I learned to love a supermarket because it was the place I’d go to cry when I first moved to Baltimore. I missed my life in Buffalo — in the house that felt right, surrounded by friends I didn’t want to give up. My transition plan — such that it was — included driving to the supermarket a few times a week, ostensibly telling my husband that I “needed a few things,” when what I needed was to call my friend Carol (collect) from the pay phone that was right next to the produce aisle.
Not wanting to let my kids know what a terrible mistake we’d made moving to this “southern” place where I couldn’t understand the language sometimes, I’d do my crying at the supermarket, near the zucchini, in Carol’s ear. In those months when I had one foot in each city, she’d say, “Just give it time.”
She was right, of course, and it only took a few weeks until I could pass that pay phone and just keep walking. I broke the code of this new language Marylanders spoke. I made friends.
My supermarket is part of a local chain, nothing fancy. High school and college kids would come back to work there summer after summer. My favorite was one who, when I told him I would miss his great service once his last summer was over, said, “Well, uh, I’m graduating from the University of Chicago. You knew I wouldn’t be here forever, right?”
The person who may have been there the longest is the woman who walks you to your car and helps you load your groceries. I think of her title as The Woman in the Parking Lot. I’m guessing she’s now in her forties. I’m also guessing that she makes minimum wage plus tips.
I think she is the sole reason this store is overrun by elderly people who probably shouldn’t be driving any more. They seem to flock to her. The Woman in the Parking Lot knows every one of them by name. The Woman in the Parking Lot asks, “How’d you do in Bingo last night — lose your pants again?” “Did your son get good news from the doctor?” “Why don’t you get a head start to the car? You always beat me anyway,” and they think she’s hilarious. She’s learned to speak loudly and clearly over the years, part of her on-the-job training. The rest of her repertoire comes naturally.
If there is a person with white hair moving slowly and deliberately out the door, pushing a cart, I know The Woman in the Parking Lot will ignore me. And I love that.
One year at Christmas, I watched her helping an old man who looked like my dad, who was living hundreds of miles away. And though he had my brother and other relatives close by, I was sad and guilty that I wasn’t doing my part. I heard her tell the old man about something funny her husband had said. She gave him a quick lowdown on her kids’ holiday concert. He smiled broadly and said something I couldn’t hear. Then she hugged him.
As she was pushing the empty cart back to the store, I rushed over. I told her about my father and how he was far away and how I’d been watching her for years and knew how kind she was to old people. She had a slightly panicked look on her face because apparently I wasn’t taking a breath. I knew I was oversharing but I didn’t care. I pressed money into her hand — a lot of money — and kept talking.
After that she still ignored me in favor of someone old enough to be my parent. And I loved her more.
Once in a while, if there wasn’t someone older to wait on, she would take me on as a parking lot client. We’d do the usual chit chat — weather, Orioles, Ravens — in that order. Years of experience had taught her the least awkward small talk when she had to wait for you to fumble in your purse for her tip. And she always, always, ended with “How’s your dad doing?” I would say “He’s good. He’s fine,” the answer I continued years after he had died.
The supermarket chain announced last month that it’s closing. I no longer live in the neighborhood, so my shopping allegiance has moved on anyway, but I felt a little sad. I drove over last weekend, not on a nostalgic mission, but because logistically it made sense. And there she was, nodding to a woman with her keys in her hand, ready to get in her car, but obviously remembering something important she had to tell The Woman in the Parking Lot.
Someone who never watched this woman work once said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” Summer, when it is brutally hot and humid. Winter, when your face gets red and chapped from the frigid wind.
The Woman in the Parking Lot waited until the conversation was finished. It took a while. They smiled at each other. Then there was a hug.