By Jim Bennett
“There’s a brick in the kitchen,” the Mrs. observed, gesturing toward the breakfast counter.
“Yes. Yes, there is,” I said.
“Well, how about that? A brick,” she mused, picking up the crumbling Purington Paver.
I sighed. “They tore down my folks’ old store building today,” I said at last. “I went by and picked up some rubble as a souvenir.”
I had known this day would come eventually, of course. But the razing of that humble little structure touched me in unexpected ways.
There was a day when Monmouth’s commercial landscape was dotted with myriad neighborhood grocery stores. Then the supermarkets came to town and, like so many dominoes, the Mom ‘n’ Pops fell.
Except for Bennett’s Market, that is; it was the last little store standing. I don’t think Giant’s or Barnes’ Supervalu ever saw us as a threat, but when Mom and Dad retired, it was because they wanted to, not because they had to.
Growing up there, I had the best childhood a boy could have hoped for. And it was there that I learned virtually every practical lesson I would ever need.
The longevity of Bennett’s Market was due in some part to my parents’ work ethic, a value they imparted to their kids. If business was slow, Dad would sit on a stool in the front and joke with Mom, but he didn’t like his boys slacking; I remember him calling back to my big brothers, Percy and Ben, from his perch: “Make a little noise back there, boys.” Translation: “Do something besides eating up the inventory.” They would oblige, of course: Percy would rattle a case of empty pop bottles, and Ben would whistle and stomp. Good times.
I also learned people skills. I believe it was their genuine love of people that kept the customers shoving on that yellow “Salada Tea” door push bar. I can still hear my Dad’s corny, engaging banter with customers from behind his meat counter in the back. Mom ran the till and lovingly wrangled the candy-crazed neighborhood kids. And if you happened to be a girl, my Dad’s teasing was mandatory: “Sis,” he’d say, grinning, “You must be a movie star!” He brought more blush to girls’ cheeks than Max Factor.
I learned that taking an interest in people takes you to interesting people. One who comes to mind was a contractor from Des Plaines who had come to Monmouth to do some remodeling work for a local pharmacy. The man’s employer had recommended Bennett’s Market for our lunch meat, and my Dad had a memorable conversation with this chatty out-of-towner. Another was a younger, local character known for spinning tall tales; Dad always gave him a hard time about a sassy tattoo on his arm. The former was John Wayne Gacy, the notorious serial killer who was eventually convicted and executed for thirty-three murders. The latter was Richard Speck, infamous mass murderer of 8 student nurses in Chicago. (Governor Adlai Stevenson came in once as well, but his body count was only one, and that was by accident.)
I also learned that good sandwich spread can cover over a multitude of sins, and inspire at least one: One night, my brother Percy, a Monmouth police officer, called Dad with the news that there had been a break-in at the store. The perpetrator, under the influence of some potent giggle smoke, had succumbed to THC-induced munchies and decided it was time for some Bennett’s Market B-and-E. The officers found him hiding under the butcher block. Did the peckish prowler heist the Ho-Ho’s, or purloin the peanut butter cups? No, but this criminal mastermind’s beard was caked with the old man’s famous ham salad. It became my Dad’s favorite endorsement: “Why, it’s so good, potheads are willing go to jail over the stuff!”
And Bennett’s Market was where I learned compassion. My parents frequently extended credit to cash-strapped families, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to forgive a debt altogether. I remember once seeing them encourage a tearful, out-of-work young father who couldn’t pay, saying, “We know you’re good for it. We’ll run a tab.” Both of my folks had grown up poor – Dad even had to drop out of eighth grade to work because of his own father’s penchant for drinking up the rent – so neither he nor Mom could stand the thought of a hungry kid.
Dad died in ‘97. Mom followed in 2002. And it was four years ago this past July that we lost Percy, just 54 years old. I miss them hard – real hard – every day.
The Mrs. kissed me. “It’s a fine brick, Buddy. Possibly the best rubble I’ve ever seen.”
I pulled her onto my lap. “Baby,” I said, “You sure know your masonry.”