Jun 30, 2023, 06:28AM

Goodbye Eddie's

Can’t say I’ll miss you.

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Eddie's of Mount Vernon’s is closing at the end of the month. The news of its closure wasn’t a surprise, but the wave of memories and bittersweet nostalgia that came with it was. Eddie's employed me for my first couple years in Baltimore. I was hired as a cashier and soon rose the ranks to stocking shelves. It’s exactly the kind of job you get when you’re 23 and there isn’t any other work to be had: slow, monotonous, repetitive, low-paying. The only other interview I’d scored at that point was for a door-to-door fundraising gig with a clean water non-profit, which only paid minimum wage if you couldn’t meet the fundraising goals, an added bit of anxiety to what seemed like an already stressful job. At least Eddie's is near my house, I figured. Besides, the hippie girl who got me the application was cute.

I got the story of Eddie's in piecemeal over the course of my employment. It used to be a chain, with locations not only in Mt. Vernon but also Charles Village and Roland Park. I think there were other locations too, but after the chain was sold, each of these three locations became its own separate, independently-owned store while retaining the franchise name. So Eddie's was a franchise with its head cut off. Each store had its own specific vibe and customer base. Eddie's of Roland Park was the more posh location, with fancier foods and products for its wealthy neighborhood clientele. (Somewhat confusingly, there are actually two Eddie’s of Roland Parks—one on Roland Ave., and a nicer version at the southern edge of Towson, just beyond the city limit.) Eddie's of Charles Village was the Johns Hopkins grocery store, so it specialized in snack foods and easy, on-the-go meals for busy college kids. The Charles Village location shuttered in December of 2020, breaking the news to its employees just days before Christmas, replaced six months later by a Streets Market.

But Eddie's of Mt. Vernon’s location made it unique, situated in the heart of the historically gay Mt. Vernon but also within walking distance of two colleges—MICA and the University of Baltimore—as well the Chase Brexton Health clinic. The clientele was an amusing mix of gay men, artsy MICA students, and hard-living Chase Brexton regulars. The store’s shelves reflected this mix: ping pong balls hanging next to condoms and enemas at the customer service counter; cigarettes and nicotine patches behind the counter with the Lotto tickets; no baby food.

I hated the job. Eddie's is the sort of place that gets a pass as a “small, family-owned business” to pay its employees as little as possible. They started me at $7.75 an hour, which was a pittance even in 2010. Each new year brought a 25-cent raise. And the work wasn’t easy. Manning the register required staying on your feet for eight-hour shifts, checking out and bagging a never-ending conveyor belt of overpriced food—the premium of patronizing those small, family-owned businesses, a burden the customer would never let the lowly cashier forget—all while maintaining a till. If the till was more than $2 light, it came out of your paycheck. Mine was only light a couple of times, never more than three or four bucks, but I’ll never forget the crushing disappointment in one MICA student’s face when he was missing $20 after a hectic late rush, over a third of his shift’s pay after taxes.

Stocking shelves was a more physically demanding job, but I preferred the relatively independent task to the onslaught of customer interaction at the register. I could zone out while stocking. Time passed more quickly. The tasks at hand were simple and straightforward: bring older perishables to the front and remove anything that’s expired; unload deliveries; make sure all the shelves were straightened and forward-facing; watch out for shoplifters. The latter (apparently one of the reasons the store is closing) was my least favorite part of the job, and unless I was faced with an example too blatant to ignore—lest the surveillance cameras catch me abetting a thief—I refused to pursue shoplifters. And I still think that going after someone who, at best, is just trying to feed themselves and, at worst, is an armed criminal is the kind of specialized labor whose practice demands more than eight bucks an hour. (Fred Schneider of the B-52s shot a music video about shoplifting at Eddies. It was uploaded to YouTube a few weeks before I started working there.)

The fact that this was a union job says a lot about the sorry state of collective bargaining in the past couple of decades. (When I was a member, the main benefits of UFCW local 27 were a week’s paid vacation and time-and-a-half pay on holidays.) If it was so terrible, you might ask, why did you stay there for two years? The answer is complicated. On some level I knew I could do better, but there was a nagging, insecure part of me that worried I couldn’t. Except for a brief stint canvassing for the St. Louis mayor’s reelection, the only jobs I’d worked at that point were in service and retail. Even though I was often pretty bad at those jobs, or perhaps because I was bad at them, I feared I couldn’t hack it elsewhere.

But that’s only part of the reason. The main reason I stayed so long is that Eddie's became a part of my routine. My daily life became a cycle of my house, Eddie's, my girlfriend’s house, repeat. I got used to it. I’d work about five shifts per week, including a Saturday 12-8 p.m. shift stocking shelves, my favorite. The owner took the day off and the manager only worked until four. There was rarely much to do in the evenings, which left me to read the newspaper in the back, taking frequent beer breaks in the walk-in freezer. After my shift was over, I’d skateboard a couple of miles up Charles St. to my girlfriend’s house (her roommate joked that she was dating Bart Simpson), backpack full of Natty Boh—one of the only cheaply priced items at Eddie's, sometimes going for as little as $6.99 for a 12-pack. When I’d arrive at her house, the beer opened in geysers of foam.

Despite my misgivings about the work and pay, I liked the people at Eddie's. The hippie girl and I became friends and sometimes hung out after work. The same goes for a thirtysomething guy who’d sometimes lend me books. He was in a long-term relationship with one of the guys in the deli, who looked like he could’ve been a character actor from the 70s—half Jack Nance, half Walter Matthau. There was a mother who worked in the deli with one son and whose other son was a stocker—dutiful, south-Baltimoreans with corresponding accents. There were lots of Misses: Miss Debbie, Miss Sheila, Miss Edna. The title was assigned at a certain level of seniority, but the exact age when a woman became a Miss was never clear.

My favorite was Miss Mary, a short, quiet elderly woman who always worked the register furthest from the door. We’d talk sometimes during the slow morning hours, about her foster children and her childhood in the country and the eccentrics the morning shift attracted: the scratch-off addicts, the old ladies, the bona fide weirdos, one of whom always greeted my co-workers and me, no matter what time of year, with a booming, “Happy Halloween, everybody!” Miss Mary said she recognized him from her neighborhood. I asked her what he was doing there. “Same as here,” she said. “Runnin’ his mouth.” Miss Mary could put on a tough exterior, but she was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, a kind woman whose foster mom instincts made her more protective of me than the other older women in the store, always insisting I wasn’t eating enough and offering to buy me sandwiches. When I quit, I told her I’d come back and visit, a promise shamefully unkept, my sole regret from my time at Eddie's.

I had few issues with any of my co-workers. The owner had a bad habit of talking too much about taking expensive vacations to employees who could barely afford to go to a baseball game, much less to Alaska—such is the quiet tyranny of the small business owner—but he was still basically a nice guy. I liked his daughter even more, a friendly, easy-going younger woman, only a few years older than me, whose title was never clear but was more or less assistant owner. The manager was also nice, a very short man who’d once trained to be a jockey. Managing a grocery store was his life’s second act. One time I overheard him going over prices with a co-worker of mine and saying, in the thickest Baltimore accent you can possibly imagine, “It’s a fifty cent difference, it’s not a brain surgeon!” A brain surgeon. I doubled over behind the register. To this day, I still think about it.

The only co-worker I bumped heads with was an old guy whom I’ll call Walter. I don’t think he was that much older than my parents, but a lifetime of Marlboro Reds had weathered his skin and he looked at least 20 years their senior. Walter was a Vietnam vet who worked for Amtrak his whole life and was living on a pension. It was unclear if he needed to work at Eddie's or just enjoyed having something to do, but if there was any joy in Walter, I never saw it. He seemed bent on finding any opportunity to inflict his pettiness on customers and coworkers alike. Walter was notorious for not making change for other cashiers when they needed it, nor would he give customers cash back on debit—both things that were otherwise accepted practice. He often snitched to the manager when I was reading at the register. He was unfriendly, rarely engaging with customers unless it was to talk about the Ravens or, more often, badmouth other football teams. A miserable person, whose life mission was to impose his misery on those around him.

One day, during a lunch rush, a slightly older black man came through my checkout lane. He was heavy-set and hunched over the belt, slowly counting out change. Walter was manning the register behind me, and he whistled for my attention. I don’t know why he thought I was a good audience for this observation, but he said, “Look at him. He looks like a gorilla.” Stunned, I didn’t say anything, praying the gentleman didn’t hear. Apparently my silence was an invitation to repeat his remark, as if the only reason for not affirming it was that I couldn’t hear him. When the man left, I turned back to Walter and, unable to hide my contempt, told him, “That was super fucking racist.” A confused expression crossed his face, like I was speaking in a foreign language. He had a habit of making this face when confronted with anything he either didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand, and it always felt like his subtle way of trying to make the confronter feel stupid and unsure of themselves. I later relayed the incident to the manager and his only response was, “Well, Walter’s not racist.” My mistake, I guess.

Walter was just one example of the generational rift within the staff, which came to a head one hot summer week when, after a huge thunderstorm, the satellite radio got stuck in a half-hour loop, repeating the same eight or nine songs ad nauseam. I wish I could remember them all, but they included the painful late Kinks’ single “Come Dancing” and Hootie & the Blowfish’s “Only Wanna Be With You,” the most tolerable song of the mix, to give you an idea of how bad we’re talking. It drove everyone under 40 insane, while everyone over 40 didn’t notice it. And since they didn’t notice it, they didn’t care. And since they didn’t care, they saw no need to fix it.

This lasted for one long week. Ask anyone who’s ever worked at FAO Schwarz, there’s nothing that underscores the repetitive tedium of a shitty job and makes you feel like you’re living in your own personal Groundhog Day like being forced to listen to the same song over and over. I recall lightly banging my head against the glass partition between the register and the entrance, promising God I’d believe in him again if He’d intervene. Each time Darius Rucker coyly quoted Dylan—“I can’t help it if I’m lucky”—felt more and more like a direct taunt. “Yeah I’m tangled up in—” The song would cut off, looping back to the beginning of the cursed mix.

The bug was only fixed when the owner realized that a few of the intermittent announcements weren’t playing, those little breaks in the soundtrack to thank the customer for shopping at Eddie's and remind them about the salad bar, the deli, Berger and Otterbein’s cookies, etc. Sometimes as a joke, I’d repeat these little recordings to my co-workers as if they were important pieces of necessary information, catching them before they left the breakroom: “Wait, don’t forget—our rotisserie chickens make for a great dinner, with enough left over for yummy sandwiches.”

I found other ways to entertain myself. When it was slow behind the register, I’d read (books I remember reading at Eddie's: The Sound and the Fury, Lolita, Inherent Vice, The Crying of Lot 49, Blood Meridian, Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Ed Sanders’ The Family, Jon Glaser’s My Dead Dad Was in ZZ Top). Sometimes I’d try to read The New York Times front-to-back, rarely making it past the first section. (I’m an embarrassingly slow reader.) I’d collect discarded receipts and draw crude little cartoons on the backs, sometimes mailing them to friends, sometimes letting them rot at the bottom of my old argyle backpack with smushed granola bars and forgotten pieces of fruit.

The more elaborate sketches went in my sketchbook, often of the proto-Cum Town edgelord variety: Tony the Tiger as a Holocaust denier, jumping into the air jubilantly, his extreme opinions taking the form of a cartoon talk bubble; a smiling Mel Gibson—he was in the New York Post a lot at the time, his anti-Semitism the likely inspiration for the previous sketch—saying, “I hate myself and I want to die”; Snap, Crackle and Pop engaged in unspeakable (but consensual!) acts with Toucan Sam, who has miraculously grown a penis. I’d share these sketches with the few co-workers who’d appreciate them but otherwise made certain that no one else saw them, save for a few amused customers from the gayborhood who caught glimpses while standing in line.

Speaking of which, while at Eddie’s, I scored a side gig next door at Club Hippo, one of a few now-defunct Mt. Vernon gay bars. First I ran the lights, a fun job that I don’t think I was very good at. I got the sense that I was there more because the owner, a gregarious old gay named Chuck, liked having me around. Pretty soon I was off the lights and put on stocking the bar in the mornings and afternoons, which paid less but offered more hours. I’d alternate between locations, arriving at Eddie's at seven and working there until 11, then going over to the Hippo for about an hour to stock the bar, then going back to Eddie's to finish my shift, then finally back to the Hippo to finish stocking the bar, normally leaving around four. I enjoyed the rhythm of the arrangement, which continued until I quit.

At some point in the spring of 2012, tired of barely making minimum wage, I bit the bullet and sent my bare bones resumé to a temp agency. A single sheet with my name in bold, education and meager experience listed like bullet points, the language laughably unadorned and matter of fact, as I’d yet to fully ascertain that one is supposed to lie on a resumé. I expected no response, having thoroughly internalized my station on that little block of Eager St., but I lucked out and landed a temp gig at Baltimore Gas & Electric, riding a wave of hires related to the rollout of the company’s new smart meters. I put in my two weeks’ notice at both Eddie's and the Hippo, ready to start rolling my right khaki leg up and ride my beach cruiser downtown in loafers every morning for a couple more dollars an hour.

My last shift at Eddie's was a Saturday. I bought a six-pack to celebrate, downing half of them in the freezer during the waning hours of my employment. Early in the evening, I walked back out onto the floor to find a man sticking a pack of meat under his shirt. Our eyes locked. He quickly turned around and speed-walked to the door. I followed him at a distance, sounding not unlike Willy Wonka in my blatantly hollow, monotone demands. Stop. Don’t. Come back. While he escaped up Charles St., I looked over at Carol behind the customer service desk. I shrugged, and she laughed. It wasn’t my problem anymore.

With Eddie's closing, neighbors and community advocates have raised concerns about Mt. Vernon becoming a food desert. These concerns are understandable, but there’s reason for optimism. It could take a few months, maybe even a year, but I’d like to think that Baltimore is not so far gone that a small grocery chain like Mom’s or Streets (who have a downtown location just a half-mile south of Eddie's), or maybe even a larger chain like Trader Joe’s, wouldn’t see the Mt. Vernon storefront as a viable, lucrative location—though they may want to hire a security guard, something most grocery stores in Baltimore have but, to my knowledge, Eddie's never invested in.

Eddies’ closure probably doesn’t portend an era of Baltimore food deserts, which has already begun in the city’s most impoverished areas. What it might point to is the end of independent grocers. Chains like Safeway, Giant, Costco, Walmart, and Trader Joe’s, not to mention grocery delivery services, have rendered the small, family-run grocery store largely obsolete. Unless a person has no way of getting to a larger store or doesn't mind wasting money, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to shop at a store like Eddie's, whose selection tends to be more limited while the prices are much higher. Besides over a dozen people losing their jobs, what’s sad about Eddie’s closure is the disappearance of another centralized vestige of neighborhood community and a corresponding influx of corporate interests, like when a CVS replaced the Hippo. Then again, the Hippo was a refuge for a minority culture desperately lacking in its own spaces, while Eddie's is one of several places in the area to buy food and alcohol. If Eddies’ eventual corporate replacement is willing to pay its employees a living wage—a big if, I realize—then I’d say that’s a fair trade.

I don’t miss working at Eddie’s, but I do feel a twinge of nostalgia when I recall my carefree days working there. They say youth is wasted on the young. I’m not so sure about that, but I will say that a lack of urgency to improve one’s station in life is its own sort of luxury, a finite account that each passing year draws a little more from. Even though I make enough money now to live comfortably, constant anxiety over self-improvement—setting goals, saving, investing, finding a better job, finishing the novel, figuring out “the next step”—is the price of that comfort. There’s no going back, though—to the crazy customers, the expired granola bar dinners, the old, folded New York TImes, the beer frosting on a freezer shelf. I made it out. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.

  • I stocked shelves at Shelbyville SuperMarket #2 (there was also a #1) in rural Tennessee decades before you. I think our minimum wage was more like $3.25 then. But the people were nice. I wish I could see the photo of the young you. If I could I could tell you why Chuck liked having you work there. If you aren't cute when you are 23 then fate has dealt you a raw hand.

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  • Ah your store owner - years later, I dated a trust fund Ivy educated guy who had Senators in his genealogy, and was himself a political employee. He learned that at age 30 I had never been abroad. He said I should just never go, as it was a kind of perfection. He had of course grown up with vacations abroad and was even sent off to some European college to beef up his transcripts after high school because he could initially not get into any of the Ivies he was trying for. His opinion that my middle/working class childhood was "cute" certainly rankled.

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