Dispatches from Exurban America (another in an occasional series)
The Great American Melting Pot is alive and well. I have seen it with my own eyes.
My family and I moved to the outskirts of Manassas, Virginia two years ago. The closest store to us was a place called Propp’s Grocery, a non-corporate, no-name convenience store, deli, and gas station which looked like it had been sitting there on Dumfries Road since the Roosevelt Administration. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt’s Administration. I took my boys in there once for soda pops and chips, just so we could get a look at the inside of the place. They sold live bait in there. The worms were a big hit with the boys, who like digging them out of our front yard. I admired the owner for his ability to stay in business with a 7-11 just two blocks away.
About eight months ago, Propp’s Grocery changed hands. The old sign came down. A new sign went up. Now the place was called Charlie Bob’s Market and Deli. I liked the old name better. The name “Charlie Bob’s” sounded like it was trying too hard to appeal to local sensibilities. Whereas the name “Propp’s” had been straightforward, honest, and simple… homespun and local without reaching for it.
I watch Charlie Bob’s prices on gas each time I drive past, which is often. When his price is good, I’ll stop there and fill up my Rondo. It’s one of the few places I stop for gas that qualifies as an aesthetic experience. There’s a big, abandoned Victorian house next door that has an old barn and silo behind it. The house is hanging in there amazingly well, a testament to its solid construction. There’s no For Sale sign. I’ve never seen a soul on the property. It might be haunted (that’s what I tell the boys).
I stopped there for gas this morning. The price was $3.69/gallon, not the best in the area, but not the worst, either, and I was running on fumes. The little digital screen on the pump told me I would have to see the cashier to obtain my receipt. I hate when that happens. The whole purpose of being able to swipe your credit card at the pump is so you don’t have to go inside. But this morning I wasn’t in a rush. I resigned myself to spending an extra minute and a half retrieving my receipt.
Walking to the front entrance, I noticed that half the building’s interior had been closed off and was in a state of reconstruction. There was nobody at the cash register when I went inside. I called out, “Hello? Hello?” A South Asian man walked through a temporary door from the portion of the building being renovated. He asked me which pump I had pumped gas at (there are only two). He apologized that the pump hadn’t given me a receipt and said he’d been calling the company about that problem and would call them again. He introduced himself as Mr. Singh.
Where was Charlie Bob, I wondered? Was Mr. Singh an employee of Charlie Bob’s?
It quickly became clear that Mr. Singh was Charlie Bob. Or rather, there was no Charlie Bob. Charlie Bob was a false front. A mask.
I asked Mr. Singh what would become of the other half of the building. He told me, proudly, that he was completely redoing his deli area. He would sell fried chicken “just like Popeye’s.” I asked if he’d be serving breakfast, since the boys and I like going out for breakfast on weekends. He said yes, yes, eggs and everything, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
He told me he was from India. He also told me that, eight years ago, he had owned this place, and then he had sold it to the people who ran it as Propp’s Grocery. When they decided to sell out, he couldn’t bear the thought of some strangers running it, so he bought it back. And renamed it Charlie Bob’s. I neglected to ask him what it had been called before it was called Propp’s. Maybe it had always been called Propp’s. But now it was Charlie Bob’s. Not Singh’s. Charlie Bob’s.
I found that oddly endearing. In this multicultural age, Mr. Singh had opted to go native. Maybe he had done so a little clumsily. . . after all, in the more rural parts of Virginia, “Charlie Bob” was about as stereotypical a local name as “Boudreaux” was in South Louisiana, where I’d come from. But it made me smile, as did his insistence that his fried chicken would be “just like Popeye’s.” Not better than Popeye’s. And not Tandoori chicken, either. But just like something he obviously considered to be a quintessentially American favorite.
My grandmother had come over from the Ukraine. Her village had been burned down by Cossacks, and she and her family had fled across a frozen lake. I remember seeing an old photo of her as a teenager, holding a little American flag.
I told Mr. Singh I’d bring the boys around for some eggs some Saturday morning.