places_

Places
by Stephen Green

I didn’t know what the feeling was, but as I stared up at a man in the bucket of a bucket truck taking the sign down letter by letter –  P A T H M A R K – I felt something. How were they held up there, I wondered. Even as I watched I couldn’t figure it out. They would be gone and there would be just a wall. But as the bucket lowered, I saw the name was still there, now only an apparition of its former self. A pale remnant. There but not there.

So the store still exists, I thought. The Pathmark. Somehow it was a relief to me, though one that was short lived. Soon, the whole building would be gone.  This space would be occupied by something else, it would become a different place. Not the one I was a part of. Not the one where I spent time: laughed, cried, hated.

I guess that’s what the feeling was: Surprise at my reaction to the end of the store. When I went in that day fifteen years ago to tell the manager I quit, I thought I’d be ecstatic. I had dreamed of that day, but instead I felt deflated. Like Christmas morning as a child-less adult.  Russ, the store manager, said, “Okay, good luck. We knew you’d move on to something else. Good for you.”

When he said that, the idea of leaving became terrifying. My days of stocking shelves and building sales displays were coming to an end. I was 26, about to re-enter graduate school, and then begin teaching 5th grade in The Bronx. I knew nothing about teaching, or The Bronx.

My first year in the classroom was a nightmare. I never felt like I knew what I was doing. I was scared of my students, they behaved horribly. I never wanted to be there. Many days I seriously considered calling the school and making a bomb threat just to delay the opening, or better yet, have school cancelled for the day. Once, driving to work, I found myself alongside my old manager and he beeped his horn and waved at me. How I wanted to be heading to Pathmark rather than the school! If I was headed to the store I’d arrive there and stock shelves and that’d be it. But the place I was going to was mentally taxing, dreadful. I hated it. Hated the Bronx, everything about it. Its filth, crowdedness, smells, municipal neglect.

As soon as I got off the Cross Bronx Expressway it was like entering another world. Piles of garbage, the sad buildings, stray dogs. How could this be part of the same city I grew up in? I knew no one considered Staten Island “the city,” but how could it be this different? I was still naive enough to think that all parts of a city get treated equally by its government. At one point in front of the school, there were the remains of a car that had been abandoned and set on fire. This would not have been tolerated in front of the elementary school I went to. How could children be allowed to face this every day? What city allows that? It was there so long that people started throwing garbage in it. I arrived one day to see a discarded Christmas tree stuffed into where the windshield had once been. Seeing it made my heart ache.

But during the next years teaching got better: I figured it out, enjoyed it, believed in it, and felt I was doing good by doing it. Occasionally I’d visit the Pathmark, usually around holiday time. Check in on folks. Go in the back room, where I had spent so much time. Walk in the little shack where we kept the paperwork from truck deliveries. We used to write Public Enemy lyrics on the walls, and “This place sucks,” and other witticisms. Hear someone get paged over the loudspeaker: “Someone from grocery, come to register eight for a price-check.” I’d smile.  See the current employees, the grocery crew. That was me, I’d think. There I am, pushing a u-boat, loaded with cases of Redpack crushed tomatoes to the front of aisle 20 to replenish the display. I always liked to top off a display by stacking the product in a pyramid shape.

Then I stopped visiting. Moved off Staten Island. Occasionally my buddy Brian would go in the store and then tell me about it. Jeff and Jerry still working there. Crazy. Brian said that when he saw them it was like time froze. He’d see himself still working there (he quit shortly before I did) and it would freak him out. How many years had gone by? How many? Sometimes Brian and I would joke about how great it would be to go back to that time, when our job was just stocking shelves.

More than anything else though, imagining the store gone makes me think of Mike, the manager I saw in the car that day on my way to The Bronx. When I first met him I hated him. He seemed like a dick. He barely looked at me and didn’t talk to me. He reminded me of guys I thought were assholes in high school. I didn’t actually know any of those guys, I just observed them and made assumptions and passed judgment. And I didn’t know Mike either. So who knows, maybe I was the asshole.

In the beginning, I worked 6 pm-10 pm a few weeknights a week and then 3:30pm-midnight on Saturdays. The only time I saw Mike was when I’d arrive on Saturdays. He would be going over the work me and my co-workers needed to do with our shift boss, Billy, who I also didn’t care for. I would just stand around in the back room and wait for them to be finished. Mike would leave and we’d begin work.

Things went this way for a while. I didn’t like the job, but it was my job and I wanted to do it right. I eventually started getting more hours. Then one day I went to Mike to ask him if there was any way I could get even more hours for the week. I don’t know how I went from literally giving hours away to that point. The part-timers’ turnover rate was pretty high. I probably moved up simply by sticking around.

Mike gave me those hours I asked for. Then, when I graduated from college, I tried finding a job in my desired field, counseling, but had no luck. Mike knew this and offered me a full-time position. I worried about getting sucked in, because I didn’t want to make a career out of working at Pathmark, and I feared I might get too comfortable and then never leave. Despite that, I said yes.

At first I thought working full-time in a supermarket was silly. I couldn’t believe that people actually did it for a living; I didn’t know it was economically possible. After I worked full-time for a while my attitude began to change. I didn’t think the work was more serious, but I developed an appreciation for the people who worked there for a living, who saw it as their career. In my case, nothing relied on the job, I still lived at home with my mother, while my co-workers had families, mortgages, rent to pay, medical bills, etc. They worked hard, and Mike was the hardest worker of all. I didn’t think he was such a great person, but I admired how he took pride in his labor, and expected the same of others. He yelled a lot and didn’t say the nicest things to people, but he did an excellent job running the grocery department. The displays were always neat, the shelves well-stocked, the back room orderly, and the department always earned a profit. Even when he was on vacation he’d stop in a few days a week to check to make sure the ordering was being done properly.

One time I built a display half-assed. The display was on a base, and on the base were cases of pasta. I just put cases around the perimeter of the base, leaving the center of the display empty. It wasn’t visible, but when Mike came to check on my work he pushed the top case and down it went into the hole. He looked at me and said, “Why would you do that?” and then walked away. I was embarrassed and mad at myself. I knew I did it out of laziness, and I knew Mike knew that.

Mike’s insistence that I do my best gave me something that I needed. He relied on me, told me I did a good job, and made clear he valued my work. This meant something to me. During the holiday season Mike would build this huge display of boxes of candy canes and chocolate covered cherries in the entrance of the store. It was what everyone saw as soon as they walked in. One year he told me to do it, and I felt a responsibility to do it as well as he did. I used all his tricks to get the boxes stacked without tipping over. I knew it wasn’t as good as his, but when told me I did a good job, I knew he meant it.

Mike was eventually transferred and I was bummed. The guy who took his place was a slacker compared with Mike. The department slowly declined and I began to put less effort into the work. I had always told myself that I would never work at the store for a career, and that was when I was determined to get out, which I did.

Standing there in the parking lot, after the sign came down, I realize more than I ever did before that I’ve carried some of Mike with me. The strictness that I display at work, as a teacher, comes from him. I try to run my classroom in an efficient and orderly manner, which isn’t always possible with a room of 9 year-olds. A classroom isn’t the back room of a supermarket. And yet, I think he’d be proud of me if he saw me in my classroom. It’s odd that I was on the island today to visit my mom. I figured I’d take a stroll through the store for old time’s sake. Too late. Now I’m gazing at faded letters on the front of the building, feeling like I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Why does it matter? Why do I miss it? Part of that is a longing for an earlier, easier time of my life, but it’s also this feeling of the store just being gone. I had all these experiences in that place, and now it’s no more.

I know those memories are inside me, but places have power. All those things happened there, real things. It’s almost like you want to put up a monument, tell the world: this place was here, and here’s what it means to me. But that’s silly. You’re not going to do that. If you did, the world would be covered with them! And yet, knowing that is an important a way for people to connect to the past. These days I no longer teach in The Bronx, I teach in the East Village. On the side of a Kiehl’s store near my school there’s a plaque that tells that on that spot, one of Peter Stuyvesant’s pear trees once stood. It bore fruit for over two hundred years before being uprooted. That tree provided nourishment and shade, that tree meant something to people. I picture those people, going about their lives. A time before me, people who lived before me, but did what I do. Those people had lives and experiences and relationships and all the things I had at Pathmark. And then more people come, and the cycle continues.

Places may disappear but stories get told and retold and so, in a way, they remain. Like those faded letters on the sign, they’re not there in the same way, and yet, they’re still there in an essential way. The stories get to the heart of things. So, I tell my story.

 

Stephen Green is an NYC public elementary school teacher. He lives in Inwood and was raised in Staten Island.

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