Monday, February 27, 2012

Mr. Pathmark and Life Lessons

A Pathmark supermarket commercial from the past is the wind beneath the wings of this essay. I am pleased to report this northeastern chain of stores is still around, which is good news considering the demise of so many others, including Bohack, Grand Union, and Peter Reeves. I’m happy, too, to convey that “Mr. Pathmark,” the longtime spokesperson for the grocery store is alive as well, and still active at the ripe old age of eighty-nine.

While I’m pretty good in linking old and recognizable character actors’ faces with their names, this fellow always gave me fits. The face and especially the voice were as familiar as familiar can be in the New York City area. That's because he was ubiquitous on local television—for decades—as Pathmark’s genial and trusted pitchman.

In the final episode of the long-running and popular Little House on the Prairie television show, a super-greedy, unctuously creepy entrepreneur clandestinely but legally bought up all of the land in the town of Walnut Grove. He attempted to drive the locals—one and all—away. Left with little recourse, the townspeople decided to blow up all of the buildings, which they owned, with dynamite—painful as that was—to zing this bloodless, over-reaching capitalist. And the actor who played villain Nathan Lassiter was none other than “Mr. Pathmark,” James Karen.

This veteran of Broadway, television, and film took on the role of a scoundrel—the man largely responsible for the incineration of an incredibly warm and fuzzy, syrupy special TV town. But he was simultaneously “Mr. Pathmark.” I recall reading somewhere that the supermarket chain received oodles of letters demanding Mr. Karen’s firing. After all, how could they employ the ghastly man who forced the men and women of Walnut Grove to blow up their homes and businesses? Mr. Karen was understandably upset that he could lose a very good job because a certain percentage of the public couldn’t decipher fantasy from reality—couldn’t separate a television show depicting a town in the 1880s with a guy reporting on sales of toilet paper, frozen peas, and laundry detergent one hundred years later.

I nevertheless take solace that “Mr. Pathmark” not only lives, but has left an enduring legacy for those of us who grew up in the northeast and watched television in the simpler times—with the simpler supermarkets—of the 1970s and 1980s.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Big Retailer Is Watching You

Not too long ago, I visited the retail shop of an old friend. Well, actually, the owner of a pet food and supply superstore successfully waging battle against national chains’ Petco and PetSmart. Once upon a time I worked alongside this very same man in the very same industry. I daresay it was a simpler time on a whole host of fronts. In my fledgling years in this business, the aforementioned big-box retailers didn’t exist. And even after they arrived on the scene, they were relatively few in number and not yet in the New York City metropolitan area. By and large, mom-and-pops ruled the roost in the 1980s and into the early-1990s in what was definitely a fast-expanding trade.

In the early years of my affiliation with the business of pets, primitive computers played an infinitesimal role only. We didn’t scan merchandise at the point-of-sale and track store inventory with them. We actually hand wrote product orders and called our suppliers on land-line telephones. As you might imagine, this process took an awful lot of time with hundreds of individual products having to be read out—one by one—and transcribed by hand on the receiving end. As far as we were concerned, the advent of the Fax machine was akin to the invention of the wheel and the printing press.

But what was most striking to me in my friend’s contemporary retail setting—in close proximity of where the old place conducted business—was modern technology meeting the modern consumer. Thievery is more rampant than ever, I was told. It was a concern with customers and employees alike once upon a time. But now it’s endemic. So much of the merchandise is locked tightly in cases, or on hooks that require a manager’s key to set them free. In the store’s office is a wall of cameras covering every square foot of the place, including the cashiers’ stations. My old friend can thus watch all the goings-on from the comforts of his office and, he says, in his living room at home, too.

When I was on the retail frontlines, the pinching of stuff was largely for personal use. You know: somebody would steal a flea collar for his dog, or a tube of Petromalt for his cat’s hairball problem. Now, apparently, stealing big-ticket items to sell on eBay and elsewhere is big…really big. It’s all kind of sad that it’s come to this: Big-box retailers driving out mom-and-pops—both small and not so small—and all of them having little choice but to watch our every move, be we shoppers or hired hands.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

Friday, February 10, 2012

Destiny's Child

While combing through my vast personal archives recently, I encountered a mother lode of materials from my high school days, including a junior-year English class essay. It was a character sketch of some sort on King Arthur that I wrote more than thirty years ago. I remembered only being very pleased when I got it back with a “great! 100” scrawled atop it. I showed it to a buddy of mine—an aspiring writer even as a teenager—who harrumphed and promptly informed me in no uncertain terms how really lame it was. Teens are a very competitive bunch.

Reading this essay all these years later made me cringe, which is what I typically do when encountering past scribbling from high school, college, and well beyond those years, too. I would like to believe this boyhood pal of mine was practicing a variation of tough love, and that he was merely prodding me to strive to do better, and then better than that, and not to ever rest on my laurels. Without him, I might still be wallowing in high school prose like this: “Arthur was a weak man. He was weak in character and he was weak physically. He needed a cane to support himself, and when he spoke he sounded like a growling tiger. He loved to bark out orders and he loved attention.”

Thirty plus years ago at the callow age of sixteen, I wasn’t entertaining a dream of one day being a writer, or really anything else for that matter. When I entered Manhattan College a couple of years later, I initially planned on—for lack of a better idea—studying accounting. I took the introductory course, Accounting 101, required of all business students and fast ruled out that notion. I had an affable sixty-something professor who, if memory serves, returned his corrected exams to us in grade order—highest to lowest. I somehow figured that out. And I was not just one among the bottom feeders in the class, but hopelessly trapped in the sediment at the bottom of the barrel.

At that point in my life, basic accounting was the most boring subject matter imaginable. Nevertheless, I had little choice but to sign on with part two of this opening salvo during a second semester. I can confidently say that not knowing what the hell has gone on in act one is a harbinger for bad tidings during the second act. Still, I signed on with the very same professor, who didn’t instill accounting basics in my eighteen-year-old brain on the first go-around, because he was at once very genial and—apparently—graded on a warm and reassuring curve. In other words, as long as you showed up for his class, being completely clueless merited a “C.”

I would very likely be in better financial shape had Accounting 101 and 102 struck my fancy in 1980 and 1981, but it just wasn’t meant to be. And that friend of mine who unmercifully scoffed at my high school essay subsequently served as one of my writing mentors. He still scoffs on occasion but—in the big picture—destiny’s child is spawned in some of the oddest places and under the strangest of circumstances.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)