They’re making sushi in the Pasadena Kroger.
The sushi chef, a cheerful Asian fellow, is busily wrapping California rolls and assembling bento boxes, and his products seem to be going over big with the Pasadenans.
Well, not with all the Pasadenans. The lady behind me in the checkout line—let’s call her Old School—is loading the conveyor belt with several enormous cans of baked beans and enough bottles of barbecue sauce to coat all of Texas City. Old School is wearing a t-shirt. On the front it says “What Happens in Vegas” and on the back it says “Stays in Vegas,” except she’s wearing it backwards, so it reads “Stays in Vegas” / “What Happens in Vegas,” and my mind gets soggy with images of Yoda, a little drunk and pulling on a Marlboro, pumping a cup full of nickels into the slots and using Jedi mind tricks to control the roulette wheel.
I find Old School mildly comforting, bless her backwards t-shirt wearing heart, as she hauls another industrial grade container of Bush’s Best out of her shopping cart. Sushi in the Pasadena Kroger—not the gummy, prepackaged stuff that’s trucked in from points elsewhere, but real honest-to-goodness sushi, prepared by a living, breathing, smiling person—leaves me disoriented and confused. The natural order is out of kilter. The whole world is askew.
Which is why I envy my grandfather.
Not my grandfather at the end, not the slow unwinding in a Florida rest home, where he played out the string making mildly saucy comments to the nurses and gumming institutional meals of marginal quality and thinking that he was on a rather disappointing cruise. Senile in Ocala is no way to make your jump into the Infinite.
Not my grandfather at the beginning, either, not the losing his mother at age 8, not the poverty, not the dropping out of school in the fifth grade to take a job at the R.T. Jones Lumber Mill. Growing up poor is no way to start a life.
What I miss is the in-between.
My grandfather spent most of his working life in that most fortuitous of moments in American History, the post-WWII boom. Not quite a member of The Greatest Generation, he was Greatest Generation–adjacent: left stateside during the war, he helped oversee the Wurlitzer plant’s conversion from making jukeboxes to making bomb fuses. When the war was over, Wurlitzer went back to making jukeboxes, and so did grandpa. His life consisted of work, church, and home, with regular side trips to the bowling alley, the municipal golf course, and the corner tavern. He didn’t buy his first car until 1965, when he was 53 years old; everything in North Tonawanda, New York was within walking distance. I make a commute of 68 miles round-trip every day. I numb the pain with the 13,762 songs on my iPod, including six distinct versions of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie,”
My grandfather owned about a half dozen shirts—a couple for work, a couple for church, a couple for golf or tending bar down at Litwin’s, the neighborhood joint his in-laws owned. There were a couple of bowling shirts, too, but he didn’t wear them to make some sort of droll, post-ironic statement about Middle America; he wore them to bowl. As far as I know, he never owned a pair of sneakers. He certainly never spent an hour and a half at The Running Shoe Store, agonizing over which hunk of obscenely priced petroleum byproducts would correct his over-pronation. He never stood in the men’s department at Dillard’s, paralyzed with indecision over whether to buy the shirt in Cerulean, or Cobalt, or maybe both, just to be safe? Grandpa never had to contemplate sushi in the Pasadena Kroger.
Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist and playwright, says that the world “is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to an idealized past.” I know the past was mostly terrible. I’m not sitting around, watching Fox and Friends and muttering things like, “You know what this country needs? POLIO!” For all of the awfulness of our own age—the Ebola and the idiots in the desert turning murder into performance art and Tavis Smiley, laying his journalistic credibility on the altar of Dancing With The Stars—I wouldn’t actually trade places with any of my ancestors.
I just wish it were a little less complicated sometimes.