Little Issues, Big Ideas, Small Towns—And Did I Mention Pay Phones?

March 9, 2016



     When I moved here from Atlanta in 1990, there were only two grocery stores in Trenton. I was used to 100.
     Luckily, both the stores we did have in town pleased me. The Ingle’s was always my fave but I liked the Red Food Store across the street, too. We hadn’t had Red Foods in Atlanta, and my husband and I both found the name uproariously funny. I thought in terms of it only selling red food, like Valentine hearts and big bloody beef roasts and lurid red Jell-O; but my husband took it as a political statement and would say courteously to the cashiers as he took his change, “Thank you, comrade.”
     There was a pay phone outside the building on the Red Food sidewalk. Readers under 30, a “pay phone” was a mechanical contraption with a receiver on a cord, a cradle to hang it on and slots to put coins into. We geezers used them to call each other when we were away from home, before cell phones.
     “They served that orange chili in the lunchroom again,” we would say. “Can you come and get me?” Or later in life: “My car broke down (or my boyfriend dumped me or this ridiculous cop insists I’ve had too much to drink); can you come and get me?”
     Readers under 30, I used to lie awake wondering how war was waged before the advent of modern communications: How did people know when to stop fighting? Similarly, I am sure you have lain awake yourselves wondering how people managed to buy groceries before they had cell phones to hold to their ear as they said, “I’m standing right here looking at it, Charlene, and I don’t see no milk with a purple cap.” Well, the way we did it was pay phones.  
     Except often they were already in use when you needed them, or (usually when you needed them worst) not working at all. That was the case one evening when I was at the Red Food and I needed to call home. The pay phone ate my quarter and kept giving me a dial tone. (Readers under 30, a dial tone was—oh, never mind!)
     Anyway, I went inside the Red Food and asked to use the store phone, but the snippy clerk at the customer service desk told me that would be a violation of company policy. I argued that the pay phone on its premises was the store’s responsibility, the store owed me a quarter, and store personnel therefore should allow me to use their phone; that they had let me before; that it was the right, polite and decent thing to do; and that if they didn’t I was stomping out of their stupid monochromatic commie store and never coming back.                                                                                                                                                                                      And that’s what happened. Having stamped my foot and stalked out, I had to honor my ultimatum and never darken the Red Food’s door again.
     Which left only one grocery store in town! So in the next few years I regretted my temper tantrum bitterly, and no one was happier or more relieved when the Bi-Lo chain bought up the Red Foods and I could at last without losing face go back into that store.
     After that, I tried to contain my temper but, as Popeye put it, I yam what I yam, and I still snap from time to time. There have been local businesses I have walked out of, slamming doors behind me—but I have learned my lesson and now, when that happens, I go back the next day and grovel until they forgive me.
     It’s not because I don’t think I’m right and they’re wrong. It’s just because in a community this size I can’t afford there to be one restaurant where I can’t eat or a service station that won’t work on my car.
     I remembered the Red Food story recently when I read a thoughtful David Brooks op-ed piece. Brooks wrote that what we’re seeing nationally is a rejection of politics, which is a pity because, messy as politics is (or are—I see what Brooks means; I can never even decide whether it’s singular or plural), dealing with politics means accepting that there are other people in the world and that their needs and viewpoints are valid and deserve consideration along with our own.
     It’s slow and push-pull and frustrating. Compromise is about the best you can hope for and, as Brooks put it, “Disappointment is normal.” But the alternative, he pointed out, is bluster and insult, shouting and stalemate, violence and dictatorship.
     How fortunate we are to live where truths like that are distilled so neatly—in this case into one forlorn foodie staring at the stream of happy shoppers trooping out of the Red Food Store, bags laden with cantaloupes on sale. People don’t “just get along”—but in a place like this, we have to anyway.
     And that’s one reason I’ll never be ashamed of presenting “little” issues as opposed to “big” ideas. A roundabout at the intersection of highways 11 and 136 has the potential to cause more weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth around here than any old wall at the Mexican border. My husband loved the roundabouts we encountered in Europe but if I’d been driving we’d still be somewhere in France, circling helplessly as I tried to figure out how the hell to turn right.       
     And remote-read water meters? All I’ll say there is I want to be at the water company with my little camera when the bills go out.
     Anyway, as for “big ideas” in little towns, the only reaction I remember my husband ever getting when he said, “Thank you, comrade,” to the Red Food Store cashiers was:
    “You’re welcome.” 

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