The year: 1978. I was 21 years old. The place: Big Bear store #1. It was a huge oval building, originally a barn, then a roller rink, then in the 1930’s, it was the first building in the Midwest to have meat and produce and dairy and dry goods for sale under one roof. There was an actual bear there during the first few years — an attraction. Hence the name. Big Bear grew into a large chain of grocery stores. Hence the number.
I was one third of the three-man stock crew that remained unchanged for six years. I have to think that that could be a record for the lifespan of a stock crew at a major grocery store. We each had our aisles. We stocked ’em, we cleaned ’em, we did the price changes, we did the ordering, we did the sale-item displays — it was like each of us had our own little kingdom within the domain.
Every week, items would come and go. The three of us would sit in the break room on Fridays and complain about the weekly list of new and discontinued items, and the burdensome changes in the space allocation we would have to make on our beloved shelves.
Store Number One was (it was torn down in the 80’s) on Lane Avenue in Columbus Ohio, right across the street from Ohio State University. Our top selling items were beer, potato chips, Kraft macaroni and cheese dinners, and beer. We didn’t sell very much olive oil. Which is why I practically had a seizure when I saw the new items list that Friday. We were going to be carrying a new size of olive oil. Gallons. For sixteen bucks each. That made it the most expensive item in the store intended for human consumption. And one of the heaviest. Given our clientele, I expected them to sell at a rate of approximately never. Yet I was going to have to make space for this monstrously bad use of shelf space in my oil section anyway.
One week later, a case of gallons of olive oil arrived. There’s no way to stop that. They always send at least one case of new items no matter how stupid they are. After that, the power is all mine. The case had four rectangular one-gallon cans it in — they reminded me of gas cans. I already knew I would never order another case, even if all four cans from the initial case sold. I was frowning when I made room for one row of the new item on the bottom shelf by taking some space away from two products that never got dusty: Crisco oil and Wesson oil. (We sold a lot of popcorn too.)
The next day, I went to work, and I walked down my aisles to get a view of the past, and plan my attack for rebuilding my aisles to pristine condition after they had been viciously violated yet again by all those damn customers. I walked by the oil section. You have to understand the degree to which it is possible to become one with something like an oil section. I could see all and know all with just a glance. I knew what sold, when it sold, why it sold, what they were wearing when they bought it, and which kind of popcorn they intended to use it on. Right away, I noticed something odd, like there was a tooth missing. On the bottom shelf, right in front of three huge cans of olive oil, there was an empty space. Somebody had actually bought one of those suckers!
This was about a year after I had moved away from home. Not that far away. About a mile. And the family homestead was very near the grocery store. So I often stopped by there after work. You know, the free food and all. Apparently I had the poker-pro gene activated inside me all the way back then.
I walked into the family homestead and I headed straight for the kitchen.
On the counter.
Was a rectangular can.
With a little sticker on top that said “$15.99.”
That I had put there.
She came in. I said, “Hi mom.”
“Tanoose, look at this!”
She was the only person who ever called me that. It was her grandfather’s name.
“This much olive oil would cost three times as much in those 16 ounce cans!”
We watched the can for a few seconds, each amazed in our own way.
“How long will it take you to use it all?” I asked.
“Not as long as you might think.”
“Great. Would you mind buying the other three?”