One day while flipping through a 3-year-old, dog-eared magazine while waiting for her hair to dry at the Glam-A- Rama Beauty Parlor, my mid-century Mom happened upon an article in the May 1955 issue of Better Living Magazine that caught her eye.
Squirming uneasily in turquoise, hydraulic chair, she did a double take when she recognized the name of the author of the piece as a former college classmate of hers. For just a fleeting moment, a glimpse of envy and regret flashed across my self-described, self-fulfilled, self–effacing Mom’s face.
The article entitled The Lady is Queen of the Supermarket, was a gushing ode to the dazzling world of mid-century supermarkets and the fortunate housewives who frequented them.
“The Self service supermarket is more than just a slick way of selling groceries to the woman customer it makes marketing day an adventure.”
Mom laughed out loud.
Supermarket shopping a big adventure? Somehow that seemed far removed from the adventures Mom had once considered for herself as a girl when she had wanted to be a reporter for a big city daily. She couldn’t wait to get into the newspaper game unearthing scoops covering a hot breaking story, real investigating reporting.
No sob sister stories for her.
Now she was applying this same determination, and keen eye in the bold undertaking of food shopping.Food shopping was an adventure. Mom was a first-rate sleuth at uncovering bargains wherever they were and she was willing to travel to the ends of the earth to get them.
Leaning back in the padded soft chair, she closed her eyes against the glare of the fluorescent lights and began day dreaming. Breathing deeply of the nose burning acetone, ammonia and sulfur that filled the beauty parlor air, Mom’s mind drifted off.
The Case of the Suburban Supermarket Sleuth
She was no longer Betty Edelstein, suburban housewife of Long Island.
She was Edelstein of the Herald– by-line Betty F.
Maybe she’d never climb to where Pegler or Winchell, or Dorothy Thompson was, and never would. She was just Edelstein of the Herald and she was in the city room, shaping a feature story around the suicide attempt of some fading Hollywood star when word came of the trickery at the local Food Fair Supermarket
She crossed the room and checked the local ticker for details…Sale Swansons TV Dinner…buy 2 get one free …long record of fraud….Green Giant Corn on sale…stock question…. Her story forgotten, Mom left the building.
Force of habit she picked me up.
I was Moms faithful sidekick. I was her Baba Looey to her Quick Draw McGraw, Dr. Watson to her Sherlock Holmes. Wearing mother-daughter Pith Helmets, along with our Mother daughter suburban car coats, we headed out on this adventure together.
Securing her circulars and satchels of clipped coupons, a compass in hand, she was prepared to fight her way through the jungle of the unforeseen labyrinth that was the realm of the suburban supermarket.
Betty was ready to move out of the small confinement of the old small grocer, with its dark and narrow dusty aisles lit only by incandescent light. She was ready to say goodbye to the high prices and singular frozen food chest, and venture into the dangers of the local Food Fair, with its endless frozen food aisle.
Pulling in to the large, spacious parking lot of the Shopping Center, Mom quickly noted we weren’t alone…the lot was filled with suspicious looking station wagons.
Stepping inside the supermarket, we waited a minute to let our eyes get accustomed to the brightness of the light. She immediately took note of her surroundings- the glass, the chrome, the pastel colored walls, the soothing piped in music, and the ceilings lined with noise absorbing tiles giving a cathedral-like atmosphere to the store, making the shopping seem less frantic.
She wasn’t fooled. Not even by the scientifically placed fluorescent lighting.
It was all a set up to lull you into a false sense of security.
But Mom was on an exploratory expedition.
Turn on a Dime
She pulled a clipping from the previous day’s newspaper out of her purse and we looked at it together. Besides the advertised sale on Green Giant Canned corn, she was seeking certain information as to the authenticity of a treasure trove- a huge Swanson TV dinner cache on sale-buy two get one free.
She had been tipped off by a store circular that it existed, and she was in possession of not one, but three coupons for tens cents off any Swanson TV Dinner.
The aforementioned item had vast potential prospects; that should her investigations turn out favorable, she would return home with fully prepared meals ready to pop in the oven, available for further operations.
And with the help of her Amanna Food Freezer with the famous Stor-Mor–Door, (116 packages in the door alone, including twenty cans of frozen oj concentrate.) she could empty one shopping bag after another- there was always room for more in this big beauty!
But so far it only was a rumor.
Advertised items were often out of stock, if they ever existed in the first place. Worse, they were merely a ploy to entrap her.
She had heard that sinister warning repeated time and again from superstitious, skeptic suburban natives whenever Mom happened to run into them as she traveled up the aisles.
Once inside she began laying out her route, when she was approached by a stock boy overhearing our plans.
“You go to your death senorita, when you go up the frozen food aisle!” uttered the half-breed Columbian stock boy, in clipped lisping English. The fellows face was a dreadful yellowish hue and his discolored teeth chattered with malarial fever as he walked feebly down the fluorescent aisle to see Mom off.
Mom was leaving comparative civilization behind.
She had bid farewell to the familiarity of the small grocery store, run by familiar families, and where either Mom or Pop helped with your selection.
Her plan was to head straight towards the massive canned goods department, to the territory near packaged mixes, then to cross overland a short distance through the Northwest passage to the frozen food cabinets.
The canned goods were overwhelming, the floor jammed with open cartons blocking the aisles. The racy red and white Campbell’s soup cans with their come hither look, were merely a distraction. But the free-standing display of Green Giant corn, three for forty-five cents was empty.
Mom hastily made a note.
Our two compasses were compared. North of 65 degrees, there was nothing; that is, unless you liked the look of snow and ice and Boxes of Better-Buy-Birdseye peas lost in a mass of tangled pot pies. TV Dinners and frozen fish sticks competed for customer attention in the frozen tundra of the open top refrigerated cases, and they could only count on their tantalizing close-ups of food to spur sales and survive in the mess.
Mom had heard stories about the frozen food cases-there were fantastic ridges of ice looming like miniature mountain ranges. Luckily we had packed our Arctic gear.
The poor stock boys were gaunt and frostbitten- even an Eskimo wouldn’t take too happily to this section- especially once winter set in. It was not for the faint of heart.
But Mom, she was different. She would like it fine. “A gal could set a while up there”, she mused to herself, “by the Snow Crop frozen orange Juice concentrate and ponder, without damn fools coming around interfering”.
After what seemed many hours of travel through the dense Breakfast Cereal aisle where we were temporarily blinded by the bright glare of the candy colored boxes filled with make-you happy-cereals of sugar sparkled puffs and flakes, we found ourselves surrounded by shiny boxes of cake mix, the forbidding images of Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima glaring ominously down at us.
A wrong turn and we found ourselves on the upper stretches of the dreaded fresh produce. It was tough and strenuous passage for both Mom and me, A vast green hell, fruits and vegetables were scattered all over the floor, sprung loose from their carefully packaged Styrofoam containers, bruised and damaged, not fit for man nor beast, making travel quite dangerous.
Only the iceberg lettuce, wrapped in glittering transparent film, true to its name, was indestructible and survived the carnage. It would take a posse of stock boys to cut a trail through this sinister treacherous hell of fetid and putrid scraps.
The whole populous in the store was in a nervous, panic- stricken state of tension and dread.
Mom and I went down the aisles. It was difficult to force our passage through the crowded aisles dense with an undergrowth of boxes and cartons.
Passing the bloodied, display of raw cuts of meat, repose in translucent envelopes ready for the broiler, was an omen of the slaughter that might await us. Suddenly the sound was loud penetrating. The only traces of tragedy we could see was the strange red substance pooling around our feet, till we spied the shattered fragments of the bottles of ketchup.
There I found her peering down a wide swath of broken down bottles, spilled boxes,
“Mama”, I whispered. “Me, I no like this place.
In the distance we could see the fantastic ridges of ice looming like miniature mountain ranges.
Then suddenly it appeared, gleaming in their Fidel-I-Tone color cellophane laminated boxes, a freshly unloaded carton of the treasured TV Dinners. Lip smackin’ giddy boxes with the familiar wood grained TV set, complete with two turning dials, the appetite whetting close up of golden fried chicken, the pat of butter on the whipped potatoes just so, sizzling real enough to melt the ice.
For a brief moment it seemed as if the dreaded frozen food aisle meant to live up to its sinister reputation after all! It wasn’t long before the homemakers suddenly stampeded up and down the aisles, rushing, pushing overrunning everything.
Obviously something was wrong.
By the time we clawed our way to the food cabinet the frozen dinners were all gone-like a mirage. The stock boys merely shrugged. Mom had no choice but to secure a coveted rain check, no easy feat, and she would accept no substitutions for the Swansons.
She would confront the manager himself.
Mischief and the Manager
Meanwhile, only minutes earlier while the ladies fought over the frozen food, Wally the store manager let himself into his office making his way to the back room in the dark.
Inside the door he switched on the light and hurried to his desk. He seated himself in his chair and opened the bottom drawer, withdrew a bottle of whiskey and raised it to his lips. As he threw back his head, he saw the strangers standing in the doorway.
Mom and I quickly slipped into the room and swung the door behind us. Leaning back against the door, nonchalantly Mom watched Wally with amused eyes.
”Don’t let me stop you”, she said.
Wally, with the bottle poised at his lips gulped quickly and recapped the bottle. He offered the bottle to Mom. She smiled. Under the raw light of the unshaded bulb, Wally skin was leathery and old.
Mom said “Never use the stuff. I don’t have any bad habits” she added and grinned again.
The manager of the supermarket frowned at Mom who faced him across the vast expanse of a desk. Approaching the manager, Mom uttered “I can take care of myself.”
Her occupation: investigative reporter, but the manager didn’t know that,
She posed as a housewife wise enough to keep beyond the reach of the law.
“Just want what’s mine” she stated, she walked over to the desk and stood looking down at Wally. “Gimme the rain check.”
“You have more canned corn in the stockroom” Mom said bluntly, “I want some”.
The clerk laughed, staring at her through narrowed lids.
“When did you turn detective!”
He studied her. Her face was expressionless.
“You’ve never crossed my path before. Perhaps you’re not aware that I have a reputation for getting what I want,” Mom said matter of factly.
“First, the three cans of niblets corn, Green Giant, goes with me when I leave. And don’t try any fast ones with the old creamed corn switcheroo. And while we’re at it,” she added nonchalantly, before she let it drop, “I expect a rain check for the TV dinners, buy two get one free”
He sneered palpably and a steely glitter entered his eyes.
Mom pulled a hand from her car coat pocket allowing him a glimpse of a sinister looking piece of paper- this weeks circular, and her coupons for ten cents off any Swansons TV dinner. She let him draw his own inferences and then slipped the items into her pocketbook, being careful to notice that he observed the action.
Perhaps if he had known that she habitually carried a slew of them, things would have been different.
Wally placed two slips of paper on the desk top to hand to the stock boy and they disappeared into her jacket. Her hunch was right- the stockroom was loaded with the advertised Green Giant corn.
“You are a clever woman”, he said surprisingly. “Had I known a woman like you beside me, who knows, I might have owned the chain instead of just managing it.”
“It’s a deal,” said Mom and stuck out her slim long-fingered hand.
The gesture surprised Wally. For an instant he didn’t seem to understand.
Then his small white teeth flashed and he grasped her fingers ceremoniously.
“It’s a deal”, he parroted her words., as he handed her a rain check for the Swansons TV dinner, good for any time…. no expiration date.
Copyright (©) 2013 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved
- Mom’s Suburban Supermarket Adventures (envisioningtheamericandream.wordpress.com)