Courtesy Boy

This column appeared Tuesday, May 22, 2018 in The Manhattan Mercury.


A childhood friend sent me the link. The headline blared, “Part of the Sweetbriar Center at 21st and Amidon is being demolished.” Part of me chalked it up to inevitable change and part of me mourned a loss.

Say it ain’t so.

At the risk of coming across like John-Boy Walton, it’s not a stretch to say I came of age while working at Mr. D’s IGA in the Sweetbriar Shopping Center in Wichita.

I started as a “courtesy boy.” Sack and carry out, sweep the floors, clean up after the kid who tossed his cookies in the cookie aisle, sort and stack actual returnable glass pop bottles according to brand/size. Workers from the local Pepsi, Coke and 7up bottling plants would haul them away and they’d get used again. What a dated concept.

The place was full of characters. A brassy, 50-something Ozarks refugee with platinum hair piled high, held in place with what had to be an entire can of ozone-destroying aerosol hairspray per day. People tell me my voice carries, but I had nothing on this ol’ gal. She’d key the intercom and let ‘er rip. Imagine a female Mr. Haney from “Green Acres:” 

“MAAAKUL JAY, WE GAWD INNY MOW-ER O’ THAY-UM THREEFERDOLLER FIRST PEE-ICK MANDARIAN ORN-JIZZ?”

Translation: “Michael Jay. Have we any more First Pick mandarin oranges, priced three for a dollar?”

Ah’ll brang ‘em raht up.

From roughly ages 17-20, in the circles in which I ran, I was known as “Michael Jay.” Another column, perhaps.

To this day, I still call them “Mandarian” oranges. Cultivated and harvested in Mandaria. Governed by a strongman who stifles dissent, but he’s our strongman.

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The supermarket manager was going bald and not in attractive way. A hair transplant gone awry. A half-dozen closely-spaced, quarter-inch plugs. He tried, without success, to hide them beneath an equally cheesy comb-over. To make matters worse, a childhood accident robbed the man of a fully-formed left eyelid.

Despite all these seeming shortcomings, the guy was a ladies’ man. He’d juggle two or three different checkout girls at a time. Yes, that’s what they were called back then.

“What gives?” We’d ask the supermarket lifers working their way up the retail grocery flow chart. These guys were in their mid-to-late 20s and had all the answers.

“Sometimes women are attracted to power.”

His wife confronted him once. Right there in front of God and the courtesy boys at the express lane (15 items or less).

It was during this period that I discovered a talent for ad-libbing. Anytime an “official” announcement was needed, the call went out. Get Michael Jay. I’d get on the intercom and wing it.

“Attention Mr. D’s shoppers… for the next three minutes and three minutes only, if you’ll make your way to the end of Aisle 9, we are happy to offer a 64-ounce can of Country Style Lemonade Mix, free! Dehydrated lemonade. Just add water! And there’s no charge… all because we appreciate your business and we like the color of your eyes.”

The Mr. D’s delicatessen reeked of deep fried chicken grease. Courtesy boys who made time with the deli girls would soon begin to take on its characteristics. How come Michael Jay’s so shiny? Too much time in the deli. Some courtesy boys were more courteous than others.

Open 24-7-364. When we closed once a year on Christmas Eve, we had a tough time locking the doors. No one could find the key.

I also ran a cash register, stocked shelves and at 19 was promoted to frozen foods manager, in charge of ordering, inventorying and stocking cases of 6-ounce First Pick frozen orange juice concentrate and Swanson Hungry Man Salisbury steak dinners. With such rapid advancement at a tender age, I flirted briefly with the notion of making a career of it, but ambition kicked in and I ad libbed my way out of the Sweetbriar Shopping center into broadcasting studios and live shots.

“A lot has changed since the center was built,” read the article. “Things are different today.” But some things are the same. Young men will still come of age. The answers dawn. Layers of naïveté and inexperience are shed, in favor of knowledge and insight.

It just won’t happen as much in shopping centers.