My high school job was working as a cashier at James’ Grocery. James’ was where the Public Library is now in Xenia. I never forgave them for moving from the original library on East Church. A classic Carnegie library, the old library was wonderful architecturally and a magical place to spend an afternoon when I was a child. One of the librarians–I do not remember her name, but someone will–talked so loudly that you wondered how she ever decided to become a librarian in the first place. In those days even the kids were supposed to be quiet in libraries, but she, with her glasses hanging around her neck on what they call an eyeglass leash now but I think had a much more glamorous French name back them, would stomp around the library virtually shouting, ” I THINK THOSE ARE OVER HERE, FOLLOW ME!”
Not only was the library gorgeous, but after you got too old to want to go nestle in the children’s book room and read for hours the stacks upstairs made a great place to go smooch. The library was one of the only allowable places to go on a school night, so I used to leave my house on East Market with a couple of girls to walk to the library and we would meet up with some boys who had waited a discreet distance down the street from the prying eyes of our parents. When they put the library up for sale some years ago I truly wanted to buy it and live in it, until I realized with its marble floors and two story ceilings I probably could not afford to heat it in the winter. Ah the library, but I digressed again, back to James’.
James, originally called James Brothers’, was owned by Byford James and his brother. Byford was an old sweetie and treated his employees like gold. He was the in-residence manager when I started working at James’ during my junior year in high school. I am not sure I ever met the other James brother, he might have been dead already come to think of it. I loved my job at James, even when we had chicken sales. Chicken sales were bad because the chickens bled all over your conveyor belt and you had to wash it frequently. Unfortunately our cleaning supplies were pretty much limited to a pail of water and a rag. If you have ever smelled chicken blood you know that wiping down a belt with a damp rag is not going to do much to allay the smell!
Butch Gegner was the head butcher, another delightful man, always smiling and always ready with a really corny joke. He would warn us when chicken sales were coming up so that we could get ready. The Brantleys had recently opened a rest home, what they call a nursing home now, and they would come in late on a Saturday during the chicken sale and buy carts full of chickens. We all tried to be busy away from our registers when we saw them coming.Their son David was my classmate so I felt bad ducking his parents and as a result I frequently ended up checking out their mountain of oozing, foul, fowl.
I had my first encounter with bigotry at James’. And it had nothing to do with race. I was a popular cashier, sometimes my line was long when there were other cashiers with no one in their lane. I liked my customers, played around with them, remembered what they had told me the last time and asked about their events and loved ones. One older white man, a regular of mine, surprised me one day. We were in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, it may well have been that there was some recent event like the Selma March that inspired him to say what he did. As we were joking and laughing he suddenly stopped looked at me earnestly and said, ” I just want you to know I have no problem with your people, but I hate those goddamn Jews!”
I was too stunned to say anything back. I only knew a few Jews. Mr. Rich who owned the jewelry shop, the Arnovitzs who owned Sol’s dry goods store and Dr. Hyman who was a podiatrist. I do not think I even knew what being a Jew meant, in those days we did not study the Holocaust, etc., in history class. I did know that the man who made the comment, and I was as shocked at him cursing as I was at what he said, looked like he could be Mr. Rich’s brother. Racial prejudice was wrong, but I could understand that at least the people had different colors of skin. The Arnovitzs, Mr. Rich and Dr. Hyman all looked white to me. Why would this man hate them? I could not imagine that the few Jewish people we had in town had banded together to do something to him.
My father was a tailor and almost all of his colleagues were Jewish. I had to go home and tell my father what my customer had said to me and ask him to explain why this man would hate Mr. Rich. He explained.
I learned a lot about the grocery business, about how the product had to be displayed and advertised and how you had to plan to have enough stock on hand when you were having a sale. Byford would come out of the office and approach one of the cashiers and tell them something to the effect ” You look tired, come rest.” What he wanted was for you to come to the office to chat with him. He would grab a cold coke from the case and some kind of snack and hand it to you. In the office he would tell stories of his childhood and then ramble on into details of what it took to run a grocery store. Usually you had to be the one, having finished your coke and snack to suggest you needed to get back to work. I think he just got bored and lonely, he was always a perfect gentleman, like an old favorite uncle–except in my case of course none of my real uncles were old white men.Byford was a country man, old by the time I met him, but if he ever had a prejudiced bone in his body I never discovered it.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all of the employees. One woman in particular named Nancy would leave her register and follow virtually any black person who came into the store under the age of 40, and a few over the age of forty. At one point we began to lose quite a bit of merchandise, a lot of it expensive stuff like Pepperidge Farm bread which, when regular Wonder Bread cost about 30 cents, cost almost a dollar! Nancy huffed and puffed and announced loudly that it was the Central State students stealing( CSU is an historically black college four miles from Xenia).
I had my doubts. White, thin sliced bread did not seem to me to be a logical target for college students. Other high ticket items that were disappearing were things like jars of fruit, tins of smoked oysters, gourmet crackers and fancy cheeses. Not exactly staples on most teenager’s or young adults’ menus. Nancy labored hard and long and followed and staked out CSU students every time we worked together. I called her on it, but she stuck to her guns. Imagine her chagrin when one of the stock boys caught a diminutive, white woman who worked as a secretary in nearby Dayton stuffing the very items we had been missing regularly into her grocery bag. The woman, who was not more than 30, rode the bus to Dayton to work each day and got off the bus virtually in front of James’ each evening. She would come in to shop for her dinner each evening, we all knew her and were used to seeing her often. She blended in to the woodwork so to speak.
Evidently she had developed a method that worked well for her. She would go through one of our lines and purchase something small, asking for a large bag–to carry her lunch and walking shoes in she would say. We would accommodate her, of course, putting her one or two items into a large grocery bag. She would then pretend to have forgotten something and go back into the store and load up the bag. She usually did not, as it turned out, even go back through the line but would simply smile and walk out of the store. After all, she had been through the checkout and she had her bag. One of the stockers had seen her put something in her bag one day and had begun to watch her. After a few days he raised the alarm and she was apprehended. Nancy never apologized, but she stopped following the CSU students.
Because of its location right across from the Courthouse, and the jail, James was a bit of a community center. For example, if someone who had fallen on hard times had to go on welfare ( there was no such thing as a food stamp) they would get a food voucher from Human Services in the Courthouse or the County Building and generally it was to be used at James’. I am not sure if Byford had connections or if the geographic location nearby made James’ the beneficiary of the welfare vouchers. If someone came through your line with one of the vouchers you had to write down, on a little lined form pad with a carbon, every thing they bought and how much it cost. As I recall we did not give them a copy, we kept a copy and a copy was sent to the Welfare Office for reimbursement. People with vouchers tended to come in late when there were fewer people in the store so they would not be embarrassed by people seeing that they were on welfare. Unfortunately, the orders, which tended to be large, took forever to ring up and write down, so we dreaded seeing someone come in late clutching a voucher when we were trying to clean up and go home.
Teenagers ruled the roost at James’ on Saturdays. Nobody over the age of 19 worked after noon on Saturdays. We had chances to act goofy and enjoy ourselves until closing.
Before we could go home we had to ring out the registers, put the money and checks and vouchers and lists in a bank bag and someone had to walk it up the street to the Citizen’s bank on the corner of Main and Greene Streets. I know that I lived in a different time when I remember how many times I took my turn in the dark on a Saturday night around 9:30 walking the money bag all by myself up to put it in the night drop at Citizen’s. Xenia at 9:30 on a Saturday night in those days was about as deserted as it possibly could be.
I had to walk past the Sheriff’s Office, but there was nobody in there at that hour and although the Xenia Cinema might have been showing a movie, no one could see you from inside the building, there was no box office that stuck out in front, you had to go in to buy a ticket. To my knowledge none of the teenagers who strolled up the dark street with the money bag holding the proceeds of the day ever met anyone else, let alone got robbed.
Living in a small town might be boring, but it was usually pretty safe.