Posted by Cassondra Murray Nov 19 2012, 10:57 am in Book series, Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, Holidays, Small town settings, small towns
Y’all know, by now, that I am a country girl.
Okay, yes, I am a coffin-sleeping, full-moon-worshiping, black-wardrobe-wearing, goth-Bandita country girl. But still, y’all know that I love the country.
When Steve and I got married, we moved to the country as soon as we could. But I find myself a little spoiled by the present day, when even out here in the country, I’m not too far from what I want or need. I usually end up going to town once a day to pick up something.
When I was a little girl, that was not so. We lived on a farm, and my mom shopped at the Houchens grocery story in “town.”
“Town” was eight miles to the north. Eight miles was a significant drive back then. Even though my mom worked at a factory on the edge of that same town, she drove to work, and she drove home after work. No stops at a store on the weekdays. It just wasn’t done.
“Town” was a special trip.
We made the drive to town once a week, on Saturday, to wash clothes at the Wishy Washy, and to shop for groceries at Houchens. Sometimes we’d stop on the square at the Ben Franklin, and just every now and then, we’d go to the diner for a burger. But that was a rare treat. The only other reason we went to town, was church on Sunday, or prayer meetin’ on Wednesday night.
Things have changed.
These days, the farmers around here drive into town every day for one thing or another, even just for breakfast or coffee. Families have more than one car. If someone decides she wants to fix spaghetti that night, and she’s out of pasta, she drives the ten or fifteen miles to the store and back, and doesn’t think twice about it. That’s what I do, but when I was a little girl, that would NOT have happened. If you forgot something, you usually did without it for a few days, until the next trip to town.
So although I live further out now than I did then, the miles that separate me and the “town” seem far shorter now than they did when I was growing up.
When you live in Southern Kentucky, small towns punctuate the rural landscape the way ground black pepper spots good homemade mashed potatoes.
Just enough for what you need.
I’m happy to live in the country between two towns. One, to the north, is a big town. It has a university, two WalMarts, three Kroger locations (that’s the big grocery chain around here) and a mall. It also has a few liquor stores, which also sell wine, for which I am MOST grateful.
The other, to the south, is a small town. More like the one where I grew up. It has a town square. But it also has a WalMart, and just recently, a Lowe’s. It’s a dry county. No stores that sell alcohol.
But still, it has my favorite grocery store ever.
It has a Piggly Wiggly.
It’s small. The produce section is about the size of my kitchen table. It never has, and never will, stock fresh cilantro, fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, exotic mushrooms, or a spice like saffron, that costs a stupid amount of money per ounce. Because they don’t have room, and the people who shop there, generally, don’t buy that stuff. If they need that stuff, they shop at the WalMart, which has a huge (though not high quality) produce section, or if they want a higher quality ingredient, they drive to the big town 20 miles north, to shop at the Kroger.
I love Piggly Wiggly because it is everything a small town grocery should be.
It has all the stuff you absolutely need, and almost none of the stuff to fix a recipe from Food & Wine magazine. And for some reason I can’t entirely explain, I’m glad about that.
I subscribe to Food & Wine, for the record. But I know that if hard times came around again, I’d go back to my raisin’, and I’d eat just fine without those hoity toity ingredients. When I fix a Food & Wine recipe, the only thing I expect to get at the Piggly Wiggly, is the meat.
Because here on the upper edge of the buckle of the Bible Belt, nobody cuts meat nowadays. I asked, last summer, for the Kroger meat department to grind some sirloin for a new meatloaf recipe I wanted to make. They laughed at me.
“If corporate caught us grinding meat here, my ass would be grass,” the meat man said. I looked through the window behind him. There was an industrial-size meat grinder bolted to the stainless steel table back there.
“What’s that for?” I asked. He looked behind him, then back at me. “We don’t grind no meat here,” he said, and walked away.
At that point, I realized that as far as Kroger was concerned, I could eat what they packaged, or I could starve. And they didn’t care which option I chose.
At the small town Piggly Wiggly, they have a real, honest-to-goodness meat man. Okay, it might be a meat woman, but although I am a feminist at heart, “meat woman” just doesn’t have the same ring, does it? Ahem…
The meat man understands meat. He’s worked as a butcher of some sort for years. He knows the cuts. He knows their challenges. He can discuss my recipes and what I’m after, and can make suggestions on how to cook the different cuts if I have trouble. And if I want a two-inch steak, if he has the sirloin in the back, he’ll mess up his clean equipment to cut the steaks I want for the company I’ve invited that night. I am impressed that he is willing to do this for me.
At the Piggly Wiggly, young high school boys sack the groceries for me just as they did for my mom when I was a little girl. And they carry these groceries out to my car for me. I don’t know any grocery store anywhere that still does that. Those days are gone, same as having somebody around to pump your gas at the gas station. When I was a little girl, and my mom shopped at Houchens, they carried her groceries to her car. Now, only at the Piggly Wiggly.
The aisles are narrow at “The Pig”, and the entire store is smaller than the homes of some of my friends. The lights are fluorescent. The computer system at the checkout counter is…well..we’ll just call it retro.
But I go back there, week after week.
In part, I return for the people who work there. They say hello to me and I know they actually recognize me. I’m not just the next customer in line. If I’m absent for a few days, they say, “haven’t seen you in a while. ”
At Kroger, they know I’m there only because there is some computer entry, somewhere, in some corporate office, that says my Kroger Plus Card has been scanned. I can call the Piggly Wiggly, mid-afternoon, and ask them to cut four sirloin steaks, two-inches thick, so I can pick them up later, and they’ll do it. I don’t have to leave a credit card number. They cut the steaks, leave them in the fridge in the back, with my name on them, and I pick them up when I can get there that evening.
Once, many years ago, Piggly Wiggly was the “big” grocery in that small town. As big-box stores took over, and small-town squares turned into shells of their former communities, not many small grocery chains–or small anything else–survived.
There is a rumbling around here, that Kroger will put a store in that small town to the south. It would be a lot easier to shop there than driving to the big town to the north. But do you suppose they will actually be any different than the Kroger in the big town? The one where “you can eat what we prepackage or you can starve” is the bottom line?
I’m thinkin’ not.
I hope, even if the small town does get a Kroger, that the Piggly Wiggly survives.
I’m working on a series that is set partly in a huge city, and partly in small towns like the one where I shop. One of the things I’m using in the story is that contrast. The way a character deals with moving from the city to the small town, and how it changes her.
I love reading series that are set in small towns. It seems like the settings and characters stick with me, long-term, more powerfully than do most big city adventures. I think it’s easier to get attached to small town characters because those “character communities” that authors set up seem to fit in small towns more easily, and I love those communities.
I think some of what I get at the Piggly Wiggly is also what I get when I read a series set in a small town. Of all book series, those are the ones that I tend to finish–I get every book–and when the author moves on to another series, I still want more. I think it’s a connection to the people and the places in the books.
I was browsing the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly a few weeks ago, and came across a display of those thin children’s books like ones they used to sell in the Houchens when I was growing up. In the Houchens, I’d spend the whole time my mom was shopping, standing beside that circular, spinning rack, checking out those little books.
I was sad to see that Piggly Wiggly’s book rack was way up at the top of the magazine rack. Maybe to keep little fingers from tearing up the books when Mom isn’t looking. And maybe, because times have changed, it’s not safe for mom to leave the little reader alone to do her shopping. Bad people hang out in small towns too, after all.
Outside the Piggly Wiggly, there are boxes full of real estate magazines and the local “swap and trade” weekly. Beside those are some drink machines, a kiosk where you can trade your empty propane tank for a full one, and off to the side, there’s Thunder.
Thunder is a plastic horse, and if you pay your money, he’ll take you on the ride of your life. He’s a little faded from years of sitting there, waiting for the next rider, but even in 2012, you can still get a ride for a quarter.
Okay, confession time.
I didn’t know that this is Thanksgiving week.
I thought it was next week. I think of Thanksgiving as the 25th or 26th of November, usually. Which should be, according to my internal clock, NEXT week. Not this week.
I got home from West Virginia on Friday and I started cleaning up the house and yard. Then somebody reminded me, last night,that this Thursday is Thanksgiving. I panicked a little.
And I got in the car and went straight to the Piggly Wiggly. They had three fresh turkeys left.
So tell me Bandits and Buddies…
Do you live in a big town, or a small town?
What grocery stores do you have?
What is your favorite place to shop for groceries? Do they know you at “your” store?
Have the big box stores taken over where you are? Or do you still have small community groceries?
Do you live where there’s a butcher and a green grocer? I admit that I turn a little green, myself, with envy, when I think of food sold by a specialist, and the wider choices that might mean.
Or do you live in a place like I do, where you have to depend on whatever they have at the big grocery?
Does your grocery still have a little rack of those thin children’s picture books?
Posted by Cassondra Murray Jun 9 2011, 4:25 am in Cassondra Murray, Cassondra's blogs, small towns, Summer, summer evenings, young love
by Cassondra Murray
I grew up in a small town.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I grew up way out in the country, on a farm, but the town closest to us was the one we considered “our town.” It’s where we went to shop at the Houchen’s Grocery store, and do laundry at the Wishy Washy on Saturdays. When people ask me where I’m from—you know, when the conversation is not the kind where you say, “I grew up on a farm about 8 miles out of town, in a community called Glens Fork, in Adair County…”—when the conversation is brief and you’re just making nice, that town is what I say.
It had a big red brick courthouse in the middle of the town square. The kind with double doors on opposite sides of the building, so you could enter from either direction. The courthouse had a tower with a clock at the top. That clock never was right.
When I was a little girl, there were benches outside the courthouse doors, and old men would sit on those benches and tell lies and whittle.
There was a pool room down a side street. Y’all know about that pool room because I’ve blogged about it before, in the blog about ice cream. The town also had a little café tucked into a corner of the square, and a Ben Franklin store.
Ben Franklin was every kid’s dream before Toys R Us came along. There was also a Western Auto, with gardening tools, wheelbarrows, rocking horses, and a little red wagon in the front window. That’s where my dad bought some of my best Christmas presents ever. My Play Family garage. My electric train. That’s where he bought my first guitar. And that changed who I was forever.
I know I talk about my town a lot. I guess it’s because it’s such a part of who I am, and it’s a part of who I am not.
Nowadays I live half way between two towns. It’s ten miles north to the bigger city, which has a university, gobs and gobs of restaurants, and is building a new performing arts center. If you turn right out of my driveway, you go to that big town.
But if you turn left out of my driveway, ten miles the other direction is…..a small town. One with a courthouse and a square a lot like “mine.” If I have a choice, I always turn left.
And last night I did turn left, and drove to the small town to get something I needed. I noticed as I drove through, that there was a big crowd at the Frosty Freeze. My husband, Steve, wasn’t feeling well, so I decided to pick up something to eat.
Frosty Freeze is a little glass and concrete box in the middle of a parking lot. There are two big trees out front, and several picnic tables arranged under the orange-ish street lights. I angled into a space at the side and got out. I walked up to the window and got in line. When it was my turn, the girl took my order. Two barbecue sandwiches, a small vanilla malt with extra malt, and a small pineapple shake with extra pineapple. Oh, and a funnel cake.
I paid, then I sat down on the curb to wait. All the tables were full. School is out here, and high school kids moved back and forth, hovering between parked cars and around the beds of pickup trucks. A couple of farm boys climbed out of one truck and came around the front to place orders. But more high school kids hung out at the tables and around by the bug zapper, and they weren’t ordering anything. They were just hanging out.
I watched the dance of awkward wanting, and was swept away—back to my teenage years, cruising through the streets of the place where I grew up. I was swept back to the essence of all that is small town.
My town—the one where I grew up– had the carcass of an old movie theater on one corner of the square,with a neon marquis out front that read Columbian theater in big vertical letters that reached almost three stories high.
But that marquis never lit up when I lived there. I got to see one movie in that theater when I was a small child. It closed down later that fall. The drive-in, further out on the edge of the city, was closed long before I was born. There was no roller rink, no professional or semi-pro sports team, no wave pool or museum.
There was absolutely. Nothing. To. Do.
So on Friday and Saturday nights, the kids from the farms and the suburbs, such as they were, drove into town and cruised. They circled the square, went down the big hill on Jamestown street, out toward the parkway, made a big circle around Sonic, then went back toward the courthouse, where they’d circle the square and repeat. All at about 15 miles per hour, so they could stick their heads out the windows and talk to the cars they were meeting. Sometimes they’d take breaks and hang at Sonic or Dairy Queen, or in the Pizza Hut parking lot.
This town where I sat at the Frosty Freeze is a little better off. They have an actual working drive in (refurbished) that shows first run movies. And they’re only 20 miles from the bigger city, so they can get to the mall, the arcade, and the minor league baseball games the larger town offers.
And yet it was the same. The smell of barbecue and deep fried yummy goodness. The sound of the shake mixer. The ziiiiip-pop of the bug zapper in the back, and the low rumble of big pipes on a farm boy’s pickup truck.
Parents murmuring to their children as they helped little fingers with ice cream cones, just the way they did at Sonic and Dairy Queen when I was a young girl. Bright colored bows in pony tails. Softball uniforms. Bare feet, brown with dirt from playing outside in the yard all day. Swimsuits under t-shirts. High school rings wrapped with rubber bands. A pretty girl’s long hair blowing in the warm evening breeze. Tan skin and young love. The banker’s daughter and the poor farm boy. It’s the stuff romance is made of, for me.
I determined, last night, that some things time cannot change because the reasons for them don’t change. My evidence was standing right there at that window, ordering barbecue and a small chocolate shake. Even though there is more to do in this small town, there they are, just the same as we were, cruising up and down Main Street on a perfect summer night. Hanging at the Frosty Freeze.
The girl came to the window with my order, and I walked away with my white sacks of un-politically-correct food. But I also walked away reminded of who I was, to a degree. Reminded that although I love certain things about big cities, I will always be a small-town girl at heart. An artsy girl who still gets a thrill from the growl of a diesel pickup truck engine, broad shoulders and a farmer tan. All just three blocks down from a big red brick courthouse with a tower and a clock on the front.
The only real differences are that I’m a lot older, on the outside looking in now, and those farm boys stroll right by without a sideways glance.
Oh, and their courthouse clock is right.
So, Bandits and Buddies, tell me about the place where you grew up, and what said “summer” to you when you were young.
Were your summers in a small town, or a big city?
Where did the kids hang out on those long, hot evenings? Was there a movie theater? Any chance there was a drive in?
Did you ever cruise main street on Friday and Saturday nights?
Have you ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck?
Do any of y’all remember Ben Franklin or Western Auto stores?
And do you like to read small town love stories?