Author: Raanan Geberer


Checkout Time at the Tri-State Grocer

Checkout Time at the Tri-State Grocer

By Raanan Geberer


Ever since I'd gotten the job as a reporter/assistant editor on a small trade paper called the Tri-State Grocer with the covert help of its secretary -- who happened to be the wife of one of my father's friends --  I knew something was wrong.


The pay was terrible -- not enough for me to move out of my parents' Co-Op City apartment, where I'd involuntarily been living since I came back to New York from the Midwest. There also was an atmosphere of deadly silence throughout the paper's Midtown office.  Mr. Zimmerman, the publisher, didn't want people talking to each other unless it was about work. There were no birthday parties, no holiday celebrations. The aforementioned secretary once whispered to me that Mr. Zimmerman even discouraged people from going to lunch together.


I wasn't even eligible for health insurance until I'd been working there for a year. And on a day-to-day basis, I had to learn how to avoid some of Mr. Zimmerman's pet hates -- like an organization known as the Food Merchants Association. Not only did he not want the group mentioned in print, if you even said the name in the office, he'd explode in anger.


On top of it all, the managing editor, Rob Stroczek, whose chief claim to fame was having worked for the National Enquirer, kept firing people every two or three weeks. And in an editorial department of only three people, that was quite an accomplishment. You never knew if you would be next. “What a lousy job!” my father yelled over dinner, temporarily turning his attention from reading the New York Post. “Why don't you quit? I'll support you until you get another one!”


As it turned out, I didn't need to quit. The next Friday, the advertising guy, John, passed me on the way to the bathroom and smiled. “You're a good kid and a good worker,” he said, “and I'd keep you here all the time! But some of the other people here….”  Was this a friendly warning?


On Monday, after the other-reporter, Julie, went to lunch, Mr. Stroczek closed the door. “Ron,” he said, “I have bad news for you.”


“You're firing me?”


“Yes. Two or three of our sources said they didn't want to talk to you. And remember that incident when you took two cameras to the Key Food opening?” I remembered — I was a little uncomfortable with the camera they gave me, so I took my own just in case.


“That showed me that you don't have self-confidence,” he continued. “And look at your desk, how messy it is. When I see you, I see disorganization. Look, your pants are out of your shirt in the back. In a way, it's a shame because you're such a good writer. Look, I'll give you a reference, but it has to be a job where you're only a reporter and don't have a position of responsibility or leadership, where you're just taking assignments -- ‘Do this, Do that. Go here, Go there.” You're too disorganized for anything else.”


I then did something that I'd only fantasized about  – I barged into Mr. Zimmerman's office and told him what had happened. I complained about the unfriendly atmosphere, the low pay, the constant firings, even the paper's giving extra, free space to advertisers in its news section.


“Well,” said Mr. Zimmerman,“ I trust Rob's judgment. As far as everything else you mentioned, I'm sorry, but at the Tri-State Grocer, we are what we are!” I gathered my things and headed for the door.


On the way out, I told the secretary what had just happened. “Don't worry about it,” she said, “he fires people all the time. Was it because he said you'd made a mistake? Listen, he makes mistakes, too. One day, when he went to the printer's to lay out the paper, he realized that he left a $2,000 ad in his desk!” I laughed and headed into the hallway


Normally, I would have gone straight home on the Co-op City Express Bus. But something told me to use my new-found freedom to stretch out a little, to take the train to Allerton Avene. A group of my friends used to live in the Allerton area back in my late teens. And although none of them lived there anymore, it would be nice to see the old place again.


I got off the train, and there was the same old newsstand. It still displayed “Crain's Chicago Business” alongside more commonplace fare like the Daily News and the Post, Time and Newsweek. “Two people buy that Chicago magazine every week, without fail,” he proprietor once explained. Strange!


I walked east to Richie's candy store, whose large, cartoonish sign declared, “You don't like candy? Everybody likes candy!” I sat down at one of the counter stools and asked the elderly woman behind the counter for a vanilla egg cream. Next to me, an African American guy and a Puerto Rican guy, both a little older than me, were talking. I started eavesdropping on them.


“I come in here when I want to chill out, when I want to do some writing,” the Puerto Rican guy said.


“And what kind of writing do you do?”


“I write songs, man. I'm a songwriter! I've written about 300 so far, and gotten them all copyrighted.”


“Really?” the African American guy asked. “I write songs, too. Some of them have been recorded by major artists. I'm also a backup musician, on bass and keyboard. I've been on stage with Luther, with Peabo Bryson….”


“Hey, give me your number! Maybe we can write some songs together, man!”


“Cool! Who are some of your favorite artists?”


I paid for my egg cream and left. Back out in the street, I reflected. Those two guys in the store, and the old woman who worked there, too, were REAL New Yorkers, not the phonies at the Tri-State Grocer and in a thousand offices just like it. Up here, and in working-class neighborhoods like this throughout the city, this is where the real life was!


Smiling, I crossed the street and waited for the Bronx 17 bus to take me home.