Dad was a public school teacher so we always had summers off together while Mom went to work. The fondest of memories I have of summer was going to Albertson’s with him.
We went to the grocery store just about every other day. I think it was more for Dad so he could get out of the house; he wasn’t much of a home-body when I was a kid. Wherever he went, I went, and that was okay with me because even if we had other errands, we always ended up in the grocery store.
I treated these trips like a scavenger hunt. I would lay on the rack underneath the shopping cart, and we would set sail on a sea of shiny floors underneath fluorescent lights.
The entrance of this particular Albertson’s led you into the bakery, and an aromatic wave of fresh baked bread would hit your nostrils. We would buy a six-pack of cinnamon rolls that were wrapped in a plastic bag with a red twisty-tie, the heat still emanating from the tin foil tray.
After the bakery, we would breeze through the produce section where we stocked up on bananas, apples, grapes, bagged salad mixes for Mom, and fresh strawberries. I don’t remember Dad buying a lot of fresh vegetables. It was probably because of the cost, but I didn’t care.
I was a fan of Popeye’s canned spinach and Del Monte green beans. Yes, my parents fed me canned veggies, but at least I wanted to eat my vegetables. In fact, I remember spinach and green beans being the only veggies I would ever eat, just as long as they were on the same plate as chicken nuggets and Kraft macaroni.
Yes, dear reader. I was a Blue Box Kid. Weren’t we all? I think the majority of my generation, as well as the generation before, was raised on the Almighty Blue Box. In just ten minutes, you would have a ooey, gooey, oh-so-cheesy batch of the Good Stuff. I wouldn’t eat mac and cheese unless it came from a Blue Box.
Today, however, I am a Mac and Cheese Connoisseur. I have since branched out to different brands, ranging from 99-cent quick microwaveable cups to organic sharp farmhouse cheddar flavor. I’ve had vegan mac, mac with Gruyere, and mac and cheese with lobster. I have tried to come up with a recipe of my own to match the memory of my childhood taste buds, but alas, I am still on that incredible journey to find the one that can compare – nay, outmatch! – the ooey, gooey, oh-so-cheesiness of the Blue Box that’s ingrained in my memory.
After filling our cart with goods, and sadly rolling past the packs of Oreos and Chips Ahoy that hardly saw our pantry, I would marvel at the magazines in the check-out line.
If you’re a Gen X Kid or a Vintage Millennial (like me), you might remember seeing Weekly World News at your local store. That’s right, Gen Z. Gather ’round, because before The Onion graced magazine shelves at Barnes & Noble and your Instagram feed, Weekly World News lived up to their motto of being “The World’s Only Reliable Newspaper.” This magazine touted scandalous stories of Elvis sightings, romantic affairs with Bigfoot, and the inimitable Bat Boy.
In fact, the newspaper’s mascot is active to this day.
Although it sat between other impulse buys such as The National Inquirer and Reader’s Digest, my innocent, little hands always reached for the outrageous option. This could be why I have a fascination for cryptids and always lean in toward the absurd.
After the Honda was loaded down with bags, it was time to grab some lunch. We would hit our favorite local spots. There was Ray’s Drive-In*, an old-fashioned diner where you could park to the side and place your order, or grab a booth inside. Dad and I usually sat inside, and I can still hear the sizzling coming from the small kitchen as the short-order cooks prepared our food, performing their signature “flip-and-smash” move of those big beef patties.
If we weren’t in the mood for burgers, we would head to Ame’s Fried Chicken, a small restaurant where you could order a plate of chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, and the best homemade bread rolls in all of East Texas.
Please don’t think that I had a deprived childhood because my dad took me to get groceries and considered it a family outing. We went to Galveston a lot when I was a kid. I had family there and my parents had friends in Crystal Beach where we would rent out a beach house. I remember picking through rough sand for shark teeth and, even though I never found any, I can still feel the sand under my nails.
So why do I keep going back to the memories of going to Albertson’s twice a week, sometimes more?
I think it’s because I feel comfortable in a grocery store as an adult. I know my way around many of them, and I know how to bargain shop (another important lesson from my parents). I used to want to work in a grocery store, but I had my experience in retail when I lived in Houston and found that it’s stressful work.
My experience in retail gave me good customer service skills, but it also taught me to respect retail workers. And they need our respect now more than ever.
I’ve been thinking about how our current situation is affecting us, especially when it comes to our food sources. Even with the precautions we have to take while out in public, our grocers are some of the hardest working people not at home right now.
I went to New Seasons last week. They’re a staple in Oregon with much of their produce locally sourced, and the one behind my apartment complex is my local. On this particular day, however, they were running differently. They were letting a few people in the store at a time, sanitizing all of the carts and baskets beforehand, and asking that you limit your shopping time to 30 minutes.
There were stockers on almost every aisle, filling the shelves with cans of vegetables or bags of chips. They took the time to ask if they could help me find something. I knew where everything was, so I told them I was good and thanked them for asking.
When I went to check out, my favorite cashier – a tall girl with long, black hair and glasses – greeted me from behind a glass barrier that was attached to her scanner. We chatted a bit and I thanked her before I left, handing off my cart to a guy who was waiting for it with a spray bottle and paper towel in hand.
I walked home with my bag and couldn’t shake off how weird that trip was. I go to this store once or twice a week, a habit that’s been ingrained in me since childhood, but this trip was different.
“It’s because of precautions,” I told myself. “Everything will be back to the way it was eventually.”
But will they? And if so, how long will it take to get back to “the way it was”?
I realize how lucky I am to be able to walk to this grocery store. I realize how lucky I am to live close to food sources, whether it be a nearby weekend farmers market or the fruit farms that are ten minutes down the road. Not everyone has this luxury, nor does everyone have the ability to get access to good and nutritious food whenever they want.
And in these current times, it might be harder than ever.
Sometimes we get wrapped up in our privileges that we end up taking things for granted. I was doing that with the grocery store, in the aisles that conjured up memories of my summers with Dad. But now, as an adult, the trips had become so routine that the slightest change troubled me, but I was still able to walk through those doors to get what I needed.
So the next week, I went back to New Seasons and when I got to the cashier, I thanked her and told her how appreciative I and the rest of the community were for her and her co-workers. They can choose not to come into work, but many of them do because it’s their only source of income. Also, every employee I’ve interacted with at this particular store loves their job.
She thanked me back for continuing to come in and supporting them, and we shared a smile before I handed off my basket to another employee so they could wipe it down.
I know why memories of Albertson’s keep popping up in my head lately. It’s because I learned a lot from those outings with Dad. Not just how to shop, but how to interact with people and to appreciate how hard they work to make sure that what you need is available.
I donate just a few more dollars than usual now to the Oregon Food Bank as many Oregonians rely on them. I generously tip my GrubHub driver on the nights I don’t feel like cooking, and I shop at my local to support the employees.
The next time you go to the store, please be respectful. Don’t be rude if they don’t have toilet paper. Don’t get upset with them if they’re taking too long to check out the person in front of you. Everyone has to set new standards when out in public spaces, and the standards aren’t going to change just because you’re in a hurry.
If you’re reading this and you work in a grocery store, fast-food restaurant, or coffee shop: thank you. You are helping to keep our communities active. But please remember to take care of yourself, too.
*If you ever find yourself driving down Timberland Drive in Lufkin, Texas, stop at Ray’s Drive-In for a burger and a milkshake. Ame’s Fried Chicken, sadly, has been closed for several years.