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Savvy: A Trip to the Corner Store

By Katie Davis
The Savvy Traveler


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Editor's note: The Savvy Traveler is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and features firsthand experiences and observations of travelers around the globe.

Going to the corner store for candy when I was ten years old was dicey in a couple of ways. Warren Butts could jump you and take your fifty cents. Or worse, take it, then make you go buy him a pigs foot. On other days, the bulbous namesake of our neighbor Dick could be on display in a basement doorway, naked and waving. "Don't look, don't look, don't look," we'd say, but we always did.

Past the firehouse, past Tuffy's '57 Buick, down the street of chimney-to-chimney row houses. Jump the square with Peyton's blood still staining the concrete, "Don't step on it or he'll come back and get you." Down, down, down all the way down, to the corner store. Look in first to make sure the dog is behind the counter, not pacing the aisles.

Wayne, the owner, was a bloated white guy with a buzz cut who drove in from Virginia every day to take our quarters. He brought his German Shepherd, also white, to give customers the double hard stare. Whites were scared in late l968, as if the stores were still burning just blocks away on 14th Street. They could still see "Soul Brother" spray-painted on the doors of black homes and store. It meant, "Don't burn this place, we're not the enemy." Lucky's dad swears that's what saved their house during the riots.

Wayne was usually sitting on a milk crate behind the store counter, his large butt dripping over the edges. He didn't say much, and I never touched his fingers when I gave him my money. In and out, in and out as fast as I could. Wayne didn't like anyone in the neighborhood, black or white, and he let you know it. We knew the dog would bite you with just a nod.

At eleven, I was bolder. "I'm going to the corner," I'd announce. My brothers and friends sat dangling their legs off the firehouse wall and gave me orders; I wanna a Slim Jim, two pretzels, a Jawbreaker, eight Mary Jane's, all that and a pack of Camels for Lefty, the hook and ladder driver, who played football with us. Make the trip, keep the change. Or, you could be spoiled like little Hester Nelson. She had her own tab at the corner store.

Hester Nelson: "I was a candy freak at a young age. So at 6 years old, I decided I'm gonna have my candy connection secured and I'm gonna set up an account and bill mother and father. One month, I owed $100. I'd buy for everybody, that's why they loved me. Laughs."

Hester used her candy to strike bargains, "I'll give you these Now and Later's, I get to borrow your Hula Hoop." By that time though, Mattie already owned the store.

Mattie bought the corner store from Wayne about a year after the riots and she hung a sign out front with her name in daffodil yellow. New smells mingled with the wash of ammonia. Sausages hissed from a twirling spit and red hot peppers hovered in a jar like a lava lamp. The aisles had Crisco, Twinkies, and Hostess Cherry Pies - names so spry we double dutched to them. "Crisco, Twinkies, Cherry Pie. You jump in, so do I."

Mattie carefully wrote down the daily numbers, whispered by the adults. "I want 512 boxed," or "Give me 322 straight, for five dollars." Her thick cinnamon wrists were glazed with sweat every morning as she shoved the dollars and slips of papers into her apron pocket. The same people would drop by later in the afternoon to see if they hit the number. That was the best time to crouch by the bottom row of candy and listen to gossip.

"Yeah, she caught him in the bathtub. Mmm...stuck him right in the gut.

"Shhh....There's kids here," Mattie would say. In the summer, we'd make the trip barefoot, attempting long jumps from tree box to tree box, cooling our feet in the silky dust, all the way down to the corner store. Freeze pops were held to our foreheads, then to our tongues. Or Mattie would sell us a half of a Popsicle. "Don't try to break it, let me do it." We'd go back later for the other half. In August, with no air conditioning, ice was an all day affair.

Mattie's became home base. Touch it, you're safe. Once in fifth grade, I ran all the way across the Calvert Street Bridge after school, with Bobby tearing after me because I wouldn't give him a kiss. I jerked open the screen door to Mattie's and shot in. Then I began poking through the bottles of Rock Creek sodas...stalling.

Mattie shot me a look.

"You rearranging my sodas?"

Following my eye, Mattie glanced out the front window. Then she came from behind her counter and cracked the screen door. "Now go on, Bobby, and leave this girl alone." Bobby pimped away, to keep face, but he left. Corner store safety zone.

Mattie's sign is still there. The Kim's just left it up when they took over from her almost two decades ago. Mr. And Mrs. Kim were unassuming like that, making change quietly.

The jangly screen door that always punctuated my trip was unhinged and a glass door bolted in. They hired Mohammed from Sierra Leon to help stock Dove bars next to the freeze pops, tofu next to the fat back and organic linseed bread alongside Sugar Pops. The new inventory list captured the changing people in my neighborhood in the 1980's; for a while Black, Latino and white tastes all blended together, not so much anymore. Anymore, the cases are packed with gourmet food.

Mohammed: "This is baby havarti, and this is the laughing cow, yes the laughing cow." (laughs)

It was about five years ago that the two-minute trip to the corner store began to take me twenty, sometimes twenty-five minutes. One day Fernando sauntered up sipping a cup of tea in his brass cup. And he told me that his elderly next-door neighbor, Mrs. G., had taken to bathing with a hose in her front yard. Oh dear. Then Judith, the lawyer, well she stopped me to report that the same Mrs. G had been seen feeding the rats in her front yard. "Really Judith, have you seen her?" "No," she said, "but BB has."

Since I am the self-appointed troubleshooter of the block, I went to talk with Mrs. G. I told her that the neighbors worry that she's getting too old to take care of herself. Her filmy blue eyes flashed, "If they're so worried why don't they bring me a plate of hot food every now and then?"

At the corner store, the spill of news is constant. One afternoon I walked down and Mrs. Kim warned me that she'd overheard two community leaders, back by the potato chips, planning out an entire strategy against me and the mural I'd commissioned for the park. "They're just jealous, ignore them," she advised. Another day, Salah, the owner of the local gas station blew into the store seething because I wrote a letter on behalf of my neighbors asking that he clean up his property. I stood at the counter as Salah cursed me loudly, a rosy flush creeping up to his ears. Mohammed kept right on punching in lottery numbers but he met my eye with a protective gaze, and Mrs. Kim slipped her hand over mine and just held it there.

I've learned that the shouting and the holding usually come together in my neighborhood. When it gets to me I'll go out the back door and drive to the 7-11 to buy anonymous milk, with no demands. I am always pulled back though to that long walk down my street, to the place where I am looked after and must do the same.


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