Monday, May 12, 2008

Picher Haunts

This sounds crazy, but grocery stores have always played a prominent role in my life. I can virtually remember every single store that I have ever been to. In fact, my first job was working in a grocery store in a small town. And the first thing I do whenever visiting or moving to a new town, is scout out the grocery stores. It's my thing. It's what I do.  

Picher, Oklahoma, was in the news this week. A tornado wiped out what was left of it, a mining town gone bust. It had been a ghost town for years. I can only imagine what it looks like now. But there were people who lived there and called it home, and for that I am sorry. Even if your home is a desolate, depressing place, it is still home. I know, because I once lived there.

I'll spare you the entire history of Picher, but to give you an idea of what it looked like, imagine a ghost town movie set, where no grass or flowers or even weeds can grow - and the only sign of life are the drunkards wandering around in the street. This was Picher. And when I lived there, the town's only grocery store, was from a place back in time -  uncannily similar to the grocery store depicted in the haunting short story Thanksgiving by Joyce Carol Oates - where a cash register sets upon the only checkout lane; cracked, filthy windows cast an eerie glow across creaky, buckled wooden floors; leaky cooler's, half-full of tepid milk, hum as if they were on their very last leg; and Faded tins of corn, Chore Girl scouring pads, and stale Wonder Bread line the dusty shelves. The entire store seemed caught in time.

This town, this store, was the first place I ever drove to without an adult in the car, when I first got my license at the age of sixteen. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. Dad needed a few things from the store and my younger sister offered to come along for the ride. We hopped into our Ford Pinto and in a cloud of dust, left two barking dogs behind. We passed a white clapboard shack with it's windows open and a goat chewing on curtains out front. Then we turned the corner at the old gas station where the owner 'One-eye' tinkered with an engine, on past the house where the fat lady sat on her porch, then by the bar where the drunks hung out. Until finally, in the shadow of the mountainous piles of chat, we parked the car and walked inside a huge wooden door, where I bought bologna, canned biscuits and Dad's cigarettes. The man at the register tried to cheat us out of a buck, but I caught him. If there was one thing Picher taught you, it was to stay on your toes and to trust no one.

Picher and its demise was the perfect example of greed and good ol' American capitalism gone awry. Picher was a host that had been destroyed by it's parasite.

The few who stayed behind became an alloy of sorts, fused to the very land that so insidiously ruined their lives.

The town and that grocery store will forever haunt me.

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