Ring On Deli

A Novel about Supermarkets and Democracy by Eric Giroux

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On his way to Stan’s office, Ray scrambled around an unfamiliar white-plastic blinking monolith in Aisle Five. It had hit the floor sometime after Inspection and appeared to be some kind of newfangled movable mop closet. Ray spared the device a second thought and jogged up the management-only front stairs to the long hallway that wrapped around the side wall.

Ceiling cameras encased in glass augmented the elevated hall. The hall and the cameras allowed management to scan the floor for shoplifters, including the occasional criminal element among the associates. The cameras had a warm-and-fuzzy secondary function too, ensuring swift-moving aid to shoppers in distress. You’d often find lonesome men down there, unaccountably searching the Home/Cleaning aisle for a favorite soda or cheese-and-caramel popcorn mix. Sometimes it was grandparents getting thigh-clobbered by the junk-cereal demand curves of their hard-kicking carriage passengers.

Right now, in fact, Ray spotted a customer in need of aid. The woman looked hungry and morally vexed as she squeezed a boxed product. A little thought bubble above her head read, “Can I bust into the Keebler’s right now or do I really have to pay first?” Some chains frowned upon it, but at Bounty Bag she could. Ray did a slow, stretched-arm wave, caught her gaze, and flashed his Hollywood smile. He made an exaggerated scooping-to-the-mouth gesture, followed by a fat thumbs up. A moment later he heard the satisfying crash of fingers into cookies.

Ray scanned the rest of the store. Things looked mostly normal at first. If anything it was busy for a Friday morning, and after Turbo Boy traffic had quickly picked up. The lines had expanded and multiplied, with four registers open and a fifth one already on break. Sawdust had memorialized a tomato-sauce spill, result of excessive enthusiasm for today’s two-for-one special, and the perimeter teemed with stocking, baking, and customers ordering sandwiches and fish. Was the Outback a mirage?

But on closer examination, all was not well.

Ray looked out through the massive fiberglass storefront windows and saw good-egg Gary Snow out in the parking lot shagging carriages, even though he was a senior-associate stocker, only a notch below deputy assistant manager and the pride of a purple coat. The plowers should have been here by now and cleaned up this mess with Chesley’s fleet of Tiger 204s. But there was still no sign of them and Gary, caught in a snow squall without a proper winter parka, was paying the price for their extreme tardiness. The accumulating snow was making it especially hard for him to get the job done. He struggled to combine and corral the carriages but the wheels kept getting caught in slush pools, the hinges between the carriages jammed, and renegade carriage snakes slithered threateningly into parking rows. Snow caked Gary’s bare head and his indoor-jacket sleeves, and as Ray watched, Gary’s dress shoes slipped out from under him and only a lucky grab at a carriage handle prevented him from tumbling face-first into the snow. He reminded Ray of the arctic-dwelling musk-ox from one of Patrick’s kiddie picture books, hunkered down for winter on his windswept feeding plain. Ray silently promised himself that after Stan’s meeting he would bring Gary his own parka and his boots.

Even accounting for the unplowed snow and perilous ice patches, Gary’s step had slowed severely, enhancing the somber atmosphere that — Ray realized in retrospect — had permeated the entire store during Inspection. If in earlier times like the now distant seeming day of the “I My Job!” T-shirts, Ray had been keenly attuned to bad omens in the store, denial or something very like it had led him to turn a blind eye to this day’s portents. It ran from Bonnie MacNutt to Bakery to Gary. What Ray had fancied mere lethargy or repose had been the hushed ceremonial pall of a funeral parlor. Even The Alfredo, reading the deals flyer, had been less garrulous than usual today (though a botched chicken theft could account for his behavior).

Ray stepped into Stan’s office and found his friend subtly altered as well. He stood at his desk with his sleeves rolled up. His purple jacket with the golden store-manager stripes still hung on the coat-hanger behind the door, and he appeared more preoccupied than usual with whatever business or marketing decision he was worrying. Indeed, by all appearances Stan hadn’t even left his office since Ray saw him unlock the automatic doors at 7 a.m. and scurry up the manager’s stairs. Whatever he had to show, he had been working on it all morning.

“Let me know what you think, and I want you to be honest,” Stan said.

He gestured to two poster boards he had set up on easels.

“ ‘Truth never damages a cause that is just.’ —Gandhi,” Ray said.

“Idea number one.”

Stan flipped over one poster and revealed two wobbly rectangles with aqua and pink squiggles between them. Underneath, he’d scrawled, “Simple food for simple people!” If Ray hadn’t known Stan’s familiar symbol for bread, signaling that this was a sandwich concept, he might have guessed this was a flag design for some newly christened Pacific island nation. The squiggles, however, were a mystery. Vegetable? Meat? Hummus or other spread? Nothing seemed right.

“Uh — BLT? We have that.”

“Frosting sandwiches.”

“Let me see idea number two.”

Stan turned over the other poster. It showed a big circle with what looked like a couple of crudely drawn snakes inside of it.

“Behold the Double Dog. Two hot dogs in one bun. I’m thinking gold-star special.”

“Everything’s a gold-star special. Have you seen our flyer? Besides: ‘Gilded honor, shamefully displaced.’ —William Shakespeare.”

“You hate them. I knew it.” He whacked the boards hard and they flipped violently off the easels onto the floor.

“Now why’d you go and do a thing like that?” Ray asked. He sensed something larger, e.g., revolution, was troubling Stan. Ray wanted to play it cool because if Stan stayed, Ray would too, but if Stan jumped . . .

“Frosting and dogs aren’t selling, and I’m all out of ideas,” Stan confessed.

“That’s all?” Expecting something urgent, Ray was confused. He refocused on Stan’s dilemma and quickly divined a strategy that just might work. He sat up in his chair and leaned forward interestedly.

“Well?” Stan asked, uncharacteristically impatient with Ray’s professorial stance.

“Loss leaders.”

Stan’s eyebrows rose. “How so?”

“Simple. Promote the dogs or, rather, the buns at, oh, two for one. Do that, and the dogs might go along with them. Same thing for frosting. You could discount the other cake stuff, like maybe the mix or some butter. And you don’t need me to tell you this but be sure you pair the items for display. We don’t need a wild-goose-chase to throw off the cherry pickers. In these types of cases, selling is key.”

Cherry pickers traveled from store to store sniffing out the loss leaders. Loss leaders were popular items, such as soda cans or ground beef. They priced these low to sell at a loss in order to attract customers into the store. Once inside, most loss-leader customers would buy a full load of weekly groceries — and the store would end up back in the black. But if the loss leaders weren’t somehow protected against them, the cherry pickers would quickly deplete the stock. This would leave the store with nothing to offer its other customers, which could be extremely alienating.

Quantity caps were a solid first line of defense against the cherry pickers. “Two-per-customer on the seltzer, ma’am.” This sent an egalitarian message that Bounty Bag treated each customer the same while also providing a little something for everyone. The strategy also scattered all but the most devious cherry pickers, who wore disguises. But too many quantity caps evoked the specter of hard rationing (“Moderation in all things, especially moderation.” —Emerson).

Ray liked quantity caps but, at least in Pennacook, the best way to undermine cherry pickers was to hide the loss leaders. Cherry pickers were, after all, a rather lazy bunch who had nothing better to do than fart around town exploiting retailers. Ordinary customers coming into the store would receive ready directions on where to find the loss leaders. Known cherry pickers could be, well, lied to or, to satisfy Kant, told the God’s honest truth. Most cherry pickers were too skittish to ask.

Cherry pickers weren’t even customers, really; they were leeches. Stan thought Ray was too hard on the cherry pickers, that it was a symptom of his managerial greenness that he wanted to fight every battle like a Viking. But there you have it. “A little less duty, a little more love,” Angie’s personal words of advice, came back to Ray at surprising moments.

“Gosh darn it, you’re a genius!” Stan pulled Ray’s head down and kissed the top of it.

It had been a false alarm after all, Ray thought. Stan was just stuck on frosting and dogs. But then San’s face darkened once more, and Ray was back on tenterhooks.

Stan’s hand roiled with nervous tremors as he tossed an opened manila envelope on the table like a dead fish.

“I need your help with something else.”


Ray half-expected his own termination or a draft store-closure announcement for proofreading. He withdrew the letter and noticed, in a Michael Corleone moment, that his own hand was steady. Inside the envelope, he found a simple thank-you note from Giuseppe Alvaro, their leading giardiniera vendor. False alarm number two.

Giuseppe lived in New Hampshire but hailed from a village of Mariotto, not far from the Martinis’ own ancestral home in Turi. His domestic tendrils extended as far as Colchester, Vermont, and Austerlitz, New York. From his sprawling network of farms, he trucked down to his Portsmouth plant an array of fresh vegetables, bell peppers, celery, gherkins, cauliflower, and carrots. There Giuseppe and his five assistants jarred and pickled the veggies with oil and white-wine vinegar. But he was known best for the hot-mix variety, which he enriched with a sprinkle of chopped pepperoncino imported from Diamante, Calabria, and branded with the image of Christopher Columbus, who had first brought the pepper to Europe from the New World in 1492. The pepperoncino were the subject of the note, which, as always, Giuseppe had made out in the tiniest print.

Caro Angelica:

È passato così tanto tempo dall’ultima volta. I am very happy my hot-mix like your customers. The samples of new Hot Mix I send February.

Un abbraccio grosso [A big hug]
Giuseppe Alvaro

The note’s first sentence was a dramatic and inaccurate, but typical, greeting for Giuseppe Alvaro. It meant, roughly, “it’s been so long since we’ve last communicated.” In fact, Angie and Giuseppe, an old bachelor, met in the North End for espresso every week. Stan occasionally joined them. Angie had flown solo ever since the heart attack that had taken Stan’s father, and Stan often wondered aloud at Giuseppe’s true intentions. Cautious but amorous, both Stan and Ray had concluded.

“What’s the big deal?” Ray asked. “It’s a simple thank-you. I don’t think he’s even asking for anything.”

“He’s not asking, but we always give. He’s a key supplier — and a friend.”

The local “sourcing” of most of Giuseppe’s ingredients was typical for Bounty Bag. The chain’s suppliers came from all over the world, but the scales tipped decidedly toward New England, New York’s long eastern border, and the borderlands of Quebec (“The French Crescent,” as Angie referred to that area, a wordplay, Ray suspected, on “the Fertile Crescent” of Mesopotamian fame. Stan mutilated it to “the French Croissant,” which Ray tetchily told him was redundant). Bounty Bag’s slant toward regional suppliers had little to do with the preferences of foodies, locavores, or even nutrition-minded parents. It mostly reflected Angie’s premium on trust and friendship in business relations. The care and maintenance of firm vendor relationships was paramount, and Giuseppe Alvaro was a much-loved vendor, not to mention a possible suitor to Angie. It was obvious to Ray what they had to do with the pepper king’s letter.

“A gracious reply and a ‘free gift,’ ” Ray prescribed. “So what’s the issue? Send him a crate of hams. I can write the letter if you’re stumped.”

“The issue — do you even read the paper?”

As a matter of fact, he didn’t. Sure, he’d browse Supermarket Happenings, but even that fell by the wayside during The Sickness. As for broader news, he caught a few stray headlines with WBZ in the morning or in the Pennacook Beat, on rare occasions when his guard was down and he threw a buck away. But he generally didn’t read newspapers, finding the news salacious or dread-inspiring or both. When the convention called to congratulate him on the presidential nomination, Ray supposed he’d have to bone up on current events. Until then he typically favored a half-century delay in his non-fiction reading, with narrow exceptions for optimism and parenting literature.

Thus, right now as far as Ray was concerned Lyndon Johnson was mobilizing national sentiment for a War on Poverty. Meanwhile, the decentralized approach of the shadow RFK administration focused on community development corporations, like this one he got behind in Bedford-Stuyvesant, that brought power and money to the local level. America, Kennedy disclosed, was a generous country, compassionate and kind. It would reconcile its disenchanted, black and white, young and old, and take care of its poor children. Come, my friends, ’Tis not too late to seek a newer world, RFK quoted Tennyson. Which of these paths would the country choose? Future volumes would reveal all . . . though of course Ray knew the bitter outline.

Stan swung around and pointed at his mission-control dashboard panel from which, in ordinary times, he presided cheerfully over the store floor like a celebrity DJ.

“See that button over there?”

Ray’s eye caught the chrome glimmer of an unfamiliar rainbow-colored button. He edged toward it.

Stan frowned. “Chesley installed it yesterday. Sent lackeys to drill us — three hours straight. Told me to follow their orders. Go on. Press it.”

Ray walked over and smacked the button hard with his palm.

Beyond the dashboard the store lights dimmed, then rapidly brightened in multiple, swirling colors. The security cameras — upgraded overnight — descended from the ceiling and converted to disco balls. Speakers blared through jacked-up amps, and the looped chorus of the 1974 Bachman-Turner Overdrive hit “Takin’ Care of Business” flooded the floor.

“I know you can’t hear it from up here, but it’s on,” Stan said.

Stan was right. Triple-thick plexiglass prevented any sound from coming through, but Ray knew the song and could imagine it playing below them.

Instantly, all the associates already at work, even poor snowbound musk-ox Gary Snow out in the parking lot, fell into a frenzy. Wiped counters. Loaded watermelons. Stuffed shelves. Swept floors. Mopped aisles. Dumped drumsticks in the hot-wings bar. Shelly Frampton plunged her mop like she was drowning a rabid raccoon.

Ray looked at the dashboard. The counter ticked down from 15 to zero, again and again, resetting after each run of the chorus. A little red digital note above the timer spelled out and repeated the song’s title: TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS.

Already spent, a watermelon stocker flung himself back against a wall of crackers and slid to the floor, boxes of Ritz raining down on him —donk! donk! donk!— and cartoon birds twittering around his head satellite-fashion. Outside, Gary Snow shoveled like a madman. Snow clouds flew up in the wind and back in his face.

From what the dashboard said, “Takin’ Care of Business” continued to pound through the store. Ray couldn’t hear or read the lyrics but he watched the song’s title scroll across the screen: TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS! TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS! TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS! The volume dial turned itself up up up. The digital letters trapped Ray’s eyes and held them in a cage. He imagined indicators he’d seen earlier in the Bounty Bag weekly deals flyer superimposed over the song’s title.

TAKIN’ CARE OF business!


Ray felt queasy. He broke loose from the dashboard and looked down at the floor. Customers fearing an active shooter clumped together for safety or ran screaming for the automatic exit doors which, terrifyingly, opened at their usual stately pace. Bzzzzhhhhhhhhhhht. Others stayed behind. One woman shielded her unpaid-for items from assault by draping her body over her filled carriage, crying “Oooh Oooooooh.” On the floor between Register Four and Aisle Seven, three elementary-school boys — who must have been playing hooky from school — had also misidentified the precise nature of the threat and were performing the “stop, drop, and roll” technique, their exuberant log rolls carrying them halfway across the store. Coming closer to the comically humiliating heart of the matter, a gaggle of young guys and a shaggy old man wearing a bathrobe and flip-flops and holding a paper-towel cube back-slapped, guffawed, and pointed through the whole performance.

The song title rolled by:


TAKIN’ CARE — OF business!!!

Late-responding associates burst from the breakroom and spilled out onto the floor to prance about and work to the piercing soundtrack. Even The Alfredo — who, as Ray had witnessed time and again, still peed with his pants pressed down to his ankles like a three-year-old who has yet to master the urinal — waddled out of the restroom, one hand clenched to his sagging waistband, the other uselessly painting the floor with a dry mop head.

The crew moved desperately in a tight range of repetitive tasks like cuckoo-clock figurines or cursed Amish carpenters chained to their hand saws in some high-stakes handmade furniture factory in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Again and again, Ray read the title as it scrolled nightmarishly across the digital screen.

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

takin’ care of business takin’ care of business

Ray reeled to the side, only to find that Stan wasn’t there. Ray caught the last of him turning the corner down the stairs. He reappeared seconds later down on the store floor in full uniform with an enormous pasted-on grin.

I can’t get enough of this stuff! the grin unpersuasively urged as he used a box-cutter to shave a piece of gum while bobbing his rump.

Panic rose in Ray’s throat, and he turned back to the store. The disco-lights receded and the music faded. The blitz had crushed the associates and they slumped back down to their work or off to the breakroom or toilets or to the sports-drink aisle where they cashed in store credits for a sodium-potassium top-off. Customers looked fragile in the aisles but they gradually un-huddled. Some returned to shopping. Others calmed one another by quietly negotiating a restoration of the pre-crisis lines.

Ray thought the tsunami had finally subsided but just then two cottage-sized men dressed in safety coats and carrying hammers closed in on the tarp-shrouded Register Two that he had asked Natty about earlier. They tore off the tarp and knocked at the equipment from odd, seemingly random directions. A huge box behind them contained — how could he not have guessed it? — an automated register. Chesley was moving fast with those plans!

Ray was only beginning to digest this development when he spied in the distance a demon of far greater menace. It was the white-plastic tower he had spotted earlier, mistaking it, fool that he was, for a harmless mop closet. Ray could now see that this “mop closet” had eyes. Cute, round, blue bubble-eyes. More disturbing, the baby-faced tower was working. It blurped and bleeped, scanning the shelves with a red laser matrix and soaking and crunching data from the passing stacked items. Inventory robot, with — Ray could just make out — a little rotating claw and mechanized arm for truing shelves, even stocking. No doubt an army of Tin Man siblings was already on the container ship, blinking in the darkness; at the pier, latter-day Dorothys ready to oil their joints and turn them loose on Stores 1 to 74. The robots would be charmers, but Ray could easily guess what foul dust floated in their wake. Mothership drones to dump groceries on your head. Deli machines that didn’t talk at all, let alone follow Garner’s or AAVE’s strictures. In short, a whole world, or “ecosystem,” a fishy term he’d read in a Chesley board-transcript entry, set up for Howard Hughes in his less presentable days. Ray was a bit of an introvert, but this was ridiculous. What did Aristotle (well, Groof) say about people being political animals who needed society? If Chesley had his way, as it now seemed he would, we’d all be shut-ins, nothing more than shoppers: the associates’ only purpose to hang up their coats and go home; the customers’ only function to keep funneling to Chesley all of their cash — whatever little they had left after their own jobs started “doing the robot” — and continue eating; the communities’ — what communities? Pace the sanguine posture of the unreliable Supermarket Happenings’ editorial pages and the understandably complacent 1997 assessment of Grocery Business, one of Stan’s older volumes (“People generally don’t like to grocery shop on the Internet. ‘They want to see their food, and touch it. They also like the experience, and chatting with our people,’ one Arkansas grocer explained”), the future was clear. Bounty Bag and all that it stood for were doomed!

Stan rounded the staircase corner and removed his golden-striped purple manager’s jacket. He plopped into his roller chair, looking spent but relieved and like himself again, as though he’d just figured something out. He carefully set the jacket on his lap and while they spoke he petted it gently like a kitten.

Ray held up Giuseppe’s letter. “You’re leaving.”


“And you want me to reply.”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Fill me in.”

“Later. Maybe much later. But let me tell you this:

“Mom always carries this old green leatherette pocketbook. One night last winter outside The Chateau, she dropped it and a note fell out. Said the damnedest things that I can’t get out of my head. Part of it was something she picked up at the Waltham Civic Society, I think, when they gave her a plaque for that bookmobile? This I don’t know, but the note was written on their stationery and it was very old, so many times Mom must have kept it when she could have thrown it away.

“Anyway, on one side it’s got this quote from this ‘Louis Brandeis, J.’ You know the guy? Says, ‘We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.’

“You know what Mom wrote on the other side? ‘The supermarket kills the little man — Papa’s last words.’ ‘Papa’ was my great grampa, guy who founded this place. Thing must’ve haunted the both of them, Papa and Mom. I’m thinking this whole debacle might be a test of sorts, of whether these things Mom wrote down are true.”

“I’ll quit with you,” Ray said.

Though what was he thinking? Who’d pay for Patrick’s food? If he quit, Ray wouldn’t even be eligible for unemployment. Then, he supposed, it was time to drain Patrick’s college fund or beg a handout from Stan — the same Stan who, despite possibly being a millionaire, found only flies in his own wallet and hit Ray up for cash when they grabbed the occasional lunch out at Pat’s or H. T. Pasta. Ray could, as an unsatisfying last resort, head right back to Dusty Grimes’s Pennacook Food Pantry. But the PFP was no adequate substitute for Bounty Bag, as Ray well knew from the Markhams’ first rocky canned-food-only days in Pennacook all those years ago. Ray had told eleven-year-old Patrick, at that age still basically a trusting boy, that it was like they were camping, but they had been very poor. The fragile equilibrium that Ray had sustained these past years, ever since the Bounty Bag paychecks kicked in, now faced its greatest threat. Stan, fortunately, had something else in mind.

“You can’t quit. We need you in the store.” Stan leaned back and swung his arms behind his head, grinning. “But if I told you more, like what to do, well then as you know Mom and I could be held legally responsible.”

“Breach of fiduciary duty,” Ray said, taking the hint. “Intentional interference with business relations. Emotional distress. Chapter 93A. Frottage.” Most of these were practically boilerplate counts in Chesley’s annual National Homemade Cookies Day Superior Court complaint against his twin sister. The last one, though, he had tossed in for the first time this year. It was wholly fabricated and served for media catnip.

“Our old friends. Listen, you always wanted to wear the purple jacket. You didn’t know it but you did. Here it is.” He tossed the golden-striped purple manager’s jacket across the room and Ray caught it. “Take it and wear it.”

Ray didn’t believe a word of what Stan said about wanting the jacket, but he decided for the moment to play along with Stan’s Prince Hal fantasies for him. He’d save for a later hour his dread at this colossal responsibility.

“What about Giuseppe?” he asked.

“Oh, just send him a ham or something.”