I’m teaching Fiction Writing and Creative Writing this semester at Wheaton College (about to enter the final push of grading portfolios), and as students asked about ways and methods for entering new projects, I found myself coming up with all kinds of options, and always the same bottom line: there are as many ways to start to write and continue to write as there are people. But when I really got down and dirty honest about my typical portal into a new short story or novel, I realized this: most often I find my way in through setting.
“The place came before the words.” Terry Tempest Williams
(By the way, if you haven’t read When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams, I encourage you to do so. An incredible memoir-ish piece on identity, voice, and writing, inspired by the fact that when TTW inherited her mother’s stack of journals, all the pages turned out to be blank.)
In the novel I have coming out this March, the particular portal was Chicago, 1937. Once inside that broader sanctuary of this time and place, I found smaller doorways into settings I returned to throughout the arc of the story: the Garfield Park Conservatory, for instance. The Danish Baptist Church. A Bronzeville jazz club called Calliope’s. And a grocery store from that era, The National Tea.
My father worked at the National Tea as a young man, and I grew up hearing stories about the store, where customers placed their orders at a front counter, and stock boys went running for bricks of butter, bags of flour, spools of thread. Everything you needed, it was pretty much at the National Tea. I fully understood my dad’s loyalty to its memory when, in my research, I learned that it was founded by a couple of local Danish brothers, the Rasumussen boys. In an era where the Horatio Algerian myth of up-by-your-bootstraps was told without irony, those Rasumussens, George and Thorvald, had done the Danish immigrant community proud. As the granddaughter of Danish immigrants, I gotta admit, they kind of do me proud, too. Fresh off the boat, George and Thorvald built their first store in 1899. By the 1920s there were 160 National Teas in the Chicago area alone. Sure the Depression took its toll, but still the National hung on until 1995, and was in fact among the top 10 supermarket chains of the 20th century.
Along with Dominick’s, I’m imagining. But now the end has come for Dominick’s, too.
I finally made it to a Dominick’s yesterday, and trolled the aisles—drifted, listed through them really, looking for remaining bargains on the shelves, but also, truth be told, saying good-bye. It was more than a bit surreal. People, unmoored, kept running into each other. A lonely feeling settled over me, and a kind of emptiness that reflected the shelves around me, and was only intensified by the merry holiday tunes piping through the echoey florescence all around.
As Frank Sinatra longingly dreamed of a White Christmas, as elderly Asian-American couple approached me, holding cans of Spam. In faltering English they asked me which was better, regular Spam or Spam Lite? The last time I’d eaten Spam was when I was a very little girl. I remember it because my dad served it to me on a piece of bread, saying, “Here’s what war tastes like.” Needless to stay, Spam Lite had yet to be invented, and my memories of the taste of war were that it tasted very much like awful. Or offal, as you prefer. But I didn’t say that to the grandmotherly woman before me, or to her tender-eyed husband. With Frank Sinatra singing of war-time longing, we discussed that there was more regular Spam than Lite on the shelves. “That must mean something,” the man said, and we cast searching glances at the shiny tins. The tins remained mute. “At this price I guess we can try both,” the woman said. And then they thanked me for nothing more than a few words exchanged, and I thanked them for a fair amount of solitude relieved, and we went on our way.
Mostly the shelves like this.
Sometimes like this.
Whether starkly barren or oddly arranged, the shelves made my unmoored self feel like I’d washed up on the Island of Misfit groceries. Like other shoppers, like so many consumers at this time of year, I wanted to want so much. But really I wanted so little. And I needed even less.
I went back to my second Dominick’s later in the day with my daughter. (My first stop was the Glen Ellyn Dominick’s; my second, the north side Wheaton Dominick’s. “Our store,” as a friend said, which left me more than a little choked up.) In Glen Ellyn, I was sober much of the time. Grim, even, and somewhat morose. Dominick’s, of all stores, going the way of the National Tea, of Marshall Field’s and of Fannie Mae, for God’s sake. Here in the City of Big Shoulders, we are ever less strapping, ever more stooped. Frail and failing beneath the weight of our economy, ground down by some bad business decisions.
With my daughter, I was more chipper. We made post-apocalyptic allusions; we referenced the Walking Dead. I took great pleasure in embarrassing her by singing along to the Christmas carols, my voice echoing up and down the aisles.
And then I remembered all the times I shopped at Dominick’s when she was just a baby, and my son, too, their little bodies strapped into the cart’s child’s seat, or those cumbersome toddler/kiddie carts with the red plastic cars attached, and how we made truly merry (or sometimes not) while ticking things off the list, and how the Dominick’s in Oak Park was where I always got their birthday balloons, and when that store got remodeled back in the 1990s I felt like I had a whole new lease on my grocery shopping life.
To market, to market, jiggedy jog.
Dominick’s, for better and worse, was one kind of touchstone, one kind of portal for memory and story, just like the National Tea. And now it’s going, going, almost gone.
And oh, all the people still working over there, in the aisles and behind the cash registers, ringing up things at half off (and I just read that now liquor prices have been slashed too, so the employees will no doubt have to endure another rush). I dream for them not a White Christmas (we’ve already got that; we don’t need that), but jobs. Jobs. Jobs. And a far better new year.