Thursday, March 25, 2010


You have a particular fondness for 7-11 stores and the various service station convenience stores, second only to the small neighborhood groceries on the fringes of the older parts of town here in Santa Barbara. Perhaps your favorite of all is The Italian Grocery on De La Guerra Street, which you patronized back in an earlier incarnation as well when it was on Olive Street. The moment you enter, you are overwhelmed by a cloud of ground coffee, olive oil, sliced deli meats, and the yeasty tang of fresh rolls. As if this were not enough, you are nearly assaulted by rows of canned and bottled groceries with the most colorful and evocative labels, labels that are so frankly ethnic that you find yourself sneering at the smug uniformity of the brands stocked by the chain supermarkets. Even the canned Heinz baked beans on sale at the chain supermarkets look different at the Italian Grocery.

The Italian-Greek Deli on lower State Street is now a Verizon Store, brightly lit, its ambiance now the ghastly yellow of fluorescence, but when you are in the neighborhood you like to recall the steaming pot of ravioli and the evocative pastoral scenes printed on the sides of the boxes of pasta. And there is also the Laguna Market, where the ethnicity switches to the foods you saw in the stalls and larger markets of central Mexico and where you are willing to suffer the urn coffee for Yolanda's sweet breads.

Whenever you enter a Von's or a Ralphs or even Gelson's, you find yourself looking over your shoulder as though suspicious of being followed. You are not as comfortable in such stores and it has taken you all this time, today being the operant discovery, to understand the dynamic. It had nothing to do with your having been a box boy at McDaniels' Shop 'n Save Markets, which was your first job up and away from a newspaper route; it was the nostalgia for the small neighborhood groceries of your early youth, where you did not shop with a cart, you approached the counter and gave your order to a clerk, who fetched things from what seemed unbelievably high shelves, where, for instance, one of the Weiner boys would put on a rubber glove, then reach into the pickle barrel to secure the right degree of doneness to the pickles you were sent to fetch and where, if you were in some unimaginably acute state of grace, you were allowed to wash your hands at the small sink behind the counter, then fish for your own pickle.

This insight about the how and why of smaller grocery stores seems at first blush to be undershot with nostalgia and for a sense that the thing that drives you down to the Laguna Market and its boiled coffee or the Italian Deli and its mouth-watering torpedo sandwiches is a wish to bathe in the dregs of early impressions. But this is barely enough to justify the price of admission. What's really at stake here is the way associations finally open themselves to you if you persist in looking at a thing because it was something you always liked.

Just yesterday, you were arrested by a stand of deep purple snapdragons, thriving in this lovely pre-Easter/Passover explosion of Spring. You approach the stand and bent closer, remembering how it was that as a younger person, you thought snapdragons such great friends because if you were to grip them just so at what you imagined to be a jawline, they could be made to open and close their mouth-like arrangement of petals. Doing so yesterday brought you back in contact with a dazzle of associations, chewing oxalis, which you thought of as a child to be sour grass and these years later, you could experience the acidy taste on your throat. These associations had only about twenty percent to do with youth as such, the eighty percent remaining had to do with the miracles waiting to be discovered in small things. At the time of first discovery, you believed magic could be learned. The magic was in the discovery of the unalloyed miracles of small things. You have a pocket filled with toys now, most of them not so important because they can provide you with a compass or a map to guide you from where you are to where you wish to be or that with a few taps, you could be in conversation with someone across the continent. These are sophisticated, grown-up things and are not to be cast lightly aside. But more important, these toys and implements remind you of the discoveries awaiting you whenever you set foot outdoors. You were discovering what it was to be alive, how energizing, dazzling, exciting it is and how glorious it is not to have outgrown it.

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