Paper Or Plastic

I had a dream the other day that I was back in the old Owens grocery story on Market St in my hometown. This was the store my family shopped at for all of our groceries growing up. From the time when I could fit underneath the cart where you typically put bags of softener salt and cases of Miller Lite, to when I’d hang in the small magazine nook catching up on all the garbage spandex rockers in Metal Edge and Circus that I listened to as a teen, Owens was the place we foraged for sustenance.

I find it strange that in dreams all these memories come rolling back, and in such stark detail. I can’t tell you a damn thing I learned in Algebra, Geometry, or Ancient World History, but I still have the layout of my childhood home, long lost five and dimes we’d haunt, and toy commercials all stored safe and sound up in my middle-aged brain. Obscure Saturday morning cartoons, the first time I heard “Dear Prudence”, and hanging out at my uncle’s house at 5-years old? Got it. The Red Badge Of Courage my junior year, geometrical postulates and theorums, and anything positive I learned in summer Bible School that I attended maybe three summers? Nope. Nothing.

Not my mom and I.

That dream about Owens grocery store got me thinking about grocery stores in general. You’d think that big conglomorate box stores rolling into town would add a certain amount of variety to the shopping experience. And while meandering for a can of diced tomatoes and a bag of tortilla chips in Meijer can be a bit of a decent time waster(“while I’m here I might as well buy a pack of Hanes boxer/briefs, some slip-on Skechers, and the third season of Community“), I feel we lack in the variety dept. Besides Meijer, there’s Walmart, a Kroger, and an Aldi. Growing up in the 80s our town had two Owens locations(the original on Market St, as well as the “new” Owens on Center St), we had a small Kroger on Center St, a Marsh on Market St, and a Woodies Market on Lake St. There was a Jones’ Food Center in nearby Leesburg where we’d get most of our meat after Yoder’s Butcher Shop closed in town.

So sure, you trade 6 stores for four and you can get everything under one roof. You trade small town variety for global access all under one roof. Yeah, that’s great I guess. But every one of those big box corporate behemoths all pretty much feel exactly the same as the other. The experience is always overwhelming, sensory overload, and most of the employees all seem pretty much the same with the exception of different colored shirts. That’s not a knock on folks working there, it’s just how those corporations want it to be. The ceilings are high like warehouses and the square footage is that of a football field. You feel like a mouse in a maze.

With the small town groceries you had personality, and you picked the one you vibed with the most. My family vibed with Owens, but all of those small groceries had something to offer. You got to know the carryout people, the ladies at the cash registers(with the exception of Gerald at Owens, most of the cash registers were ran by women) and the folks behind the deli counter. The teens that bagged your groceries didn’t have uniforms, but wore nice button up shirts and a name tag. Maybe a smock if they were high on the bag boy food chain. The bakeries actually had bakers working in them. Things weren’t frozen and then thawed. You order a birthday cake it was made to order. Same with loaves of bread and cookies. Owens had an older fella(his name eludes me) that came in at 3am every day and started making breads, rolls, cookies, and cakes.

While we were exclusively an Owens household, we did occasionally stop in at Marsh on Market St when Owens was out of our favorite ice cream, Burger Dairy’s Peanut Butter Cup Chocolate Ice Cream. It was this decadent chocolate ice cream with chunks of peanut butter in it. It was an acquired taste, but our family loved it(Speaking of Burger Dairy, another blast from the past.) We’d also stop in at Woodies Markert on Lake St if we were out on the west side of town and needed one or two items. We didn’t go there often, but in emergency situations. Kroger I don’t ever remember going to. Not sure why.

As the years rolled on Marsh would buy land where Murphy’s Medical Center sat on the corner of Winona Ave and Buffalo St and they’d build a much larger, elaborate grocery. Woodies Market would go out of business and the building turned into an arcade/fun zone where kids would have their birthday parties and parents would buy overpriced, lousy pizza. Walmart opened in the early-to-mid 90s, eventually building a supercenter in the early 2000s and would begin the process of bleeding the local groceries dry. Owens would be bought out by Kroger. Despite being a Kroger the name Owens remained on the two locations for years, until it wasn’t. The original Owens location on Market St, my family’s Owens, closed its doors in 2019. By then it was a shell of what it used to be. After an initial renovation a couple decades ago the store sort of sat as the “black sheep” of the Kroger community and deteriorated in both cleanliness and quality.

“My” Owens. RIP

So I go back to my original thought of why do I keep these seemingly unimportant memories in my brain? Why can’t I remember long division and the fall of the Roman Empire, as opposed to what aisle I could find Twinkies and notebook paper at my childhood grocery store? Well, it’s a few things I guess.

First, I have many, many memories of going to Owens with my mom. I spent a lot of time going shopping with her as a kid. There were no grandparents or aunts and uncles close by where I could go hang while mom ran errands, so she had no choice but to bring me along. It was grocery shopping, paying bills, going to the women’s boutique while she shopped for clothes, going to the bank, or visiting with one of her friends. I was usually there with her. And honestly I didn’t mind. I liked going to town with mom. I especially liked going to Owens. The cart rides when I was little, then getting older and gawking at MAD Magazine and Metal Edge while she made the rounds. We’d hit the deli the day before New Year’s Eve and grab shaved turkey and roast beef for cold cut sandwiches as we watched the ball drop and play cards, my parents usually drinking some libations. We’d also grab pre-made sadwiches from the deli to take home for lunch in the summer. Either turkey, ham, or bolonga with lettuce, tomato, cheese, and this mystery yellow sauce that was slightly sweet. Probably a salad dressing of some sort, but I loved them nonetheless. And I could almost always count on mom buying us each a Three Musketeers. They were her favorite. While they weren’t mine I still enjoyed it, as it was chocolate and something we could share.

The other significant factor in the importance of Owens was that I worked there my senior year of high school. Yes, I became an Owens bag boy in December of 1991 right aroun my 18th birthday. I wore the nice button up shirts, the cheesy colored ties, and put my rockin’ mullet up in my hat. I never did wear a smock, though. And I asked my loyal Owens customers “Paper or plastic?” Most of the shoppers there preferred paper, as did I. Much easier to load paper bags in a giant Oldsmobile trunk than plastic.

I got to know Owens much more intimately as an employee, inside and out. I worked third shift one night and replaced all the light saber-shaped bulbs in the ceiling with one of the managers. On spring break of 1992 I spent an afternoon cleaning all the grocery carts in one end of the parking lot. I worked in the walk-in freezer as well, stocking the coolers with ice cream and Hungry-Man TV dinners. I even worked third shift in the summer of ’92 after I graduated, stocking shelves in the HBA aisle(health and beauty aids, in case you didn’t know.) That was the beginning of the end for me and Owens, sadly. I didn’t care for third shift all that much. It was lonely as I didn’t know anyone on the third shift crew. They were all much older than me, and somewhat bitter about being in their late-20s and 30s and stocking Kraft Mac and Cheese and bags of dog food for $6.50 an hour(I was making $6.25 and thought I was living the high life.)

But even fat stacks of grocery cash couldn’t keep me around. I decided to take classes at a local-ish college and got a job slinging video rentals at Video World. The pay wasn’t great, but I loved the video store racket. I loved movies and could bring home whatever I wanted after closing, as long as I had it back the next day. Plus it was fun renting porn to former teachers. College never worked out, but Video World did.

I guess I’ll happily take dreams about my childhood grocery store over anxiety nightmares about work and the world crumbling around me. The mundanity of everyday life has a way of becoming profound when you least expect it to. Who knew cheap deli sandwiches, Three Musketeers, and reading rock mags in a hometown grocery could weigh so heavy and hold such a prominent place in your brain? And who knew I could miss a phrase so simple and direct as “Paper or plastic?”

Not me.

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