Avenue B Grocery and Market is a one-room, frame structure in the shade of a pecan tree in a residential neighborhood of Austin. It has a double screen door. Over the doors is a metal 7 UP sign. On one side is a Dr. Pepper sign. On the other, a large clock, the kind with a big hand and a little hand A hand-lettered notice reads “Open Mon-Sat, 9-6 or thereabouts.” A few canned goods and notions are displayed on shelves along the walls and on one display counter along the middle.
A succession of ten proprietors has kept the store in continuous operation since 1909.
At the back of the store is a counter where you order sandwiches. Usually, the owner mans the counter and is the only person working. These days, sandwiches are the store’s principal reason for being; the “Grocery and Market” part of its name seems to be a holdover from earlier times.
The first couple of times I went to Avenue B Grocery it felt like dropping in at a church for a quiet moment of recovery. Opening the screen door and hearing the spring groan and the door bang quietly behind me had sort of the same effect as stained glass and the lingering smell of incense.
I had the veggie special (a salad sandwich on what in my childhood we called “light bread,” i.e. not corn bread or biscuits and certainly not the dense artisanal bread that’s popular these days). I have long since become too snooty and too health conscious for light bread. About the only time I ever eat it is at Avenue B. It’s a delight, a trip back to a happy childhood. I keep thinking that one of these days, I’ll have bologna and processed cheese with iceberg lettuce (preferably limp), but I haven’t yet found the courage for that.
The owner takes your order in a personal way. His queries – mayo, mustard, catsup? American or Swiss? – come across as more than businesslike. He seems to care, to be actually interested in what you want, like when a friend or relative makes you something to eat. It’s like that time a dear old man who lived next door made me a sandwich of venison paté on a baguette and gave me a beer on a rainy London afternoon when I was upset about something. And in Lebanon, I enjoyed several meals at the home of a family who served a few paying guests whatever the family was having. It transcended commerce. If MacDonald’s could teach its counter help how to do that, it would be as big as Apple and Facebook combined.
After the owner makes your sandwich, cuts it in half, wraps it in wax paper, and brings it out to you in the side yard where there are picnic tables and rickety yard furniture, he presents it in a way that is by some mystery more than just delivering an order. If I may push the sacerdotal comparison to the limit (maybe beyond), it’s like receiving communion; it suggests blessing.
With the sandwich I enjoy a Dr. Pepper – six-ounce size, glass bottle, full strength, not diet, “contains sugar” prominently displayed on the side – and eat slowly, attended by the rasping sound of katydids and the burbling coo of mourning doves.
Some customers (inexplicably, I’ve never seen but a few) are too young to experience the full emotional force of Avenue B Grocery. They’ve never known such stores in childhood and felt the discontent caused by their replacement with modern commercial establishments. I suspect, though, that even millennials and Gen Z zombies with their faces buried in smartphones appreciate at some level the special gratification that is an Avenue B sandwich. It’s an exchange that makes tolerable some hard aspects of being human. Or so it seems upon one or two visits.
In an effort to conduct thorough research, I went by a third time. O Lord. I had missed much and invented more. The owner who I had seen as a pastoral character dispensing blessing along with Wonder-Bread sandwiches had morphed into a balding, middle-aged, baggy-eyed, half used-up grouch. I suppose he must have had more fun with the little institution when he bought it back in 1985. Not much now though.
As an experienced sandwich orderer, I took it upon myself to speak right up and say what I wanted. “I’d like the veggie sandwich with mayo on Health Nut Bread, no cheese.”
He took a sort of parade-rest position holding his little pad and stub of a pencil at his side.
“I’ve been doing this for thirty-four years. We need to take it in order.” He went down the list of choices in column one, (sandwich type), then column two (additional vegetables, such as jalapenos), and so on. After exhausting the list of choices in proper sequence, he said “I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready.” That sounded good.
“You want to settle up now?”
I agreed, and we walked to the cash register by the front door.
I asked him to open my drink. “After I ring you up. I’ve been doing this for thirty-four years.”
“Do you always work alone?” That sent him into a dissertation on the very low Austin unemployment rate, the very high cost of living in Austin, how he can only pay $10 an hour which nobody can live on, and how bad Austin traffic had become, and so on.
“Yeah. I work solo.” (And don’t ask any more stupid questions.)
I stood halfway out the door trying to think of some question that had a fighting chance of eliciting a good-humored response.
“Shut the door. You’re letting the air conditioning out.”
Under the pecan tree, I heard some not at all interesting music coming from the back of the store. A leaf blower was raising hell next door. The katydids and mourning doves were on break.
I guess if you want something badly, such as a trip into recollected innocence, your mind will sometimes create it.