Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sunday rerun: I still have my nametag somewhere

Everyone drove Mustangs to the A & P
In the spring of my senior year, just before my graduation from the exclusive Towson High School (admission by zip code only!) I went to work for The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, also known as the "A & P," and that's pronounced "Ann P" around these parts.  I had hoped to start out as District Manager or Vice-President of Sales, Grocery Division, but it seemed that the only openings they had were for "clerk," so I took that, figuring on biding my time for the inevitable promotions that never came.

Rat Fink t-shirt decal
Some interesting facts about that job: we had to wear a white shirt and tie and pants that could be any color but could not be jeans of any fabric.  We got around the shirt thing by wearing t-shirts underneath with various slogans and depictions of cartoon characters.

My starting salary was a whopping $2.15 per hour, not bad when my classmates worked at Gino's or McDonald's for fifty cents.  In fact, top pay on the clerk scale was $3, and there were full time guys there, working 40 hours, grossing $120/wk, and raising families and buying houses, cars and cheap beer on that pay. We wore red aprons and name tags. The store sold all the national brands, of course, but we had our own - in fact, the tea bags were called "Our Own" tea bags - brands, such as Jane Parker baked goods and Ann Page canned foods.  I used to wonder about the people who worked in the packaging end.  Working the early shift, I would be stocking the bread aisle and found it endlessly humorous that Jane Parker's Old-Fashioned Home-Style Bread carried the description "A hearty, firm-type loaf."  And one of my best buddies on the crew, Charlie (known as "Cholly" in BalMoreEse) had a younger brother whose detestation of cole slaw was so thickly ingrained in his diet that he carried the sobriquet "Slaws-A-Balls."

Please don't try to understand that nickname unless you are 18 and male.  That's the only way it's funny.

Tool of the trade
We would set this to 2/69¢!
I didn't usually work a cash register, so it was not to be my fate to have experiences like John Updike wrote about in his short story "A&P," but I would never have acted like the guy in that story anyway.  We had our share of pretty girls parading through the store in various states of deshabille and decolletage, and there was lots of ogling going on in the time-honored manner of adolescent males.  I spent a lot of time unloading freight trucks and placing items on the shelves for sale, so I always had one of those box-cutter knives and a Garvey price kerchunker ready for business.

Sometimes in the evenings, taking the trash out, or having a smoke break, we would see two cars pull up and park, and then a woman would get into a car driven by a man, and they would drive away, casting furtive looks as they left.  Of course, as major-league suburban sophisticates, we knew something was up.  We just didn't know what, to tell you the truth.  And in the apartments behind the store - now torn down and replaced with apartments - I don't know why either - there lived a woman who was quite uninhibited in her manner of dressing, which is to say that she paraded around naked and stood in the bathroom window, providing endless amusement for the easily amused.  We don't know where she got her groceries, because she did not come into our store.  We did know that she got her clothes at the same place The Emperor did!

So that part of my career lasted through my college days and then I took a cut in pay to go into radio, but I am writing today because the A&P chain is done in Baltimore as of today.  All the stores are closed; some will reopen as Shoppers' Food Warehouses, and some as Shop-Rites, and some will remain empty, corpses of a company that shot itself in the foot time and again changing its name from A&P to WEO ("Where Economy Originates" - snappy, huh?) and then SuperFresh, where they tried to be all things to all people.  Gourmet foods? Sure! Cheapie no-name brands?  Aisle 5, I think! Sit awhile and have some pizza and a soda?  Steam that shrimp for you?  Power tools, aisle 16!

Back in the day, we addressed customers as 'Sir' and 'Ma'am' and we thanked them for shopping with us and the acceptable answer to any question about where an item was shelved was never, "Gee, I don't know!"   But I heard that a lot lately in SuperFresh, and while I am sad to see them go, I can tell you this about Baltimore:  we like to eat food,  and you have to be pretty lousy at running a food store to drive people away like this chain did.

Shame, too.  They did have tasty cheese rolls.

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