I stopped by a local small grocery store to buy a few things to bring home for lunch today. Nestled on a corner in a historic residential neighborhood whose live oaks only add the setting’s ambiance, Langenstein’s grocery is in a much better position to deliver on another chain’s slogan of “where shopping is a pleasure.” Cutting across the grain in a business governed by economies of scale, it manages to hold its own against the gleaming WholeFoods Market only blocks away through a combination of nostalgia, tasty prepared foods, convenience, and incredibly good service. Founded in the twenties, it’s a true survivor.
They also like to play rock-n-roll hits from the 1970s and 1980s over the store’s sound system. This can sometimes lead to humorous juxtapositions. One time I came through the entrance and peered down a narrow aisle of pickles, olives, and maraschino cherries to see an ancient Uptown matron gently scooting her walker to “I’m Just a Love Machine” by The Miracles. Langenstein’s reaches an older demographic than the Whole Foods. Yoga pants are also a less common sight, though not entirely unknown. The music, annoying at times, ludicrous at others, has grown on me. I realize that it harkens to an age when grocery stores like Langenstein's were starting to yield to big chains. Step into the store and it could be 1980 - in more ways than one.
As I brought my basket of egg and shrimp salad and coleslaw to the check out counter, the speakers began pumping out Elton John’s “Bennyand the Jets” and it all came flooding back. I saw it as clearly in my mind as it was then, even thought it was probably thirty years ago. Ed Steck, counting the proceeds from our annual summer garage sale, singing along to the lyrics happily while he sipped on a can of beer. “Ben-neee, Ben-neee, Ben-nee-ee and the Jets…” It struck me then and still makes me think that this was the first time I had ever seen a real grown up man singing along to popular music. Not only did my father, who was roughly the same age not listen to rock, he rarely if ever listened to music. He definitely never sang along. In fact, the only time I have heard my father sing was equally as memorable – at his “uncle” Art’s funeral. (Art was maybe a cousin. Certainly not an uncle, but one of dad’s favorite relatives.) I think I might have been ten at the time. Ed and Carolyn Steck had come up differently than my parents, I suppose. They had definitely married later and I suspect that Ed had been to college. These were some of the key differences, but there were probably lots of others that drove one man to sing along with the radio and another to listen to Wally Phillips.
The scene hit me doubly this afternoon because I realize that at forty-one I am now almost exactly the age that Ed Steck was when he died. He was diagnosed with lung cancer not long after that summer garage sale. It moved fast and I know for a fact that he was gone by the time I reached the seventh grade. I think we may have had one more garage sale afterward with Carolyn but I have no memory of it.