Sunday, April 4, 2010

what it means to lose Ukrops

Every time we went to Ukrops when I was little I was on a mission, to get one those rainbow cookies. I knew they handed them out for free in the bakery section. And I knew, practically from birth had known, how delicious they were, buttery and sweet and oh so crumbly. My mom would push me in the direction of the bakery counter while she shopped. "Just go ask them for one Elizabeth," she would say distractedly as she threw a jug of orange juice into the shopping cart and ran her eyes down her grocery list. I would inch my way over to the counter until I was a few feet away and then just stand, casting furtive glances in the direction of those red and green objects of my desire. I was painfully shy as a small child, and I could never bring myself to ask for one of these cookies, no matter how much I craved them. But I never had to. Every time I would find myself addressed by one of the kind men or women who worked there. They would ask me if I would like a cookie, and I would nod furiously. The plate of cookies was offered over the counter. I would reach up and grab one, maybe eke out a squeaky "thank you." And then my moment had arrived, that perfect bite of sugary goodness in the middle of the afternoon, usually on a school day when I was tired and cranky and where nothing in the world could be more right or good than that rainbow cookie.

I've been thinking of these memories a lot lately, especially today, on the eve of the beginning of the end of Ukrops. Tomorrow four Ukrops will be closed. They will remove the Ukrops signs, re-organize the inside, stock shelves with beer and wine, and then they will re-open as Martin's, a chain of grocery stores I've never heard of or seen in my life. They will continue to do this, four stores at a time, until every last Ukrops is gone. The buildings will remain. They will still be grocery stores. They may still even sell some Ukrops prepared foods. But let's not kid ourselves. Ukrops will be gone.

There's another thing I keep thinking about. When I first went to college in South Carolina, I often found myself trying to explain Ukrops to people not from Richmond. "So it's just a grocery store?" they would ask, as I went on and on about the wonders of White-House rolls or Duchess mashed potatoes.

"Well yes," I would reply, frustrated by my inability to convey what it was that made Ukrops Ukrops, what it was that made it great. "But..."

That but. I never could figure out what to say next to do any justice to the chain of local grocery stores I'd frequented my entire life. I'm still not sure I can. Because of course Ukrops was a grocery store, but what makes all the difference in the world is that it was never just a grocery store, not to those of us who shopped there and ate there, not to those of us who have always associated Ukrops with home. We loved Ukrops for the same reason we love Richmond. This was not a dazzled, wowed, love at first sight. This was not the astonished, first time you walk into Whole Foods and see 5,000 varities of vegetables kind of love. Our loves of Ukrops, like our love of Richmond, is not simply about what these places are, but about what they were and what they have been.

Ukrops was the afternoon when I was five years old and my grandmother picked me up from school to spend the day and night at her house. I must have spent dozens of other afternoons or evenings with my grandmother when I was that age, but what remains clear and vivid in my memory is our trip to the Sycamore Square Ukrops to pick out something for lunch. After we went through the check-out, we sat in the sun filled gazebo outside and ate. I don't remember what we talked about or what we did later that night, but I do remember sitting outside of Ukrops with my grandma that afternoon. I remember the anxiety of spending a night away from home tempered by the most familiar food I could eat outside of my mother's kitchen.

Ukrops was all of the times I went to the orthodontist and had to get some new, medieval torture procedure done on my teeth, the excruciating pain afterward, the complete and total inability to eat anything that required chewing. But I could always eat the Ukrops Duchess mashed potatoes. I would eat these things by the plate-full. Now that calorie and carb counts are never far away from my thoughts, I rarely let myself indulge in a food item that I'm pretty sure is 90% butter, but as a twelve or thirteen year old, I could happily shovel in mouth fulls of what I believe are the best mashed potatoes on the planet. It was the only bright spot in all of my brushes with orthodontia. Ukrops was the day before a snowstorm, the rush of people in heavy coats hurrying to buy bottled water and canned foods, as if the apocolapyse were forecast instead of six inches of powdery snow. Ukrops was being the age where pushing the grocery cart was an exciting novelty, something we begged our mom to let us do.

Ukrops was the first, slightly terrifying time I went grocery shopping by myself right after I got my driver's license or off-campus lunch in high-school, rushing to the Carytown store to buy sandwiches or salads or sushi. Ukrops was the sight of a chocolate fudge mini-pie on the counter when I got home from school, the perfect, personal sized pie that pushed away all thoughts of homework or studying, if only for a few bites. Ukrops was the perfect yellow birthday cake with chocolate frosting, square and simple and oh so right. Ukrops was the smell of fried chicken wafting all over the parking lot, the first thing you noticed when you get out of the car in the parking lot and the last thing you notice when you drive away. Ukrops was all of those short, small conversations with the kind older men who took your groceries to the car, meaningly words about the weather but tiny reminders of the decent, ordinary connection that can be made in any moment between total strangers. Ukrops was triangle boxes with pizza inside on nights where there were too many basketball practices or piano recitals to have dinner at home. Ukrops was a picnic of chicken salad and mac n' cheese and rolls and green beans, spread out onto blankets on a warm summer night at a swim meet, where almost every family there had an identical meal. Ukrops was where I first learned to drive, in the empty parking lot of the Stony Point location on Sunday afternoons, because my mom was too terrified to take me on any road where there might be even one other moving vehicle.

Ukrops was the first time I came home from college, when I came home from studying abroad in Paris, when I came home from teaching English in Thailand. I remember each of these times, driving home and seeing the familiar world of Richmond around me but not really there yet. But the moment I walked into my kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and saw the box of Ukrops tuna salad sitting on one of the shelves(there was always a box of Ukrops tuna waiting for me whenever I got home from time spent away), I was home. It was that simple. In college I would sometimes use Ukrops bags to bring things back with me to Charleston. It was silly really, but I could never throw the bags away. I would tuck them in a closet or in a drawer, hold on to them, because I knew every time I caught sight of that familiar logo, the six hours and four hundred miles between me and home would for one moment cease to exist.

Ukrops was all of these things, but the truth is that if you're not from Richmond or if you haven't lived there, then reading this could never really make you understand. To love Ukrops is to know it. To know Ukrops is to love it. It's the same for Richmond. Richmond isn't a city that a tourist is going to fall in love with on a day trip. It's not going to be a place that tops any destination lists. And it doesn't have to be. Because for those of us who know Richmond, it's never been about grand vistas or elegant boulevards (Monument Avenue notwithstanding). We love Richmond because of a collective memory, because of what Richmond was when we were children. It's the same for Ukrops. There are probably other, flashier grocery stores with a greater selection of food and lower prices. For God's sake Ukrops doesn't even sell booze. But it's irrelevant. It's place in our hearts is secure for no other reason that it is a part of who we always have been. In a typically Southern fashion, we define so much of who we are by who not only we were, but who our parents were, who our grandparents were, where they lived and loved and yes, where they shopped.

So what does it mean to lose Ukrops then? What becomes of Richmond when this guide post of ours dissapears? I, for one, am afraid of the answer. Maybe it's because it's coming on the heels of losing the Braves. Maybe as I get older I'm just more and more nostalgic for the places and people of my childhood. But I think it's more than that. Ukrops is important to us. It always has been. Richmond needs Ukrops the same way we need the Byrd and Plan 9 and Narnia and the Landmark Theater and Joe's Inn and Bev's and Pleasant's Hardware and Westburry Pharmacy and Sally Bell Bakery, to name just a few. These places give Richmond meaning. They make us us. They've never been just a movie theater or a hardware store or a bookstore. They've been where we went on a first date or where we bought our first CD or where we went to hear Patricia Polacco read from one of her book's on a field trip in elementary school and afterwards let us make a wish by touching a piece of meteor. They've been the place our new neighbors bought cupcakes from to welcome us to the neighborhood. They've been where we went with friends at midnight to eat peanut butter pie or where went the Friday after September 11th, when a theater full of people stood up to sing patriotic songs with tears in their eyes. These memories could not have existed without these places. I cannot imagine what my childhood would have been like if the Byrd was a Regal Cinemas or Narnia was a Barnes and Noble of if Ukrops had never been Ukrops, if it was a Harris Teeter. Life would have gone on of course, and it would have looked very similar, but the meaning would have been changed irrevocably.

It hurts to lose Ukrops. I can't imagine what it will be like when I drive past a Ukrops store and see a strange logo in the place where the familar one should be. And I know this is all horribly depressing, but I think there is something to take out of it. We may not be losing Ukrops because we forgot about it, but we can lose other pieces of Richmond if we continue to forget about them. We can become Anytown, USA if we neglect the things we used to love. We have to stop taking for granted the things that makes Richmond home. We have to start remembering to value what is good and local over what is fast and easy and trendy. Because if we don't, if we continue to lose these places, then Richmond will be just a city, one whose meaning has absolutely nothing to do with the people who live there.

Losing Ukrops is hard, because it was never, not even for a moment, not since it opened in 1937, not for those of us who spent so many hours of our lives wandering the brightly lit aisles, just a grocery store. It has always been a benchmark in our collective history, an immovable piece of the definition of our city and its people. But from now on it will have to exist that way only in memory.

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