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It didn’t really matter who you were or why you came. If you lived in Jersey City’s Greenville section, you knew my family’s grocery store. I grew up working in the store and did it willingly and, though I didn’t give it much thought at the time, joyfully.
The store, owned by my dad and my uncle, was part wonderland, part social club and part confessional. The wonderland part was the domain of grubby neighbourhood kids, quarters in hand, who would press their noses against the smooth glass of the candy counter while they weighed the relative pleasure of a big-ticket item, like a Hershey bar or Milky Way, or a fist-sized penny-candy bag full of Swedish fish, licorice, Mary Janes and Bazooka gum.
Adults came to buy groceries, a newspaper or maybe a sandwich, but also to catch up on local gossip, to run into neighbours they hadn’t seen for a while, and to share their latest triumph or tragedy.
Within half an hour of your jubilant 7 a.m. stop at the store, the news that you had hit the jackpot on the slots in Atlantic City would spread from the store the way a spilled glass of red wine seeps across a white tablecloth. By mid-morning, everyone in the nearby streets would know, and by lunchtime you would be getting calls of congratulations from buddies in Bayonne, the neighbouring town.
Our customers came in steady, overlapping waves throughout the day. The first showed up at 6, when we opened, on their way to Ryerson Steel, the garbage-truck depot, or some other gruelling job. We would spend much of that early hour pouring coffee and buttering rolls.
Harried, disorganized housewives appeared next, having forgotten the night before to pick up eggs or Italian bread, or some other essential breakfast item. Then, a few clean-shaven men in suits, on their way to jobs in New York, would stop in for a paper and cigarettes. “I’ll be damned if I pay New York sales tax,” they’d say before hurrying off to catch the No. 80 bus to Journal Square and the “tubes” to the city.
From there it would be non-stop with kids on their way to school, cops looking for something free to eat, housewives again (relaxed now that kids were at school and husbands were safely at work), guys from the car wash, salesmen making deliveries, the lunch crowd, then kids coming home from school, factory workers heading home.
In the midst of all the comings and goings, we had a handful of regulars who spent several hours a day in the narrow confines of the store, nursing bottomless coffee cups. They would argue with my father about who was lousy on the Yankees that season, or bemoan the unanticipated consequences of foolish decisions they had made in their lives. When the store got crowded, they’d keep up a steady patter of conversation with waiting customers and sometimes help out, putting up a pot of coffee or making change for someone in a rush.
The decisions I have made in my own life took me far from the store, and from Jersey City. During my university years, I spent a semester in Washington, interning at the State Department, followed by a year in Italy at the University of Florence. Those experiences confirmed my uninformed but prescient declaration in sixth grade that when I grew up, I would join the Foreign Service.
In my 20 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, I have been posted to India, Spain and Ecuador. My State Department work also took me to Switzerland, Belgium, China, Hong Kong, South Africa, Botswana, Portugal, Malta, Italy, Vatican City, Ukraine, Russia, Moldova and Colombia.
I have shaken hands and shared meals with heads of state, watched 4th of July fireworks on the roof of the State Department with one Secretary of State, hugged another, attended a banquet in Beijing’s Forbidden City, stumbled into a breathtaking behind-the-scenes tour of the Vatican, and looked directly into Nelson Mandela’s eyes (while I did not see his soul, I did see the most potent concentration of goodness I’ve ever seen in another human being’s eyes).
And my postings finally led me to Canada. My family and I moved to Ottawa in August, 2011.
After decades of globetrotting, I find my thoughts often drifting back to my father’s store, though it is much-changed and no longer in family hands. The lessons I learned there, and the people I knew, formed me. They are the core of who I am, no matter how many countries I visit or how many dignitaries I meet. I miss the store.
That’s why some mornings I slip out of the U.S. embassy, happily located on the fringe of the ByWard Market, and take my morning coffee in the bustling lunch-table area in the back of La Bottega Nicastro grocery store.
My family’s store was a humbler concern, yet just being in an Italian grocery store – the sights, the perfume of fresh bread and coffee, the animated voices calling out in English and Italian – restores me and brings me back the gift of my childhood.
And for a few minutes I am not Marta Youth, diplomat and Economic Counsellor, but just Marta Costanzo, the girl behind the candy counter, the grocer’s daughter from Jersey City, and I am home.
Marta Costanzo Youth lives in Ottawa.Report Typo/Error