Thoughts on Efficiency

Perhaps I’m lazy, but I like to find the most efficient way to do a thing.

Did you ever listen to Car Talk ? I used to listen every Saturday morning as a teenager. There was one caller that had a question about a car problem and a possible solution. It turned out, that the proposed solution would indeed work but, as Ray said, “It wouldn’t be the cowboy way.” I still laugh about this from time to time, especially when I see someone doing something inefficiently.

Perhaps I’m lazy, but I like to find the most efficient way to do a thing. This, I believe, is a learned trait. I learned it in a roundabout way while working for hire as a second grader. We would do anything from landscaping and construction clean up, to farm work where I learned how to drive. Pop, or his business partner Marion, would give specific instructions about a task-often the grunt work in a larger process-and expect us-Zach and I- to do exactly what they told us, precisely how we were shown, while rarely-if ever-explaining the whole system.

We didn’t complain, after all they hired us to do the simple work, not to understand the whole process. “You get paid from the neck down.” Marion would remind us if we ever “had an idea”. This labor without understanding is the basest type of working. All you need to do is show up and breath. I’m not throwing off on this kind of work, it’s necessary. I also think it is important to learn how to follow instructions. Maybe you know a coworker that has never really learned how to meet the most basic of requirements.

After working at this level for a while you begin to ask yourself questions. Why am I doing this? The first answer is money. I’m working for money. That is usually a good enough answer to keep most people working, until you ask yourself, Why am I doing this this way? This is when you start thinking about efficiency. You’ll start wanting to understand how the whole system works instead of just your task.

From here a stream of questions will begin to flow rapidly, How does this all work? Can it work better? What is important? Are we wasting time doing things that do not matter? How can we streamline this?

I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m pretty sure this is another level of working, understanding the whole process. And making that process or system more efficient is another level I’m sure.

“There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Navy way.”

Everyone I ever met who served in the US Navy

If there has been one thing I’ve learned as an adult in the work force it has been, not everyone wants things to be more efficient and there is always resistance to change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ve often heard this response when someone would rather stick with an inefficient process than take the time to learn a more efficient way. Let me be clear, efficiency is not the same as cutting corners.

I remember my Dad dealing with a situation like this when he managed a machine shop. He met resistance while introducing a more efficient system, particularly from one man who had been working there for quite a while. My Dad had a unique way with people.

“What is the best vehicle ever made?” Dad asked the belligerent man.

Without hesitation the man said ” The 1956 Chevrolet pickup truck.

“What did you drive to work this morning?” Dad asked the man.

“A 96′ Chevrolet pickup truck.”

“Why didn’t you drive the 1956 Chevy truck?”

“Well the 1956 gets real bad gas mileage, and the ’96 can has a much larger towing capacity…” He rattled on like car people do until he realized that Dad was making a point about the new process.

A big part of my current job is helping people use the internet. Occasionally someone will walk into the office and smart off to me about not having a computer.

“I ain’t got one and ain’t ever planning to have one. Don’t need one.” It’s a point of pride to them. Well you needed one today or you wouldn’t be here, I think to myself.

“Yeah, I’m sure there were a lot of people that kept on riding horses after the automobile was invented.” This has become my stock response to the nastiest of these customers.

There is a slight part of me that admires someone who can live free of the internet, but on the other hand, we are twenty years into the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, these people are being left behind. I think the key to not being left behind is to remain a student for life.

I understand that some things are unchangeable and cannot be improved upon. In general though, I’m for making a task easier, simpler, and more efficient.

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Sorghum Syrup

My brother has asked me to write about the time we made sorghum syrup.

“I wasn’t there.” I told him.

“Yes you were,” He said, a little hurt.

“I know that I wasn’t there Zach.”

“You were too! You helped me load the cane in the mill. That mule almost kicked you in the head. We drank the juice straight from the tap.”

“That was you and someone else.”

“You was there Zane! We went with Pop. Twice!”

I wasn’t there, but I don’t think that discredits me from being able to take you there. After all, Mark wasn’t there and we count his book as Gospel. This is not a work of fiction, although I was not a firsthand witness. Either that or it was such a bad experience that I’ve suppressed it in my memory.

Most of the time when Pop picked us boys up we were going to work. There were a few occasions where Pop picked us up for an event that maybe he found entertaining, like a parade, or making syrup. No matter what mask of entertainment these activities donned, Zach and I had been around enough to see through the thin disguise and identify work. Alas, we hadn’t much say in the matter. So when Pop picked us up to make Sorghum Syrup, we were not under the illusion that we were going to merely observe the process of making syrup. We were going to be very much involved in that process.

Sorghum is a naturally growing plant in the South. If you cultivate enough of it, you can make sorghum syrup. I think it yields about three gallons to the acre. Sorghum syrup is a very thick and dark syrup with an acquired taste. There is a process for getting the syrup from the plants. First you need to gather the plants, or cane. Then you put the whole cane into a mill, which presses out the juice. You cook the juice which gives you syrup. As long as the syrup doesn’t burn, you can mix it with equal parts butter and put it on your biscuits and it’s delicious. Well I think it’s delicious, but I also eat Lengua and Cabeza at the Taco Truck. Zach thought it tasted like burnt motor oil.

The process sounds pretty straightforward, until you find out that you have to manually load the cane, or even worse be the mill engine. Fortunately, someone had already gathered the stalks into a trailer. All we had to do was feed it to the mill. Do you remember in Sunday School when you learned about the blinded Samson grinding at the mill? That’s what Zach had to do. At first there was a mule hitched to the mill walking in circles, but it almost kicked Zach’s brains out while he was feeding cane to the mill. In the end Zach ended up walking in circles to power the mill like a medieval serf. They did let him drink some of the pure sweet juice that was running out of a tap on the side of the mill.

This juice flowed through an open channel over a heated metal plate a few yards long. By the time it made it to the end of the line it was sufficiently cooked enough to be canned. They used what looked like old coffee cans to package the syrup. I’m sure it was great fun to Pop and all the old men that were sitting around at the end of the line talking and laughing while Zach worked like a borrowed mule. At the end of the day Zach was exhausted and grimy with sweat and dust after doing the work of a mule. As a token of their gratitude, the old men in charge gave him a can of syrup. I think I ate most of that syrup, but I know that I wasn’t there.

The Liar’s Bench

Does your local gas station have a bench out front?

Back when I was in the hay and fence building business with Pop, we would often stop for fuel and refreshments at Watson’s Grocery in Vandiver. There were a couple of good reasons for that. First, the base of operations, or “Barn”, was located half a mile from the store. Second, and perhaps more important, Watson’s Grocery was the only store in town.

We often frequented the store at the crack of dawn when working men filled trucks with diesel and filled cups with black coffee, and while old retired men sat on a bench outside to fill everyone’s ears with their good natured banter. My Dad told me that was called the Liar’s Bench. He said it in an official way, as if it were an elected office.

Anyone could sit on the bench, but not everyone could operate from the office of the bench. Similar to how having your picture taken sitting in your congressman’s big leather desk chair does not give you authority to lower taxes. In order to fill the office of Liar’s Bench, and not merely occupy a seat in front of a gas station, I believe that there were a set of unwritten requirements. It seemed like you needed to be an old man. You had more credibility (if indeed there was any credibility on the Liar’s Bench) if you were retired. It also didn’t hurt to have a nickname, like Jitter, or Buddy. If you couldn’t swing a nickname, an informal prefix like “Big” would do.

You also had duties, you couldn’t just sit and not talk. You had to be willing to engage every person you saw come to the store with a chiding remark about getting a late start or something like that, but not in a mean manner. You had to have a laugh rate of at least 90%. If the customers were clearly out of towners, it was ok to just nod your head at them. When people came out of the store you had to engage them again, this time with a heartfelt inquiry about their family, like “How’s ye mom’n’em?” This is when you found out who was in the hospital, who got fired, who got arrested, who had a heart attack and important things like that.

Above all, you had to be an entertaining talker to occupy a place on the bench. Some of the best hunting and fishing lies were told there along with ancient jokes. Every once in a while you meet people that can read the phone book in an entertaining way. Such were the men of the bench. As Jerry Clower said, “They didn’t tell funny stories, they told stories funny.” I found myself grinning and chuckling just overhearing these men talk.

I think they became great talkers because they didn’t sit on the bench to seek solitude, they sat on the bench because they wanted to talk to someone. Perhaps it was loneliness that got those old men up at the crack of dawn to sit in front of a convenience store and stare like puppies at the work trucks pulling in to fill up. They’d brag about being retired when they saw the weary looks of the working men on Mondays, but I think there was something in them that wished they could pile in the truck and go to work. Just like there was something in those working men that wished that could sit on the bench and waste the day away.

These worlds met briefly each morning and communed together at the Liar’s Bench. It was the Roman Forum of the community. A place where the local news and gossip were disseminated. I strongly doubt there were many original ideas, or great breakthroughs in ingenuity ever developed on the bench. But you might get a different answer if you drive out to Vandiver and ask one of the men who currently hold down a seat on the Liar’s Bench.

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Enduring Country Music

I grew up listening to a lot of country music, not because it was my first choice, but because my brother was an autocratic DJ. Although there are a few country songs and even country artists that I enjoy, for the most part, I endure country music. I endure it because I have been constantly subjected to it over the years. Being subjected to any type of music breeds a disdain for it. At my current job I am subjected to not just country, but modern country music, a term as oxymoronic as honest politician or men’s lotion. I could endure the modern country station with a little more patience, but I haven’t heard a single Merle Haggard song, not one!

What makes Country music enduring is tradition. These modern country lyrics are shallow. The content is overtly sexual, objectify women, and smacks of immorality, rebellion, arrogance, ignorance, and alcohol. I miss the days when country music lyrics were about Jesus. And America. And being rebellious, and cheating on your wife, and alcohol, and racism, and…well the music was better anyway.

Country music has always been most popular with working class Americans because the lyrics were so very relatable and emotional. Country musicians were bards who entertained in the local beer joints, singing to men and women who were often stuck in a socioeconomic situation with no hope of a way up or out. These songs gave them escape and release. These songs were ballads which told stories which connected with the very real struggles that working Americans were living out in their daily lives. It also appealed to their aspirations, traditions, and desires. Country Music gave a voice to many Americans.

With todays changing society, much of the culture of the American working class is rapidly becoming outdated, and in some cases taboo. People don’t farm like they did in post depression and World War II generations. There is a massive urban and suburban migration, and many dying small towns. It’s not as socially acceptable or politically correct to sing lyrics like, “Be proud you a rebel cause the South’s gonna do it again.” Today’s country musicians are aware of this and so a new image of the country musician is being forced upon one of the most loyal fanbases in the music industry. There has been a shift from singing about real social and economic issues heard in songs like, Working Man’s Blues, and Sixteen Tons, to shallower generic lyrics about girls, trucks, and having a bad attitude. In essence, modern country has long since abandoned the Southern culture and is trying to appeal to a wider audience, hence the hip hop influence and rapping. Of course there is still love to sing about, but the newer country songs push the limits of vulgarity that were set by rock and roll bands of the 70’s and 80’s.

It’s often the case that great oppression brings great hope. Although I am daily oppressed (and depressed) by modern country music, now more than ever I feel like I may have what it takes to be a professional songwriter. I think there’s probably good money to be made by writing a few tunes and letting one of these modern country guys record one of my songs. Since many establishments insist on playing modern country music, I think I could retire early. I’d like to share a few lyrics in the style of modern country that I’ve been sitting on for a while.

I got a Ford truck I painted primer gray

I’m going to go fishing when I get off work today

Little girl you ought to come with me

Maybe we can drink a little whiskey

I might look just like all these other country guys

But I’m different let me tell you why

(right here there needs to be a musical cut, then the band comes in full with chorus)

I’m a real country boy

I love Jesus, but sometimes I cuss

I ain’t into drama, don’t like to fuss

I play guitar, but I listen to rap

Got a fake accent…

Never mind. I’m fixing to go listen to some choir music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Faulty Equipment

“Y’all boys are rough on equipment.” That’s what Mr. LaDuke said after my cousin Kent had broken three ax handles, a weed-eater and wrecked a moped. I guess we were pretty rough on equipment, that’s why half the every day tools and gear that we used in the hay field were broken to some degree. Pop was forever adjusting the square baler, which was always shearing pins, whatever that means. Most of the trailer jacks were bent. The old Ford truck had a tricky clutch that I never could get to cooperate. For every piece of faulty equipment, there would be a new oral operating manual that must be followed in order to get that particular item into proper working condition. These instructions were far from intuitive, and in some cases nothing close to the original manual, but I guess it was cheaper than replacement.

This rings true for every other place that I’ve worked over the past twenty years. The copier at one job requires you to jiggle drawer A before you can print. The computer at another place requires a restart before you can use the audio. The espresso machine at another place requires additional warm up time. There are always locks that require an odd key angle and a prayer. And vehicles that require you rev the engine to keep from overheating at a stoplight. I’m sure you’re thinking of a piece of equipment at work that you’d like to hit with a sledge hammer.

Probably the most dangerous faulty equipment that I have worked with were vehicles that required you to start them by bypassing the solenoid. I’m not dead certain what that even means, or why we had to do it, but basically, instead of cranking the engine with a key, like a normal person, you lay a screwdriver across the positive battery terminal and the negative terminal into the solenoid. This bypasses the solenoid relay switch and starts the car. Oh, and the key needs to be in the on positing in your ignition. 70% of the time it works 100% of the time.

This process is pretty simple on a lawnmower. Sometimes you see sparks fly off, but that’s part of the fun. If you have long arms and longer screwdriver, you don’t even have to get out of the seat of a zero turn to start it with this method. It’s a little bit trickier when you’re doing it on a truck. At one particular job, there was an old Ford Bronco that required this staring method. We were in downtown Winchester, VA getting a new lawn mower tire installed when my boss, Shawn, first showed me how to jump start the solenoid to start the truck.

I was so proud of myself when it fired right up and I got ready to back out into the street, with my lawn mowers on the trailer behind me. As soon as I put the Bronco in reverse, the engine stalled. I had to pop the hood, crawl out of the vehicle, and jump the solenoid with a pair of pliers. It fired right up this time. In reverse. The Bronco began backing out into the busy street. Panicking, I flung the pliers down and raced to catch the runaway vehicle. Fortunately I had left the door open and only had to run about twenty feet before I jumped into the moving vehicle. Once I got into the drivers seat and got the truck stopped I started breathing again. I was going to play it cool and just keep driving, but as I put the vehicle into gear I realized that the hood was still popped. I’m sure the people in the tire shop got a good laugh seeing me scramble so. I’d have laughed too. A couple of years later that Bronco burnt to the ground in a Wal Mart parking lot.

Equipment tends to wear out with normal use. But sometimes it gets help from clumsy employees, abuse and misuse. I can hear Mother’s everywhere saying, “This is why we can’t have nothing nice!”

Your New Pickup Truck

Congratulations on the purchase of your new pickup truck!

Congratulations on the purchase of your new pickup truck! You’ll realize how many friends you didn’t know you had once they start asking you to borrow it. Now that you have a man’s vehicle, you’ll be asked to do manly jobs like hauling mulch for your great aunt, or hauling manure for your Dad’s garden, or helping your coworker pick up a couch that they found on Craigslist. You’ll pick up lawn mowers, haul away trash from your friends bathroom renovation, and help family members move into a new home. Before you know it you’ll have people that have come to depend on you. Or maybe they’re just depending on your truck.

I have always loved pick up trucks, the most masculine of vehicles. I wouldn’t want to try to haul fifteen sheets of plywood in a fancy convertible sports car, no matter how fast it could go. Growing up, I remember all the men having pickup trucks, cars were for rich men. And women. That’s only partially true, rich men could afford new trucks.

Some of my fondest childhood memories come from riding in pickup trucks. When Saturday rolled around, my Dad, my brother and I would pile into Dad’s red Mazda pickup and go “rambling”. Like fishing, rambling always involved stopping at the BP, or Smith’s Grocery to get a bag of chips or a candy bar, and a coke. Zach would get a Dr. Pepper, Dad would get a Pepsi, and I would get a Grapico, or a Mt. Dew. Once we had the proper snack, we’d turn on the radio and listen to British Invasion bands, Motown, or the Braves baseball game as we drove no where in particular. We might find ourselves at the Logan Martin Dam watching the water churn while it’s force generated electricity. Or we might find ourselves visiting a distant relative, or people with odd nicknames like Big Apple and Caveman. We weren’t really concerned with where were going, as long as we were going together. I was always impressed with Dad’s driving skills. Shifting gears seemed like an impossible task to a four year old, but Dad did it without thinking. He would even hold the steering wheel steady with just his thumbs as we zipped through the winding roads of highway 25, which impressed me as much as if he could have played the steel guitar with his teeth.

My brother bought his first truck from my Great Uncle Johnny Wells. It was a golden brown 1982 Chevrolet S-10. I think it had about 380,000 miles on it, but I might be mistaken. It drove like it did anyway. Zach had the hardest time getting it to start. I always had to give him a push so he could pop the clutch. I think I must have pushed it about thirty miles during the time he had it. We probably pushed it more than we drove it. It leaked oil pretty bad too. After about a case of 70 weight oil, Zach ended up returning it to Uncle Johnny, because he could never get the blasted thing started. Uncle Johnny fired it right up and drove off like it was nothing. They were old friends, Uncle Johnny and that truck. He had learned to drive on trucks without power steering and that you had to double clutch, so driving that old S-10 was a breeze.

My cousin Kent’s first truck was an old Ford F100. It was primer blue and rust, but you didn’t have to pop the clutch. J.L. Parker offered to buy that truck once. “I’ll give you $100 for it if you’ll put a new tire on it and fill it up with gas.” I don’t know why Kent didn’t sell it on the spot.

Somehow or another, Bro. Darryl Freeman sold our church youth department a large storage unit full of merchandise from a wrecked tractor trailer. There were free weights, toys, household items, electronics, cell phone accessories, and basically just about anything useless that you could imagine. The idea was to have a massive yard sale to raise money for Sheaves For Christ, the annual fund raiser for Youth Department of the United Pentecostal Church. Kent and I were tasked with hauling all of that junk from Birmingham to Vincent, a good forty five minute drive. We did that for about a week or so that summer. Sometimes we took Jacob Wray with us, the more the merrier. On the way back one day from picking up a load, I was holding a bottle out of the window and letting it whistle. We were laughing like that was the funniest thing in the world. Things were funnier before smart phones. While we were laughing Kent bent down get something out of the floor and the truck veered off the road. I barely had enough time to get my arm in the window before Kent obliterated a mailbox with my humerus. I had glass in my arm from the rear view mirror and huge bruise from the mailbox. Fortunately I didn’t break any bones. The worst part about the whole deal was I had to get a tetanus shot.

I still drive a pick up truck today, and a manual at that. I love to listen to the engine rev, letting me know when to shift gears as I accelerate. I don’t mind people depending on my truck either, that’s part of the reason I got one in the first place. It feels good to be able to help people. And whenever Saturday rolls around, I pile Wes into my truck and we go rambling.

The Store

One of the largest enterprises in my hometown, especially after the cotton gin shut down when I was in the third grade, was Smith & Sons Associated Groceries. Smith’s for short and “Smiss” if you talked like a local. Smith’s was where you went to shop for groceries if you didn’t want to drive twelve miles to Chelsea, or ten miles to Childersburg, in order to shop at those fancy grocery stores like Food World, Winn-Dixie, and Piggly-Wiggly. Smith’s was a small grocery store that had endured an expansion sometime before I was born. You could still see where the wall was knocked out to add four more aisles. Let me take you on a quick tour of the store.

The parking lot was small, only ten spaces directly in front of the door. If you weren’t lucky enough to get one of these, you had to park in the overflow parking by the ancient warehouse, where there were another ten or twelve spaces. There was only one entrance to Smith’s, a single set of electric doors. I remember them being brand new when I was a kid. These doors let the freezing outside air rush in during the winter. Immediately through the door on the right was the Blue Bell ice cream freezer. The other brands of ice cream started to show up the further you got from the door, but that’s not important. To the left there was the magazine stand. When you were standing in the entrance, you could see all the way back to the milk case on the last aisle. If you walked to the milk, you would pass all nine aisles on your left. This is what you would find in the store, if it was still open and I was still working there and you needed to know where to find something.

Aisle 1: Frozen dinners, pizzas, cool whip, cheap ice cream, and the repackaged frozen biscuits. All the taco seasonings were on a display at the end of this aisle right before you entered the meat room. On the other side of the aisle was where you would find all the cookies and junk food, and my personal favorite Keebler Danish Wedding Cookies.

Aisle 2: This aisle was capped on the meat case side opposite on the entrance side, that’s were all the Pop-Tarts were. Medicine, band aids, and stuff like that were found in the actual aisle. Aisle two was shortened because this was also were the cash registers were.

Aisle 3: Cereal was on the short side of this aisle. Coffee, the coffee grinder, and tea were on one end of the aisle. As you came toward the cash register it morphed into the fishing food; potted meat, Vienna Sausages, pork and beans, sardines, and tuna.

Aisle 4: Flour, sugar, rice, dry beans, packaged dinners.

Aisle 5: Barbecue sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, Jello, pickles.

Aisles 5 and 6 were separated by a big wall.

Aisle 6: Toilet Paper, garbage bags, Ziploc bags, Baby food.

Aisle 7: Soap, cleaners, mouse traps.

Aisle 8: Dog and cat food, salt licks, feed.

Aisle 9: Bread & chips. On the back wall was where the milk, individual soft drinks, and beer. You had to open the door and walk in the cooler to get your eggs off of a rolling cart. There was a cardboard sign saying as much for first time visitors.

On the perimeter of the store there was a makeshift office built so as to see the entire original store, you had to go up a few stairs to get into the office. All along the right wall as you entered were the soft drinks. Once you passed the egg door along the back wall you came to an open cooler where you would find sour cream, cheese, canned whip cream, sausage, bacon, lunch meat, and the occasional fruit cake. Once you got to the next wall, you would find a stand up cooler where the pork brains, chitterlings, and beef and pork liver were found. That case also had chicken gizzards and livers. Next you came to the fruit and mushrooms. You would pass the pudding display as you walked back into the original part of the store. There was an entrance into the stockroom here, from the entrance to the front wall was the meat case. Not only did Smith’s have pretty good meat, they had a wide selection of meat. There were steaks, pig ears, chicken feet, beef tongue, pig tails, ground beef, hog maws, pig feet, chicken wings, souse meat, and even turkey necks. Not to mention the Boston butts, chicken wings, and pork ribs.

Smith’s was the first job I had that I had to pay taxes. I had been working nearly since I started elementary school and I didn’t like this paycheck robbery. It’s hard to report your earnings when you’re breaking all the child labor laws. I was preceded in my office as stock boy at Smith’s by my elder brother Zach Wells and friend Creed McDaniel. I used to walk to the store and bug them while they were working. When Zach graduated I had to wait a year or so before I was old enough to get hired.

Working in the air conditioning and even the cooler, was a big departure from hauling hay. My duties were fairly light too. The main thing I had to do was keep the milk and meat stocked, and sweep the store every night. I had other duties like hauling the empty milk crates to the big stack out by the warehouse, retrieving the buggies, cleaning the parking lot with a blower, filling propane, mopping, waxing the floor, buffing the floor, and stocking shelves.

I really enjoyed stocking the milk. For starters it was in the walk in cooler, which was a wonderful place to be in an Alabama August. While you were stocking the milk, you could see all the way to the front door and know who was coming. You could mess with people you knew when they open the door to get a gallon of milk. One time Creed and Zach were stocking the milk together and singing I Don’t Want To Close My Eyes, by Aerosmith. Some lady opened the cooler door and said, “Well keep ‘em open sugar!”  It was fun being back there, it was like a hideout. I also enjoyed jumping in the box dumpster to pack it down. The box dumpster was acquired after the EPA found out that Smith’s was burning boxes in the ditch behind the store. I never got the joy of burning boxes, but being able to jump in the box dumpster is consolation enough. I even enjoyed breaking down boxes, but the thing I enjoyed the most about working at this tiny grocery store in the middle of nowhere was talking to the regulars.

This strange variety of meat that I mentioned reflected the wide variety of clientele that Smith’s enjoyed. Nearly everyone in town came to Smith’s. There was Uncle Bill, who came in just about every day, not so much to shop, but to set down on a couple a milk crates and talk to cashiers, Mr. Newt, Mrs. Shirley Smith, and Mrs. Marie, who was Newt’s wife. Uncle Bill, was not my uncle, that’s just what everyone called him. People get nicknames that stick in small towns. Some of the regulars had names like Rubber Duck, Screwdriver, Peanut, Bargain Town, Uncle Wallace, and Studebaker. Uncle Bill called me Superman. I would like to think I got this nickname because of my bulging biceps, but more than likely it was my dark hair and thick glasses. Once as I was sacking Uncle Bill’s groceries, he admonished me to “Be careful with my cacklefruits there Superman.” He was talking about his eggs. I could spend a lifetime telling you about the regulars that came into the store. Uncle Wallace would always ask, “How you doing?”

“Pretty good”, I’d reply.

“Pooty good hard to beat.” He would say.

When you go to the grocery store, you share common ground with all of the rest of humanity in that we all have to eat. When someone came into the store, you didn’t really think about people’s political preferences, their ethnic background, or their lifestyle. I enjoyed getting to know so many people from different back grounds in our little town. For the most part, people were friendly, even if they were peculiar. One lady didn’t want us to bruise her coffee while we sacked her groceries.

If you were a customer at Smith’s, you were like family. When we asked about your family, we meant it, we weren’t just making small talk. I say we, because I worked there long enough to get to know the regulars, and had lived in the town all my life and knew everyone anyway. It did not occur to me how open and friendly we were with the customers, until I moved away and had to start doing my own grocery shopping. You don’t see this kind of relationship with the customers as much in larger grocery stores, no matter how organic the cheese and vegetables are. The grocery store was able to bridge the generation gap between me and the rest of the staff, who were old enough to be my grandparents, and these people became very dear to me. My mom used to bring us all supper, most of the time beans and cornbread, or Mexican Cornbread, which is cornbread with onions, cheese, peppers, corn and sausage mixed in. If I learned anything from working at Smith’s, it’s that food brings people together, especially at work.

Mr. Smith, who founded the store, died before I was old enough to get to work with him, but I remember him well. He wore a fedora style hat and had really thick glasses. He worked in the store until he passed away. He would just sack the groceries with his wife, Mrs. Shirley Smith. Mr. Smith had lost an eye and had a sticker with a picture of an eye that stuck to his glasses. I don’t know how old he was, but my great uncle James remembered him being old when he was a young boy. When Uncle James was a little boy, Mr. Smith asked him and his brother, “You boys been slumbering on the bed?” They looked at each other and then shook their heads to Mr. Smith. Once they were in the car, one of them asked, “How did he know that we wet the bed?” By the time I came along Mr. Smith was just working because he loved people, because he was long passed retirement age. I guess when you do what you love for a living, it’s not much like work. Mrs. Shirley Smith had a distinctive laugh and she was always laughing, calling everyone “Hun.” She smoked those big long super 120 cigarettes. She was quite a joker too. Once she told Kim, Marie and Newt’s daughter, to go warm the toilet seat up for her. Kim waited a long time until she realized that Mrs. Smith was kidding.

The person that I worked most closely with was Ray. Ray had been a mechanic and truck driver in the Marines during Vietnam.  After he got out of the service he was a truck driver until he had a near fatal accident that left him with a broken back. After numerous surgeries, rods, pins and screws, Ray was able to walk again, albeit very much hunched over forward and to the left. He looked a bit like Merle Haggard to me. Ray was not my supervisor as much as he would have liked to think he was, but he did schedule the major evening tasks like mopping, bleaching the concrete floor in the stock room, buffing the floor and weed eating the back lot. I witnessed Ray bust the passenger window of his truck with a rock slung out by the weed eater. I was glad that he was showing me how to run a weed eater, as if I had never done that, when this happened. Ray kind of mumbled when he spoke and said some words a little different.  He couldn’t say rinse, instead he’d say, “I’ll mop and you wrench.” He struggle with pronouncing propane too, “Let’s go fill ‘ease profane tanks up.”

One of other tasks was to stuff frozen biscuits into Ziploc bags. We’d each set on a milk crate, open a huge box of biscuits and repackage the biscuits. You could put two stacks on four biscuits in the bag, two biscuits sides between the stakes and one more at the top. It was all you could do to get that last one in and zip the bag. These biscuits were a hot seller in the store and another one of the things that I was specifically tasked with keeping stocked. Ray and I would talk as we sat there in our gloved hands, for those of you who were worried, and stuffed biscuits, but Ray usually had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, sorry about that folks if your flour ever smelled like a cigarette smoke. It was during this sessions that I learned about Ray’s military service, the truck accident, Ray’s favorite things, how good Ray could cook, and various feats of might and prowess that he had accomplished and endured during his life. I mostly listened. Ray once told me about a television preacher back in the day that had got caught. “With a woman?”  I asked. “Naw. They caught with them pornogitty books.” Ray would sometime chide me about going out and partying, mainly because he knew that I didn’t. “Why don’t you get you a case of them Corollas and got out on the town?”

We could spot a first time visitor a mile off, even before they started looking for the eggs. They just had a lost look about them. Once we had a guy move to Vincent from California, I’m not sure how he found us. He was in my English class. As I was sweeping the floor one night before closing he came up to me and asked, “Where are the bagels.”

I stopped sweeping and leaned on the broom handle raising my hand getting ready to point him in the right direction. I thought for a minute, and drew a blank.

“What’s a bagel?” I asked in sincerity.

He stared back at me and fumbled to explain what a bagel was. “It’s a round bread thing that you eat for breakfast. They weren’t on the bread aisle.”

I took him to the bread aisle, still puzzling over what a bagel might look like. There were no bagels on the bread aisle.

“It’s probably over there by the frozen biscuits.” I said triumphantly, wondering why I didn’t think of that first. I lead him to the opposite side of the store. But it was no use, there were no bagels in sight. Mrs. Shirley didn’t know what a bagel was either. After I found out what a bagel was and tasted it, I realized why we didn’t have them in stock. I wonder why I didn’t just try to sell him some biscuits.

One day I remember walking into Smith’s to begin my shift only to find out that the power was out. I remember staring at the rat’s nest of wiring in the panel box and wondering why the building hadn’t burned down twenty years ago. I walked back home, there wasn’t much that I could do.

I must confess that when it comes to the state religion of Alabama, I am apostate. I understand the doctrine and can even explain it to others, but I’ve never been much of a believer, but for most of the population of Alabama, and especially the inhabitants of our little town, the rites of football were kept reverently and faithfully. Community support for the local high school football was so strong that on the Friday night home games, you could have shut down the store two hours early and no one would have noticed. Even worse was the Iron Bowl, the annual face-off between Auburn and Alabama. On Iron Bowl night, the store might as well have been closed, because everyone was at home watching the football game. I remember the cashiers blaring the radio broadcast as Eli Gold called the game. The state of Alabama shuts down during the Iron Bowl, it’s the perfect time to travel since the roads are clear. When I moved out of state I was confused at first to learn that people are actually interested in pro football. I guess that’s what happens when you have pitiful college teams.

The last time I went home, Smith’s had been sold and the name was changed. I walked in and all the people looked unfamiliar. I’m sure the change was gradual to the people who lived through it, but it was drastic when you weren’t really expecting it. Since then the store has closed it’s doors and a Dollar General has opened up not far down the street.  Although many of the staff and regulars have passed away, they live on in my memory every time I go shopping at my local fancy, but characterless grocery store.