Convenience is not a bad thing. You can buy your milk, pick up your dry cleaning, fill your prescriptions, gas your car and — is that your girlfriend in the canned-goods aisle? — go on a date, all in the name of one-stop shopping. Not bad. Moreover, the neon and the bustle can give you the sense of belonging to a larger group of people. Your people. People who reflect your life. Grocery store as a destination wedding. I’m good with that.
However, there does seem just a slight lack of magic. I mean, really? Don’t you want a little unusualness in your grocery shopping experience? For example, what if there’s no mammoth parking lot with motorized cart gatherers? What if the interior smells like spices instead of cleaner? What if the multiplex checkout aisles are limited to one checkout lady? And what if that checkout lady is able to yell to the meat department in the back of the store without the crackle of a speaker, or there is no unnerving tin voice requesting “customer assistance needed in aisle two”? What exactly does this alternative look like?
In a brick, square building off of South Union Street is a place we’ve all heard about but rarely seen: Graziano’s Grocery. Don’t be surprised when you ignore the GPS Lady and drive past. No, this small warehouse in the south-east bottoms is not a deserted building. It is a place of magic.
Upon opening the only entrance door, your nostrils will flair and your throat will prickle with the amazing smells of oregano, thyme, basil and fresh garlic.
And there you will see Teresa, her gray hair pulled back in a thick braid, and a tidy apron clinched tight at her waist. She’s busy. Talking to each customer, she scoots the purchased items down the counter into bags with calm efficiency.
Teresa is the Fairy Godmother of the store. Literally. Asked about “customers,” she will correct you and tell you she calls them “friends.” She’ll tell you of her love of the work — her love of the children who come into the store — and her love of the young adults who were those same children a few years back and now bring in their children. She is seriously starry-eyed.
The men behind the meat counter in the back of the store (a Greek Chorus to be sure) respectfully speak of Teresa as “full of love,” “never mean to anybody” and “the hardest worker.” She is the “surrogate grandmother for all,” claim the butchers, who never stop slicing and stacking meat and cheese as they talk.
But at 71 years, Teresa has seen more than her share of life. She started at the store on June 17, 1993, after being a stay-at-home mom for 18 years. By Labor Day of that year, her husband had died and she needed to work to raise her youngest child still at home. And, 19 years later, she still quietly labors.
“I love this small store.” Leaving? ”No, I would miss these people.” Boyfriend? ”Heck, no,” she says while looking at me over her glasses with a very slight smile.
After losing her husband, her mother passed, and then, five years ago, her twin sister. Teresa pauses in the retelling and says: “Hard when you lose a twin.” After a brief moment, she casually sweeps her arm with a gesture encompassing the store and all the past and future customers — “This is my family.”
So, it’s not complicated, as you dodge the motorized cart gatherers and pick up your dry cleaning. Do you need a Fairy Godmother with a Greek Chorus for the holidays or not? CVJoe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.