SINCLAIRVILLE - It's amazing to think about the number of businesses one frequents on a regular basis without ever really paying any attention to them.
Grocery stores, gas stations, eateries - these are just some of the places I visit in a normal day with my head down, going about my business as quickly as possible and getting back on my way without ever as much as truly acknowledging those who work there, let alone thinking about what they do.
In the small village of Sinclairville, there is one locale that serves all those purposes - grocery store, gas station, eatery - and then some: the ''Superette.'' As I've lived in the village for a little more than three years now, I've been in the Superette many hundreds of times to pick up various items. It makes delicious subs. It is a quick stop to grab anything you need when cooking or cleaning up around the house. And, of course, it's the only place in town to pick up those very important ''Village of Sinclairville'' trash bags - something I usually end up doing on Thursday nights, just ahead of the Friday morning pickup.
At the Sinclairville Superette, there is plenty of work to do on an everyday basis. Here, I’m intensely staring at a slice of ham as I?weigh out portions for subs. I learned a lot during my afternoon working at the store. From the deli to the floor to the register and beyond, the most important thing I?learned at the store is that it’s a place where people from the community gather and discuss life’s events.
Photos by Carrie Emke
With all my stops there over the years, I'd become familiar with many faces - those behind the deli counter, those I'd spot mopping an aisle or stocking a shelf, and those I'd encounter ringing me up and taking my cash at the register. But in my everyday rush, I'd never learned anything about the store itself, or about what its employees actually do. I always just kept staring forward, said ''hi'' and ''thank you'' to the cashier, and quickly scuttled back out the door.
Recently, when cashing out, I was surprised when that normal routine was broken up by a request from behind the counter that I come to the store and work ''a shift in their shoes.'' I'd been recognized and tapped to come out of my shell. The Superette wanted me to learn more about it.
It was time for me to spend an afternoon at the neighborhood hotspot.
When I arrived at the store on a Tuesday afternoon, I met Eric, the store's owner. He told me he was putting me to work immediately - no messing around, no awkward introductions. I was introduced to Donny, an employee of the store for five years, and given an apron. Showtime.
Donny was busy stocking the store's ice cream freezer. This is a portion of the store with which I was already very familiar. My wife, Carrie, sends me up to the store on a regular basis - often on Sunday nights - to pick up a tasty treat to enjoy while we're watching television or a movie. This made for a nice, comfortable place to begin.
Or so I thought.
I was used to standing in the warm store and opening the door to grab my ice cream from the front. My comfort quickly disappeared when I stepped into the tiny freezer behind the those doors, where the ice cream is actually stored. Of course I knew that freezer exists, but never would I have stepped into it - why would I? It's like an Arctic winter in there, and cramped to boot.
Donny had me back there with him in search of ice creams that needed to be replenished on the freezer shelves. These included popular flavors such as French vanilla and neapolitan, which we loaded up into our arms and brought around to the front of the freezer to load from there. We pulled the stock that still on the shelf off first, then loaded the new ice cream in from the front, pushing it to the back before replacing the existing stock in front of it. We repeated the process with each flavor of ice cream.
You might think it would have been easier to have just loaded all the new ice cream from the back in the first place. You're forgetting that standing in the freezer for more than two minutes at a time would have turned our bodies into blocks of ice, to be rediscovered by a future civilization, a la Brendan Fraser in ''Encino Man.''
While we were working on the ice cream, Donny told me that he is somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades at the Superette, trained on the floor, in the deli and to work the register. Eric later informed me that there are several such employees at the store, something which helps the business keep running smoothly.
When the ice cream freezer was sufficiently full, ready to be visited again by all the sweets-seeking citizens of Sinclairville, we moved on to our next task: the Slushie machine.
BRAIN FREEZE ON TAP
I honestly couldn't say I'd ever even noticed the Superette had a Slushie machine. But there is such a variety of things in the store, and I'm usually on such a specific mission when I go in, you can forgive me for having overlooked it. It's on a wall between the claw/crane machine - which I'm sure many kids have enjoyed over the years, but which I'd also never really noticed - and the fountain drink machine. Farther down the wall is the selection of greeting cards, which I have perused on several occasions, most recently earlier this month when I needed a last-minute anniversary card.
It was only 99 cents. Thanks, Superette.
A Slushie machine, it turns out, is an intricate piece of machinery that requires a thorough cleansing, inside and out, once a week. In fact, a digital display on the machine's front actually informs the store's staff when the machine needs its weekly wash. The full process takes about 30-45 minutes. And it was my lucky day.
The first step involves emptying gallon upon gallon of slush from the machine into large buckets. As we did so - Donny on the blue slush, I on the red - I envisioned us attempting to drink the contents of our pails and ending up with industrial-strength brain freezes that would render us incapacitated for who-knows-how-long.
The machine is then carefully disassembled, piece by piece, with the most difficult part coming when the hoses in the back are disconnected from the container. I had a difficult time wrestling with my assigned hoses, and Donny - obviously fearful that I would start spraying red syrup all over the place - swooped in and wisely took over.
I did manage to spill a fair amount of red slush on the floor, as it slid out when I attempted to transfer the plastic container from the machine to the waiting cart. Donny fetched a mop and I cleaned up after myself, much to the amusement of Carrie, who had come along for the day as my photographer. She informed Donny she had never seen me mop anything before.
Her amusement became even greater when we took the disassembled Slushie machine to the kitchen area and I handwashed a number of the smaller parts. At home, you see, my role in the dishwashing process is always as the dryer - if I haven't succeeded in getting out of it altogether. The larger pieces of the machine went through an industrial dishwasher that Donny said was purchased by the store about two years ago, making his and the other employees' lives just a bit easier.
Carrie asked if we could bring our dirty dishes up to the Superette to send them through the machine. Donny told her the staff would probably be a little suspicious of the strange plates mysteriously showing up.
When all pieces of the machine were clean, we loaded them back onto the cart and rolled them back over for the reassembly process. After we put the machine back together, it was this pristine-looking thing sitting on the counter.
But then we had to dump all the slush back inside. Several gallons of slush inside a bucket is heavy. And here's Donny telling me to just lift it up over my head and dump it into the machine without spilling it down the side or letting it splash. And here's me, with my little noodle arms.
I watched Donny use a little trick to swish the slush around in his bucket before he poured his blue stuff back in, making it a little less ''lumpy'' and a little more viscous. He poured it in with no problem. So I swished the red stuff around in the bucket, tried not to let my arms shake too much as I lifted my bucket up, and started tipping it.
As the red goop started dumping into the container, I could see Donny from the corner of my eye inching closer to me. I knew he was nervous. He could see something I couldn't. Eventually, he reached up and grabbed hold of my bucket with one hand. He gave it a little shake to break up a clump that he knew was going to fall in and cause a big splash in my slush. After that, the rest of my mass flowed smoothly into the machine. The job was done.
Donny said now that the weather has started to turn, the store doesn't sell very many Slushies. Not a surprise, I suppose. He still needs to clean the machine once a week, though, no matter how many are sold. I'll bet it's a much more gratifying job when he's seeing people walk out of the door with ''five or six at a time,'' as he said he sees in the summertime.
With that task complete, Donny headed off to finish up his work for the day and I moved on to my next stop - the deli, where dozens of delicious menu items are created for the store's customers every day.
MAKING THE MENU
Carrie and I order subs and pizzas from the Superette several times a month. My personal favorite is a chicken tender sub with hot sauce, American cheese, lettuce, onion, mayo and blue cheese. Nothing fancy. But, boy, is it delicious. If you order it to eat in the restaurant area of the store, they'll even put it on a plate with some chips and bring it right out to you. Now that's service.
But there's a lot more than just pizza and subs, as I learned during my visit. The deli staffers also make items such as pasta and macaroni salads, soups, desserts, and numerous breakfast dishes, and they offer a special each day that ranges from items such as barbecued pork to fish. And they do it all in the kitchen area behind the counter, every day.
The Superette isn't just the only grocery store in Sinclairville and the only gas station in Sinclairville. It is also the only full-time restaurant in Sinclairville. So offering a variety of foods is important.
When I arrived in the deli, an employee named Debbie put me to work on a meat slicer, skimming off pieces of roast beef for eventual inclusion in subs. After I had turned one big chunk of roast beef into dozens of thin slices of the meat, she had me take my pile over to the scale and weigh it into appropriate portions for the sandwiches.
As I was doing so, I watched as customers approached the counter one-by-one to place their orders and talk with the staffers. They shared information with each other about their families, their homes and the community in general. I was intrigued with the rapport that was built between customer and employee within the walls of the community hub - the conversations that were had, the things that were learned.
Not everyone comes into the store with their head down, just trying to get in and out as quickly as they can, I realized. Some people take the time to get to share some of themselves with others, and to let others do the same.
When some young girls - volleyball players at Cassadaga Valley Central School, we learned - came in and ordered subs, Debbie put them together skillfully and masterfully. She then placed them on their plates and we delivered them to their tables in the seating area. They were appreciative of the speedy and courteous service, and surely of the delicious subs. (Two of them ordered chicken tender subs, so I know for sure they were delicious. I'm sure the others were as well.)
We returned to the deli, where I was assigned to make brownies, which the Superette also sells fresh. I was apprehensive about this because - big shock - I'd never made brownies. I was assured I could handle it, though.
The brownie mix was pre-made for me, so I added the required amount of water and started mixing. Judging from the looks I was getting, it was clear that I was not doing this in an efficient manner. But after a great deal of effort, it was deemed that I had gotten all the lumps out of the batter, and it was time to pour it into the pan.
As I trying to knock the batter out of the bowl and into the pan, the spatula was snatched from my hand and the job was completed for me. Apparently I was leaving way too much in the bowl. It was my first time. I was timid. But the pan was popped into the oven and would soon be pulled back out and served in the form of tasty little squares of brownie - just one of many yummy items served up at the store.
The clock was ticking on my short shift at the Superette, and there was still one station to visit - the cash register. So I was introduced to Ashley and my training began.
YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD STORE
Handling an operation's cash is not to be taken lightly.
Thankfully, I arrived behind the cash register at a relatively slow time in the day, so Ashley was able to walk me through me first customer slowly - what buttons to push, in what order, to make the register do its magic. Once I'd done it a couple times, it was second nature. Basically.
Sure, I had some slip-ups here and there, forgetting to hit the ''Total'' button or the ''Cash'' button and needing to do it over. But everyone got the right change, everyone paid for all their items ... and no one lost any cash, store or customer.
One customer gave me a little heat for the way I bagged her items - not that she cared, she said, but I put her cakes on their sides, thus causing damage to their icing. Other customers might raise a fuss about that, she said. I told her I was just learning, but I'd file the information away. It was a lesson learned.
I scanned a variety of items for customers during my short time at the register - items ranging from standard groceries to hot food to hunting supplies. The Superette really is like a Wal-Mart for Sinclairville.
While we ran the store's two registers, Ashley and I talked about the store and what it is like to work there. As the customers talked and joked with us, Ashley told me about how it is nice to be able to get to know them in such a way - seeing them every day, gaining a little access into their lives. She said the staff of the Superette grows close with the area's residents, as the people who come through the door each day become part of the store's family.
I learned that even I am remembered in the store. Carrie and I were telling Ashley a story about what had happened when we returned to Sinclairville from our recent vacation, when I realized the story included me entering the Superette, which I stated.
''You were wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey, right?'' Ashley said.
I had been. It made me wish I'd been more cordial that night than just to have plopped my items on the counter, swiped my credit card and walked out. I hadn't even noticed Ashley was the cashier that night.
It was a good reminder that even when you don't realize they are, the staff at your friendly neighborhood store is just that - friendly. They deserve that same attitude in return.
I haven't been back in the Superette in the few days since my shift there. I know that when I do re-enter, though, I'll be a little more talkative with the friends I never realized I had.