Throughout my childhood growing up in Utica, NY, I was very close with my paternal grandmother and we spent a tremendous amount of time together. One of our regular afternoon rituals was to go to any one of her three preferred grocery stores: Grand Union, A&P and Chanatry’s. While the first two were part of a national chain, the last was a smaller, locally-owned store. Chanatry’s may have had more than one location, but back then my grandmother preferred the one on Culver Avenue in East Utica, next to the castle-like turreted Armoury, and across the street from the WPA-era Buckingham (public) Pool. In many respects I think it was my grandmother’s favourite of the three, and without question, it was mine.
Back then, in the late-1960s and early-’70s, years before UPC scanners were introduced, grocery store cashiers manually entered into the cash register each price that was written on or, in the form of a small sticker, affixed to each item. Of course, due to simple human error, every once in awhile a cashier, in the process of punching those only somewhat forgiving raised buttons on the register, would “ring up” the wrong price.
Out of this developed a sense that certain cashiers were more careful and accurate than others. Or at least this was my grandmother’s view of things. So at some point early on in her patronage of Chanatry’s, she evidently identified one of the cashiers as the most reliable, and would actually schedule her shopping trips to coincide with this woman’s shift (in those days, pretty much every cashier was a woman, and in Utica, usually middle-aged and white).
Terry. That was her name; the cashier whom my grandmother nearly swore by, and into whose “line” she would always go, regardless of how long that line was. But Terry was not only my grandmother’s preferred or favourite cashier, she was for me the only cashier in the world. There’s no doubt that my grandmother was largely responsible, at least initially, for the affection that I felt for Terry, but I also think that something else was at play, and that is what I want to write about here.
Besides the oil-cured black olives stored in big plastic bins at the deli counter in the back of the store—which I would beg my grandmother to buy for me—the other big attraction, the one thing that I eagerly anticipated more than anything, was to see Terry. After winding our way through the few narrow aisles of the store, finally we would be ready to approach her cashier’s station. “Her’s” in the sense that, if I remember correctly, she was always working at the same number/line.
Once we got up to the front of the line, both Terry and my grandmother would make a big deal out of the fact that I was there. My grandmother saying something like: “Look who I brought with me today!” and Terry responding with: “It’s my little boyfriend John.” One year, for I think Valentine’s Day or perhaps it was for Terry’s birthday, I wanted to give her a gift. It was either my mother or my grandmother who found a small box of embroidered handkerchiefs for me to present to Terry the next time we went to the store. That pretty much solidified our relationship, and many many years later, after I had moved away from home to attend university in New York City, my mom or grandmother would tell me that Terry would continue to ask about me and remind them of the handkerchiefs that I gave her.
The point that I want to make by telling this story, is that separate and apart from fulfilling the job description or being (my grandmother’s) personal ideal type of “grocery store cashier,” Terry, that actual person, was for me in those early years of my childhood, one of my first experiences of what in my current work I am theorizing as “the commerce of anonymity.”
“Commerce” obviously based upon the commercial context of the situation, but also in terms of a certain reciprocal exchange between us that stood to the side of the mercantile, and yet did not either rely upon life-biographical details nor was directed toward the goal of developing into some sort of personal friendship beyond the context of the store. It is in the absence of the latter two aspects that this everyday rapport between Terry and I can be understood as anonymous.
Anonymous in the sense of “pre-predicative,” to the precise extent that I did not relate to Terry based upon her job description (how strange that would have been for a 5-year old to do), nor based upon her being a personal ideal type of cashier, as she was for my grandmother. Instead, the picture that I have of her, and that I would argue was the picture that I had of her back then as a little boy, is/was not a portrait of identity, but of anonymity. Which is to say: neither the genre of the type, nor the generic genre of the general, but an anonymity that was named Terry, and that for me—precisely in its anonymity—was an early source and sense of the social.