Space in the Spice Aisle

“The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space.”


JOHN F. KENNEDY, speech at Rice University, September 12, 1962

It’s time to give our 35th President some skin … a high five, if you will. On this first Saturday in May, fifty-eight years after those famous words were spoken, he deserves prophetic props for rolling a crystal ball down bowling alleys of special-spacial circumstances. The exploration of space he saw coming – and for that, Mr. President, I salute you.

It has become a race for space. Specifically, a tiny little hometown market space by that same name in my quaint growing-up ‘burg. This county seat of approximately 5,700 shuffling day-to-day, non-city folk who weave in and about a few remaining retail stores, pharmacies, and restaurants. A nice area where a future spring found its way into our Slinky hearts in 1943 and America’s oldest foundry is still operating. A nestled in-between community I find myself revisiting frequently as a customer during this shutdown time of social distancing.

Roughly twice a week, I get the call. “Need some stuff”, is the usual request from my father who jovingly asks for my assistance, which I am more than happy to give. He is, thankfully, not entertaining the idea of crunching his way around the cereal aisle looking for granola, or considering squeezing melons near grandmas in fear of the ‘rona. I admire his willingness to go beyond the stubbornness I know he owns. So, the call comes ding-a-linginging across to my already busy Samsung … and I answer. Every time. Glad to.

It’s almost always the same dozen or so dairy, snacky, and bready things I need to buy for him from the “Hometown Market”. Yes, that’s the name. A quaint name in the quaint town called Hollidaysburg. This small brick grocery sits one block off a two lane by-pass in a small neighborhood space where most have walk-to-or-by access. The parking lot is on a slant, so the carts have an attitude. In and out, empty and full, these wirey, meshy ne’er-do-wells are in constant cage-match mode … knowing gravity pulls favor to their corner at every turn – provided, of course, all the wheels rotate in sinc and don’t klunk and wobble.

Inside is a wonderful elbowy space. Aisle (pardon the pun, couldn’t resist) need to admit the jamminess is more than your typical box store. It is, of course, SmallTown, USA, for a reason. My fellow air-breathers walk about, on any unrestricted day, laughing and touching … smiling and feeling … piling high their hungry carts with goodies from the shortened, narrow spaces inside this small mart. Products lining the shelves insist on having personal, intimate interactions as walker-bys don’t initate contact. Advil wants to know where you went drinking last night, the bananas are fruitlessly a-peeling for compassion, and soup can d-rivel on and on … it is a small, therapy-inducing echo chamber at times.

These are restricted times, however. Special-spacial circumstances. One particular day, for dad, I found myself firmly planted, masked, in the “mist” of it all. Fogged up and as confused as the nice gentleman I found myself next to. Two dudes, two brains, two registers open, and two carts with no concept of time, distance, reality, … or space.

NASA, we had a problem.

Both he and I felt confident we navigated our way through the store quite well. It was an unspoken, eye-nod only guys have at the end of a successful wife or dad mandated grocery list errand run. We knew it. The tape 6-feet on the floor, however, gave us immediate pause and dampened any celebratory, non-verbal bro-mancing. See, there’s only about a cart length plus a body between the end of the register line to the end of the product aisle. Not enough space for two “just met masked dudes” unless one of us jumped on the other’s Oreos. Furthermore, neither of us knew for sure which of the two registers was open, or, what tape on the floor was applicable to which one of us. The ugliness of the moment was upon us. Two stars circling the grocery store black hole of social distancing with absolutely no idea how to proceed. The idea of “what to do” was clear – to management. For us, not so much. So we did the only thing we knew. Shrugged our burdened shoulders …. and laughed.

We didn’t see our smiles. Didn’t have to. We knew the moment required calm because what else was there? Stuckiness of the moment required our inner silence to maintain the frustration while our outer voices expressed our joy of the moment. I’d love to quote the conversation, but it happened a week or so ago and “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday and I eat the same thing every morning”, so …. (that’s my dad’s favorite saying, btw…). Really, though, the words aren’t as important as the message, right?

Space is important right now. It IS one of the great adventures of all time. JFK didn’t know how right he was almost 60 years ago. The quote starting my sunny Saturday morning blog said a lot. Re-read it. There’s so much more to unpack about leadership, vision, national pride, and adventure. It would do us all a great service to heed #35’s words and start paying attention to our individual and collective spaces again. Small, quaint hovels or large cities, we are a “pale, blue dot” in the biggest space of all, according to Carl Sagan.

The next time you find yourself masking your smile heading to a small space, remember there’s bound to be another doing exactly the same thing. You will meet. You will bump carts and be awkward together. Take that moment to laugh. It’s all we have in the space we share. Together.