© 2017 by Bill Murphy
In the early 1990s, Robert Fulghum wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I suppose that if ever I wrote such a book, it would have to be titled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in a Grocery Store.
I was born in February of 1941, ten months before Pearl Harbor’s day of infamy. By that time, Mom and dad had been married 6 years and he was manager of a grocery store. He was a farm-boy turned grocer. But like Za Za Gabor, had decided that farm livin’ was not the life for him.
In 1953, Jitney Jungle Stores of America, the locally owned company that Dad worked for, opened a new store in the new shopping center of Mart 51, in Jackson, MS. It was located at the intersection of old US Highway 80 and old US Highway 51. Hwy 80 ran East to Savannah GA on the Atlantic and West to San Diego on the Pacific. Hwy 51 ran South to New Orleans and North to Hurley, Wisconsin, just 10 mile shy of Lake Superior. Jackson called itself ‘The Crossroads of the South.’ We lived on Evergreen Ave., just 3 blocks north of this intersection.
After the store had been opened a short while, Dad discovered a small glitch in the system. In the early 1950s, grocery stores were never open 24/7. Hardly! Store hours at Jitney 19 were: Monday-Thursday, 7 AM to 6 PM, Friday and Saturday, 7 AM to 6:30 PM. This limited shopping window was reflected in heavy traffic, especially on weekends. Oh, did I mention – we were NEVER OPEN on Sunday.
The store had 6 check-out stands, and on Fridays and Saturdays, all were usually manned with cashiers. The store also had one or two ‘bag-boys’ on hand weekends, whose job it was to sack the customer’s groceries and then take them to the customer’s vehicle. The ‘glitch’ was that on weekends the store was super busy. Because everyone was focused on getting customers checked-out and on their way, unused shopping carts were careless pushed aside, creating big blockages in the front aisle.
In 1953 I was in the 5th grade. But Dad put me to work each Thursday and Friday afternoons and all day Saturday – keeping these shopping carts returned to their proper place. So much for child-labor laws! (I was still working in that store when I graduated from high school in 1959.)
It wasn’t long before the shopping-cart job morphed into several other responsibilities: getting change for the cashiers, emptying their forever full trash containers, returning empty soft drink bottles to the wareroom – and bagging groceries.
Kids today simply can’t fathom how it was in the early 50s. Take for instance Health and Beauty Aids. In the early 1950s, it did not encompass 2 and 3 aisles in a store. It was truly a ‘section,’ and not a very large one! Deodorant for men was just catching on. And in the women’s section – as far as what was then called ‘sanitary supplies,’ it was simply one brand, one type, one variety, truly ‘one size fits all.’ Perhaps this next 1950s custom was only rooted in the deep south – but one of my earliest chores at Jitney 19 was to (in the privacy of the back wareroom) open the newly arrived factory-shipped box of feminine products, and using brown kraft paper, WRAP each and every package as if it was a Christmas Gift! Then, and only then, were these ‘embarrassing items’ placed on the store shelves! Who were they fooling? Oh well.
Employees fell into two categories: full time and part time. Full time employees were just that: 40 hours per week. Part time employees were scheduled as needed. I was in high school before I ever punched my first clock. At Jitney 19, the cashiers were full time, with benefits – what ever benefits the company had at the time. Checkout stands were assigned. If Mrs. Johnson’s favorite cashier was friendly Mrs. Smith, she knew to always expect her at the same register. Oh how times have changed!
Money. You’re probably wondering about the money – how much did we make. By the time I was in high school, my hourly rate had risen to almost 75c an hour. On top of that, we got tips! A few customers were known as big tippers, so there was a rush to carry out their groceries. A good tip was a quarter, never more. The usual was 5c or 10c. Most folks tipped.
We didn’t think we were getting rich, but we did know we were doing A-Ok. Understand we’re not talking about what a dollar will buy TODAY. Dad insisted that I save $5 from every paycheck. After this I could still: 1) Put enough gas in the family car for 50 miles or so. 2) Take the favorite girl to the Dog and Suds for burgers and malts. 3) Buy tickets to the latest movie. 4) Buy drinks and popcorn at the movie. And 5), still have enough pocket money left for myself to last until the next payday! (To put things into perspective – a ‘loaded’ hamburger, with a thick hand-moulded patty, painted with mayo, mustard, and ketchup ON BOTH BUNS, then pilled high with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, or whatever – was a quarter. A soft drink was a NICKLE – as were the burgers at Krystal. (I once ate 20 at one sitting!)
One irritating item seemed unfair to us. The store closed at 6:30 on Friday night. To my Dad, that meant that the front door was locked at 6:30 – not a second before. Technically, the store was NOT closed. The lights were on. Everyone was at their station of duty. So when stragglers rushed into the store at 6:29 and then proceeded to do their month’s worth of shopping – we were there to served them faithfully, if not begrudgingly, sometimes until almost 8 – although our PAY (as part-time employees) stopped at 6:30! I learned two lessons from this. One: Patience does not come naturally. And two: Some people actually think that they are numero uno.
I really enjoyed the position of bag-boy. I really did. It was like watching people at Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans. In Jitney 19 we saw all kinds! What an experience!
There was the day of the irritable mother and her cute teenage daughter. Mother was obviously irritated, maybe running late for something. I rolled the shopping cart filled with grocery bags to their station-wagon. The girl and I kept making goo-goo eyes at one another. Mommie raised the tailgate. The rear was filled with dozens of gallon cans of paint. Mommie Dearest barked at the girl to get in there and make room for the groceries. Embarrassed, sweet thing crawled inside. She sure looked good in those short shorts. When she lifted the second or third can of paint, it was upside down. As she passed it over her lap, the lid fell off! We had an already embarrassed damsel, and already irritated mother – and now we had damsel AND station wagon flooded with lime-green paint! Yes, I remember the color. I try NOT to remember the things that Mommie had to say about the mess.
I think it was in the 60s before the term hippie came to be. But in the mid 50s, we had our own hippie who shopped at Jitney. She was elderly. And skinny. Her skin was truly prune-like. Her hair, of course, was grey, and long and stringy. It was her attire that amazed everyone. She alway wore a black VEST, not buttoned but pinned in front – by a huge safety pin which left a wide gap in front. Just a skirt and vest – nothing under the vest. Yes, there were times that Jitney could be a real Jungle! I suppose that some of our customers were just in preparation for what was to come – Wal-Mart!