Mr. Sam in the grocery store.....circa 1930. That's Ida with Sidney on her lap, and Mickey and Solly. George is upstairs with the mumps and Jack is unborn.
Mr. Sam and the IRS
by Barry Breibart
The veterans had returned to Charleston from World War II, and life was beginning to take on a new normal.
Mr. Sam had welcomed his returning son back from the war into his corner grocery store as the number one employee. The other children, younger and older, happy to be relieved of the daily chores in the store, made themselves scarce and left the family business to Mr. Sam and his newly returned second-son, George.
For those who grew up in the days of supermarkets, Walmart, regional chains, and Costco, let me tell you a little about the cultural place of the neighborhood grocery store in our town. It was almost always on the corner of a main residential street. The family usually lived over the store. The hours were six in the morning till around midnight.
This was a time before air conditioning was common. During the summer months, screen doors let in the breeze and kept out the bugs. When the weather got cooler, the screen doors were supplemented by glass doors that rattled every time they were opened or closed.
Self-service was unheard of. The canned goods were stacked on shelves behind the counter. Customers recited their shopping list, and the items were brought to the cash register for payment and bagging. Commodities such as rice, sugar, and flour were stocked in bulk and bagged as custom orders by the pound. Meats were sliced to order from the large refrigerated case. Depending on where you were standing, the store had the earthen smell of potatoes, the garden aroma of collard greens and cabbage, or the delicate odors released from the jars of cookies and candy and loose cigarettes.
The corner store was the place most people shopped for their groceries. Mr. Sam and other grocers knew all their customers and all their children. They had to know the children, because housewives often sent the kids with a note to pick up a few things, and the grocers had to know whose account to charge it to.
Groceries were picked up as needed throughout the week. If cash was not readily available, charges were recorded on cards, in books, or on random slips of paper filed more-or-less alphabetically in a box near the cash register. Accounts were settled on payday.
The corner grocery was a place where the neighborhood men would relax with a cold beer on their way home from work, in the store’s stock room where cardboard cartons of canned vegetables and 50-pound bags of rice served to replace the usual bar stools found in a tavern. Although on-site consumption wasn’t legal the topic was never discussed. When paying for their beer, the men might be handed a package of groceries ordered earlier in the day by their wives. And charges for the beer and groceries were noted on the family’s weekly charge slip.
The store’s pay phone was one of the rare phones in the neighborhood. Customers would use the pay phone and leave thenumber for a return call. Messages were faithfully recorded on different slips of paper customers would retrieve later. In the event of an urgent message, George, Mr. Sam, or a passing neighbor would hand deliver them.
Lots of men working in the neighborhood came in during the day to buy lunch or drink a beer. A common lunch consisted of a shared loaf of bread and a quarter's worth of lunch meat custom sliced at the meat counter.
Earlier, during the Great Depression, the stock room had also featured a small selection of less than legal slot machines. The legality of the machines was not questioned however since they’d been placed there by a minion of the town’s mayor. The slot machines' profits were shared with the local political machine represented by the mayor’s bag man, generally one of the city employees assigned to the recreation department.
During the quieter hours between lunch and the evening rush, Mr. Sam’s wife, Ida, counselled the neighborhood women in the equivalent of a local women’s center. Although her name was Ida, in the tradition of the day, the neighborhood referred to her as Mrs. Sam. She had educated herself in the needs of women through her dedicated listening to soap operas that poured forth from her radio every week day.
Both Mr. Sam and Mrs. Sam had come to America from Europe as very young children starting their American experience in Brooklyn, New York. They both had heavy European accents. Their formal education was very limited, but they could read and write English. They subscribed to the local daily newspapers and the weekly Jewish Forward newspaper mailed from New York. Mr. Sam had served as an air raid warden during the recent war, and he continued to follow world news via radio broadcasts.
Mrs. Sam’s older brother, Harry, had left New York as soon as he was old enough to be on his own. He traveled to our town to join cousins who had migrated earlier and established businesses and families in the community. Once Harry had his own business, a corner grocery store, of course, he sent for his other brothers and his newly married sister. They all eventually built and operated corner stores moving further from the center of town.
As the next generation arrived, born as natives of our town, educated in the local public schools, the families settled in establishing the great American middle class. Sons and daughters were sent to college, married, and started their own families. Most of the new generation found careers outside the corner stores, but George stayed close to his parents and continued to work in the corner store, raising his own family in a nearby suburb.
Life for Mr. and Mrs. Sam took on a continuing pattern that changed only with the arrival of new grandchildren or relocating cousins from the North. Mrs. Sam set a daily lunch table in the family residence above the store. Mr. Sam and George took turns going up to eat. There were seldom other employees in the store, and nobody would have been trusted with the cash register or box of customer credit slips. Early afternoons Mr. Sam would go back upstairs for his daily nap. He would later relieve George and remain in the store until he decided to close the store for the day.
In the summer of 1948, a well-dressed young man strolled into the store. Mr. Sam’s store seldom saw such a well-dressed individual with such shiny shoes, so the visitor was viewed with some awe by all in attendance: Mr. Sam, George, and a couple of customers. He identified himself as Agent Thomas Holbrook of the United States Internal Revenue Service.
“Mr. Sam,” Agent Holbrook began. “I’m here to talk about your income taxes. You know, the money you send to the government every year when you pay your taxes.” “Yes, taxes, I know taxes,” replied Mr. Sam. “I am proud to be an American. I was an air raid warden during the war. My son was in the army. I am glad to pay taxes to this great country.” All of course in accented English.
“Well, I would like to see your books.” “Books? What is books?” Sam asked with a glance at George. George was born here. Surely George would know “what is this books” that this well-dressed young man was asking about. “Well, Mr. Sam. Books is the way we refer to your accounting process for your business.”
At this point Mr. Sam was beginning to get a little flustered. George was just as confused by the question and the mention of books.
“We don’t have any books. People pay us. When they pay us, we put the money in the cash register. We pay the bread man, the meat man, and the others that bring us things to sell. When we pay them, we take the money out of the cash register.”
“So, you don’t keep any books?” Now the astonished agent was getting flustered. His usual process for a surprise audit seemed to be quickly circling the drain. “So how do you know how much to pay in taxes?”
Mr. Sam drew himself up to his full five-foot, three-inch height. “Mr. Agent, I am proud to be an American. I love my president. I am happy to pay him to help run this wonderful country. Every year I send him as much as I can afford.”
Now the light was beginning to dawn for Agent Holbrook. This was a conversation not covered in all his training. He coughed, nearly choked, began to laugh, and slowly regained his composure. He straightened his tie, and stuck out his hand to Mr. Sam. Then he shook hands with George.
“Mr. Sam, George,” he began. “I would like to tell you that the president thanks you for your taxes, and he appreciates your generosity in supporting his work. I will be coming back next year to visit you. And, please, when I do,” he paused for effect. “Have some books for me.”
The agent thanked Mr. Sam and George, turned and walked out of the store. The store owner and his son stood for several moments in stunned silence. Had they just been given a reprieve?
After several phone conversations with other corner store owners, George set out for the local library to borrow a book on taxes and accounting. He was a good student, and quickly caught on to what Agent Holbrook would want to see on his next visit. Father and son would be ready.
A binder was prepared for the impending visit from Agent Holbrook. On the cover of the binder, written in George’s careful penmanship, was the name of the intended reader, Agent Thomas Holbrook.
Agent Holbrook’s binder sat in a place of honor in Mr. Sam’s store. For the first couple of months it rested on a shelf just below the cash register. Mr. Sam was proud of his binder his intentions to continue supporting the president in his work of running the United States.
After a few months, the binder migrated to a shelf in the hallway leading to the stairway to the family residence. The binder must surely be kept close at hand for the day when Agent Holbrook returned.
Years went by, and Agent Holbrook’s binder remained in its place of honor where the family could see it every day as a reminder of their obligation to support the president.
Alas, Agent Holbrook never returned to see his binder. The binder sat in its lonely place of honor like a widow waiting for her husband to return from a voyage across ancient seas.
Eventually the sacred Agent Holbrook binder took its place in the same closet where George and Mr. Sam kept all their new sets of books.
The old homestead.....April, 2019
Butter Cookies and Sour Pickles
By Barry Breibart
Today I went into a neighborhood convenience store. You know the place. The
bright shiny building with the gas pumps out front. The place with the shelves
of cookies, candies, chips, shrink wrapped forms of meat, so-called convenience
foods, and miles of refrigerators stocking individual cans or bottles of beer,
power drinks, and all sorts of sugary forms of flavored teas and flavored
sparkling water. And, oh yes, don’t forget the cigarettes and lottery tickets.
You can go into one of those places and drop fifty-bucks and come out with nothing worth eating. And how about the convenient car wash? You can eat all your snacks while you wait in line to have your car pounded with soapy water and attacked with massive spinning brushes.
All of this, clean restrooms, and the smell of overcooked coffee. And yet, the palace of sugar and alcohol left me with a sad empty feeling. What primal memory had been triggered by the onslaught of plastic and cellophane wrapped goodies?
As I waited in the interminable car wash line with my rapidly vanishing packages of unhealthy snacks, it dawned on me. The emergence of these cookie-cutter convenience stores was the final nail in the coffin of the old-fashioned neighborhood grocery store. The destruction that began with the supermarket chains and continued with the big box stores that sold food had reached its bitter end in the neatly lined parking lot of this shiny new convenience store.
There was a time when the neighborhood grocery store served as a social center for our communities. You knew the people who worked in the store as your neighbors. They even knew you – and they knew your brothers and sisters and your mom and dad, and they might even know your grandparents. The grocer gave you credit without the use of a credit card. They would happily charge your after-school snack to your family’s weekly bill, because they knew your dad would be dropping in to cash his paycheck and settle-up on Friday afternoon.
If your dad happened to be out of work for a week or so, no problem. The grocery tab kept running, and nothing was ever said to make you feel bad. They knew your dad would eventually be back to cash a check.
So other than being nostalgic for my old neighborhood grocery store and the friendly, caring people who seemed to be there at all hours of the day and night, what was bothering me?
It was the butter cookies imbedded in my memory. Well the butter cookies, coconut cookies, penny candy, and all the other treats that a kid could invest a penny, nickel, or dime in.
But it was the butter cookies that I looked forward to as the school day
dragged on. These were not cookies in a sterile, shrink wrapped cardboard
carton with pretty pictures on the wrapper. These cookies were stacked in
all their naked glory in a large glass jar on the counter near the cash register
in Mr. Sam’s grocery store on the corner near our house. No cardboard, no
cellophane, no fancy wrapper stood between me and my favorite treat.
For a single penny … one one-hundredth of a dollar … Mr. Sam would reach into the glass jar and select two – not one, but two – of the buttery rich delicacies, place them gently in a small crisp brown paper bag, fold the bag over at the top, and hand me the package as if he were handling the crown jewels of royalty. The aroma from the recently opened jar and the bag were amazing.
Now when I say these cookies were buttery, they were not the chemically
flavored cookies in today’s sterile packages. When you bit into Mr. Sam’s
butter cookies, you could see the verdant green farm pasture, the brown and
white cow, and the dairy barn. This was not the margarine your mother served
at home. This was real butter like they served in the fancier downtown restaurants.
And these butter cookies had an incredible shape. At first glance the cookies appeared to be round with a round hole in the middle. Once you got close enough to really see them, their delicate architecture revealed itself. The cookies were shaped like a cartoon flower with six equal petals radiating from the open center. The petals were individually outlined. Part of the experience to try to savor one delicate petal at a time, even though we never got it exactly right.
Maybe it was the reverence Mr. Sam had for your purchase that made the cookies special. Whether it was Mr. Sam, his wife Mrs. Sam, or their son Mr. George, your purchase seemed to have consequence for their lives.
It wasn’t just butter cookies this close-knit family doled out for our pennies. The jar next to the butter cookies glowed with its stacks of much larger coconut cookies. The coconut variety were a penny each. These two jars of cookies confronted me every school day. A decision had to be made. The coconut cookie was, in its own way, as glorious as the butter cookie. When the jar was opened and you smelled the coconut, you knew this cookie had its origin in a real coconut from a far-away tree. I believe that facing that cookie decision so many times prepared me for making much bigger decisions in my future life, decisions like which car to buy, which road to take, or which movie to see.
On the occasions when I had more than a penny, Mr. Sam’s magnificent candy case presented dozens of ways to pacify my sweet tooth. The candy was protected by a five-foot wide glass window in a tall wooden frame. The sliding glass doors were behind the counter for Mr. Sam or the others to reach in and pick up our selections. We could invest the entire walk from school in discussing the relative merits of the varieties of penny candy in that showcase. Were Squirrel Nuts chewier and more long-lasting than a peanut-butter laced Mary Jane? Did getting two for a penny make it worth investing in the little foil covered Hershey kisses?
If we had more than a couple of pennies, our sights moved to the massive nickel candy bars. We could choose from mammoth Hershey bars, creamy Milk Way, crunchy Snickers, or Payday bars. A dime could put you in the rarified air of Mounds, Almond Joy, or Mars bars
rOf course, most of these treats still exist, but they now cost a dollar, and they are much smaller. And just try to get that little brown paper bag Mr. Sam gave us with our purchases.
While hanging around the neighborhood grocery, we were able to observe the older kids as they came in for their after-high-school snack. It was a surprise to us that these teenagers had outgrown their taste for our incredible butter cookies and chocolate candies. They had moved on to a much wider range of goodies.
The grown-up snacks started at a nickel for a sour pickle from a jar near the revered cookies and moved on to jars of hot sausages and pickled pigs’ feet. If we were privileged enough to be allowed in the shadow of a teenager, we soon realized that their favorite snacks came with new and unexpected aromas that tickled and intrigued our senses.
Today in our new neighborhood convenience store I saw many of these same snacks. There were items in hermetically sealed packages that certainly looked familiar. Close inspection of these packaged products evoked only a vague visual memory. As much as they looked like the coveted treasures of my youth, they were not asking me to take them home.
The aromas that stimulated our youthful interest no longer penetrate the secure packaging that protects us from the unknown dangers that probably threatened our youthful health and innocence.
When Mr. Sam opened the pickle jar or the jars of hot sausages or pigs’ feet, the aroma and visual presentation were the essence of the experience. Mr. Sam would reach into the jar with an icepick. It was a pick coated and flavored from hundreds of visits into the jar. Your chosen pickle, dripping with a blend of vinegar and mysterious spices, exploded your senses on its way to a crisp brown bag.
You have not experienced the culinary joy of the untrained palette until you have eaten a pickle from a paper bag. No plastic bag can duplicate the flood of stimuli to your senses.
Today though in this modern-day convenience store, curiosity and nostalgia overwhelmed my fear of calories and acid indigestion. My greedily selected group of snacks were deposited on the cashier’s counter. The disinterested clerk totaled my purchase and asked, “cash or credit card.” Then she piled all my carefully chosen snacks into an anonymous plastic bag. There were no thanks for my purchase or indication that she might have an interest in my future patronage.
A few minutes later, sitting in my car, patiently waiting for the five-minutes it will take each of the six cars in front of me to make their way through the car wash, the car radio is tuned to a station that specializes in the hits of my youth, I am preparing myself for a trip down memory lane with my music and snacks.
Opening the plastic bag, I pull out and attack the box of butter cookies. The picture on the box looks like the cookies I remember. Negotiating the cellophane film, flimsy cardboard, and internal package I await the burst of buttery aroma from the cookies. I am immediately disappointed. The cookies smell and taste like cardboard. I eat a couple then put the box aside.
Now the pickle. It is swimming in its own juice in a sealed plastic bag. This pickle introduces a new problem for me in my car. When I invade the plastic bag, pickle juice may spill out like radiation from Chernobyl. But once committed, I must take the risk. If I am careful, I can avoid the juice. If my bag-piercing effort results in a tiny hole, I can open the car door and pour out the liquid. If the hole is larger, I will need to extract the pickle and dump the liquid. I cautiously open the car door, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.
Option one prevails. The tiny hole lets me dump the liquid and I now have a pickle alone in its plastic sarcophagus. Even though the pickle juice now is now staining the parking lot, a mild pickle scent remains in my car. I gingerly squeeze the pickle out of its bag, take a bite. This is a pickle? It looks like a one, it tastes like one, yet something is. Could it be that the ice pick and paper bag made that much difference? I mean, it’s just a pickle. I finally enter the car wash. Radio waves don’t penetrate here, so I am alone with my thoughts and the remains of my snacks as the simulated storm rages outside my car. While the machine’s fans blow my car dry, I make a decision.
I will call a couple of my old friends that still live here in the town’s nearby suburbs. I will invite them to take a Sunday afternoon road trip with me. We will drive by the places of our youth: the elementary school that is now a condominium, the neighborhood ball field that has become home to a luxury boutique hotel, the park now crowded with young families that look nothing like ours, and then we’ll come to the building that housed the neighborhood grocery where Mr. Sam and his family presided downstairs and lived upstairs. The building is still there. Progress and change surround the old place on all sides. Yet it continues to stand like slightly tarnished royalty.
Mr. Sam and his family are long gone from the neighborhood. They have scattered to nearby suburbs and far-away cities. The family name occasionally appears in our local newspaper, an obituary or a grandchild doing something interesting enough to attract the press. The cookie jars and candy case are probably serving now to showcase some other family’s crafts or artifacts. Our former homes are being updated and sold for unimaginable prices as the community continues t0 gentrify.
The old grocery store building has changed little. The nearby trees have grown. The current owner runs a beauty parlor in the store, and she may rent the upstairs apartment to strangers. The aromas in the building evoke hair curlers more than cookies. As progress seems to flow around the old neighborhood, the storefront stands like an ancient monument in a river of cars and construction.
As we approach the store, we will say in chorus, “Do you remember the butter cookies?”