Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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Joe's Neighborhood

Mary’s picture on a semi


Crowds storm the Hy-Vee on Valley West Drive. No, it’s not a riot, but carts are nearly full even though customers are only halfway through the many aisles with the many smiles. The weekend of the big game is coming, causing momentary logjams as people debate what sauce to use on their little smokies. I stand, faking patience, waiting for a husband slumped over the handle of his cart to get going and catch up with his wife, who is pulling down cans and collecting pasta. He’s like an ox in the field. Lumbering. Waiting to be told what to do with a gee and a haw. I expect to soon see the wife prod him in the belly with a staff. That’ll get him going.joes1 2.18

I then feel a poke in my own belly. From a distance. My grocery list, no longer lovingly handed to me on flower-bordered paper with smiley faces and hearts, is now scrolling across my smart phone. With a vibrating prod, I lumber forward.

But then I see an oasis in my shopping struggle. A sanctuary. A safe haven.

“Try a sample. Pretty good. I’ve put some more of the crab cakes out. Yes, I’ve got some jalapeño chutney over there. Oh, it’s really good. It’s got onion in it; it won’t be so hot.”

And Mary Lou Coen Sigler gives a low laugh, which turns into an isn’t-this-fun chuckle, ending with a sigh of satisfaction at the joy of it all. Yup, she’s a sweetgrass breeze across an Iowa pond in late August.

I wait my turn for a sample.

“I’ve been here forever. I first started with Hy-Vee in 1975. I stayed until 1978, and I left for about a year and a half and went back to Indiana and went to West Virginia. I’m originally from West Virginia. Been back here ever since April of 1979. I was cashier for over 30 years up front, and then I did demos for a second job for many years.”

Ah, that explains the southern accent. And a “demo”?

“You know, hand out food samples. I had a little table and used an electric skillet.”

People continue to stream up to her area as we talk. An older man approaches.

“Hi, sir. This is our prepared fish. I have recipes in the basket.”

Sure enough, there are recipes in a wicker basket. They’re hand-written.

“I enjoy cooking. The more I cook, the more I cook. I started running out of recipes when I started. I was helping people, and a lot didn’t know how to cook. Now I have recipes stacked everywhere. All these written-out recipes are mine.”

And Sigler lifts a hefty binder of recipes with papers poking out at the top and bottom.

“Someday I want to do a cookbook.”

joes2 2.18The people keep coming up to her, engaging in conversation. Many on a first name basis. Sigler smiles. Laughs frequently. And continuously serves food she’s pulling out of pans as she talks to one and all. She’s a pro.

“I used to be shy, I thought, but Hy-Vee brought out another side of me. I’m 67 years old now.” Another laugh at the ridiculousness of growing older.

Suddenly she turns from her customers to look me in the eye.

“Do you like pork chops? If you like apple pie, you’re going to love this pork chop recipe. This is a really good one.”

Loving to be mothered, I nod my head to pork chops, apple pie and whatever else she might suggest.

She reaches behind her, shuffles through her papers, and pulls one out in delight. I now have a hand-written recipe for Stuffed Apple Raisin Pork Chops. A signed copy. A collector’s item.

So, how long are you going to continue doing this at Hy-Vee?

“I hope to do this for a long time. But I can’t leave until I get my picture on a semi. And maybe after that I’ll cut down to part-time. As long as I’m upright.”

Get her picture on a semi? Work as long as she’s upright? Really?

So I called Hy-Vee to see what it takes to get your picture on a semi. Tara Deering-Hansen, vice president of communications, told me there were two ways:

“If they are selected as a Hy-Vee Legendary Customer Service Award winner; or after they reach 40 years or more of service with Hy-Vee.”

Of course, there are more than 82,000 Hy-Vee employees. All worthy of a picture on a semi. Mary Lou Coen Sigler is just one of many cogs in a well-oiled machine.

So off I go to continue my shopping extravaganza with my vibrating list. But then I stop in the middle of the aisle, blocking the man faking patience behind me. I’m just thinking.

Really? Isn’t it time for Mary Lou Coen Sigler to have her picture on the side of a semi?  CV


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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