relevance of the neighborhood grocery. She is attentive but seems disengaged. I am approaching...


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pp. 128-135
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