Memories of K-Mart (Yes. K-Mart.)
An artist friend of mine once wrote a beautiful piece on memory called "What One Loves About Life Are the Things That Fade." I think about that phrase so often—daily, in fact. The older you get, the more you know that just about everything you love about life is impermanent. Loss adds to the beauty, of course, but still....
Friends say I have a freakishly good memory. The best part is, I generally remember all good things (which are usually things that have faded). If you've done something nice for me, I'll probably never forget it. The flip side is that I tend to remember not-so-good things, too--but the sting of those things diminishes with time. The sting of loss is, rather, what I dwell upon: People now absent weigh the heaviest, of course, but wrapped up in that is the loss of things, of institutions I once loved—from farms to grand downtown hotels and their big-band ballrooms, to small-town cafes to downtown department stores. They're all landmarks of time and people passing.
However, I was surprised when I felt a little sadness upon reading that a local K-Mart was closing. I mean, who cares? K-Mart isn't exactly a symbol of the greatness of a bygone era, the way, say, a great downtown department store, like Younker's is.
And yet, people made memories there, too. At least I did.
In 1974, I worked at Baker's Cafeteria, a great old mid-century cafeteria across the street from a K-Mart on Hickman Avenue in Des Moines. I wasn't even old enough to work legally—my parents were friends with the Baker family, who had hired both my older sister (who worked the line) and my mother (who cashiered). They must have figured that as long as my Mom was there, I'd probably behave, so they hired me as part of the force of young girls who carried trays for the customers.
I can still remember the thrill of getting my first paycheck at Baker’s. My friends Cindy and Kirsten, who worked as maids at a motel across the street (which was also the old Highway 6), met me at Baker’s after we all got off our respective shifts that Sunday. The Baker's let me cash the check at the restaurant, and for the first time in my life, I was flush with my very own money. Not just a few quarters here and there from babysitting, but real money—something like $25.
Together, Cindy, Kirsten and I went to the K-Mart across the street, where I spent a major chunk of my paycheck. I bought way too much low-budget makeup and a pair of cheap dangly earrings that later made my newly pierced ears itch. I bought the Led Zeppelin album with Stairway to Heaven on it (Led Zeppelin IV).
And at the checkout line, on impulse, I bought an insanely huge bag of cashews for 97 cents (truly—I have an uncanny memory for these things, and I can still see the big red sticker with the 97-cent price on it). Cashews were a rare treat in our frugal household at the time, but there I was, flush enough to buy a huge bag of them, and nobody could tell me I couldn't.
As we sat on a bench outside of K-mart waiting for one of our moms to pick us up, the three of us polished off that bag of nuts. They just tasted so good and so plentiful, and I felt so free that spring day.