Friday, May 14, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

At the checkout counter


joes 1Winter sits heavy in Des Moines, Iowa. Grey skies, bare trees, and a cold wind blowing across the Urbandale Hy-Vee parking lot and down my sweater, turning those last few steps into a run to the finish line. I make it through the front doors just as the sun sets over the concrete. A winner of sorts.

And since everyone gets a prize, I look at the pastries displayed in the case at the front. In the upper right corner are cream-filled long johns. The fulfillment of my greatest wish. Crème-filled long johns are God’s life raft during the dark days of winter.

I’ll take a dozen.

It has been a long day. Twice I sat in cars that wouldn’t start in the cold. When the first car refused to start, I confidently jumped out, grabbed the cables, popped the hood, and looked very smart as I examined what I thought was the battery. After my son told me I was looking at the radiator, I hooked up the cables to the other battery-looking thing and jumped the car. It actually started. A Christmas miracle. Although, when I tried to drive, it died. I jumped it again. It started again. I tried to drive it again. It died again. After careful thought, I decided that when I need to go somewhere, I can start this car, but then actually drive another car. Pretty clever, right?

The other car was my mother-in-law’s hybrid car. It also didn’t start. So, when I opened the hood, I was not surprised to see a lot of plastic containers. And nothing else. My lord, they not only forgot the battery, they forgot the entire engine. Apparently, it runs on pixie dust. I shut the hood.

Prep Iowa

Which is why I am buying cream-filled long johns and seriously contemplating leaving town. Everyone else has left town for Mexico or the Caribbean or Hawaii. Warm climates to warm the toes on cold Iowa days. Why not? A time-honored tradition of retirees, college students, and post-election depressed Democrats.

But these trips all require a plane ride. I’ve done a lot of plane rides in the last year, and I refuse to get on another plane without someone stepping up to answer the obvious questions: Is that kid sitting next to me able to put on my oxygen mask in case of an emergency? If they worry about de-icing the plane before take-off, what about the ice when we are flying through winter clouds? What if the pilot sneezes? Do the seat cushions really float? Do I need to stay awake to keep the pilot awake? Are emergency doors just painted on?

joes-2So, for various good reasons, I’m staying in Iowa this winter.

I eventually make my way up to the Hy-Vee cashier. She smiles. I have a cart full of groceries and, of course, a dozen cream-filled long johns.

“Hi. Did you find everything all right?” Kris McCarthy says.

I’m slightly embarrassed by my overflowing cart and apologize for slowing her lane down.

McCarthy gives a laugh and then her face settles into her permanent smile lines.

“I love it when people come with full carts. It gives me a chance to talk and get to know people. You know. A chance to visit.”

What?  A chance to visit?

McCarthy explains: “The bigger the order, the more time you have with a customer. You get to know them. I see a lot of faces that come through every week. Some I get to know by name. I even have a set of Tuesday morning regulars. And there’s also people I see every day.”

Is she kidding?

“I love it. I can build a relationship. It’s a lot of fun. My customers will wait in my line for me. They could easily go in the lane next to me, but they will wait a couple of extra minutes to say hello to me. They know I’ll take care of them. If you take the time, people remember. This makes it great.”

Build relationships at the checkout counter? Why not.

Brene Brown, a professor out of Texas, writes about her observations and studies of people dealing with shame. Yup, she’s a shame researcher of all things, and as a result of thousands of interviews she has a lot to say. One of her primary observations running through several of her books is that the good life requires connection and belonging.

“Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”


So, for all you snowbirds lying out on the beaches getting roasted during the dog days of Iowa winter, realize that on Douglas Avenue, for no charge and no plane ride, there can be found connection and belonging. You might have an unlimited bar with little umbrella drinks. I have Kris McCarthy, the Hy-Vee checkout woman, taking care of all of us.

And let’s not forget the power of cream-filled long johns. ♦


Joe 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:

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