Essay: Etta.

Just as I can recall where I was when the spaceship
Challenger exploded* and when I heard that Jerry Garcia died,** so I can tell
you exactly where I was the first time I really heard Etta James.
My time with the Fresh Pond Bread and Circus was brief, from
a life-span perspective.  I only worked
there about two years.  But the short
amount of time spent there coincided with a period in my life where a lot of
things were happening.  It was a period
like High School.  High School is three
years—at least it was in my case—which seems like forever when you are in it,
but is a small amount of time overall. 
However, so many things are going on during those three years, that the
story written of your life about that period would be a weighty tome, full of
John Irving-like labyrinth plot combined with Michael Chabon-dense prose. Whereas
the story written about the three years of work you did mid-career would be a
short, (and most likely boring) novella. 
See: Shopgirl.
At Bread and Circus, I worked in Prepared Foods.  In less fancy grocery stores, Prepared Foods
would be known as the deli section.  We
sliced and packaged lunch meat to order—never ahead of time.  We scooped various vegetable, grain and meat
dishes for picky people who couldn’t be bothered to cook for themselves: “I’d like the carrot, onion and potato dish,
but I don’t want any onions.”  We cut
cooked chicken into quarters and scooped tubs of mashed potatoes and macaroni
and cheese.  We gave samples to people,
refilled the dishes when they were low, put away everything at night and pulled
it out again every morning.  When we
needed a break, from the customers or the monotony, we would wander back to the
kitchens to grab some water and chat with the cooks.
In my opinion, the cooks had the better job.  They avoided the customers, cranked out a lot
of the food we sold and actually made something.  Out front, we were like the ocean, lapping at
the shore. A dish would run low, we would refill it.  It would run low, we would refill it.  After all the refilling, the tide would go
out at the end of the day and all the dishes would be emptied back into the
containers.  In the morning, the new crew
would take that same food out of the same containers we had placed it in eight
hours before and put it back in a dish and begin the refilling process.  Whereas, I watched the cooks actually do
something like take massive amounts of eggs, some of the prosciutto ends, a bit
of spinach and several pie crusts.  With
a bit of chatter among their colleagues as they worked and some chopping,
mixing and stirring, six quiche would appear from the ovens, ready to sell.
The cooks also got to listen to their own music while they
worked.  Out front, we were held hostage
to whatever the muzack station was playing. Sometimes that wasn’t a bad
thing.  By that point, muszack had
expanded to playing actual music on genre specific stations.  At times, we were even lucky enough that the
otherwise straight-laced manger put on the 70s hard rock station.  I can guarantee that most of America has not
had the pleasure of scooping Orzo Salad, humming along to Led Zeppelin, only to
emerge from the case with a full container to hear the “lady who lunches” with
the fur coat and the coiffed hair say in a voice of upper class outrage, “What are they playing? It’s entirely too loud!”  Alas, the lady would then usually march over
to customer service and complain and this happened enough that pretty soon we
did not hear the 70s hard rock station played very often.  Mostly it was middle-of-the-road adult light
rock, but I did hear Dan Bern played a few times, much to my excitement.
The cooks’ taste in music was eclectic and so it was always
interesting to hear what was going on in the back.  One day, 
I was taking a long drink of water and Andy changed out the CD.  A great sweep of violins filled the space,
followed by two sustained notes by an amazingly powerful voice.  We were four measures in and I was
hooked.  “Who is this?” I asked.
“Etta James.” Andy told me.
I’d never heard of her, but I found reasons to wander
through the kitchen again and again as the CD played.  It wasn’t long before I had my own copy.  Etta James. Her best.  Then, I would annoy the cooks and sing along,
telling them that my voice was just like hers. 
We all new that it wasn’t, and they felt free to remind me.
I lived with four roommates at the time—all women, all in
similar life transitions as I was.  Given
that we were young and in our twenties, we all smoked and would often sit
around the kitchen table drinking cheap wine, smoking and talking.  There would usually be music playing and Etta
James was in heavy rotation.  I’m glad I
don’t smoke anymore and that my life is not as full of transitions, but I
wouldn’t trade those conversations around the table.
It seems like everyone knows, “At Last.”  I once read that countless brides have swept
down the aisle to it, and it was played at Barack Obama’s inauguration.  One year at Boston’s Fourth of July Fireworks
celebration, I even saw fireworks explode in time to it. It’s a good song and I
like it too, but it’s not my favorite Etta James song.  That would be “Sunday Kind of Love.”
I’ve rejected marriage for myself, so I won’t be sweeping
down the aisle to “At Last,” but even if I was going to get married, it would
be the choice anyway.  It’s a song that’s
bit too sure of itself, and I sometimes worry that the singer maybe isn’t quite
able to see the whole picture. That perhaps she’s overcompensating in some way.  I mean, “my lonely days are over, and life is
like a song.”?  I’ve read enough novels
to know that you can be lonely, even after your love has come along and “life
is like a song” is a bit too fairy tale for me.
“Sunday Kind of Love” however is more of a classified ad, or
a nice list of goals.  The song starts
with just her big powerful voice, telling us that she “wants a”—and then the band
comes in on “Sunday kind of love/A love
to last past, Saturday night.”  At the
time I heard this song, I was in what seemed at the time  to be an extended
period of not being in a relationship. 
In fact, Linda McCartney died and Paul McCartney mourned and remarried
and I was still not in a relationship. 
“I’ve been single longer than Paul McCartney!” I exclaimed to my friend
while looking at the magazine cover of the wedding picture while standing in line
at the store. The older woman behind me snorted with laughter.
I dated, which was no fun at all, and cycled through some
relationships that were Junior High in length—no more than a few weeks.  My lack of a steady relationship was one of
many unsure things in my life: When would I move to Portland? What would I do
for a living?  Should I go back to
school? Would that job over there be better for me? Who, exactly would love me?
I related to Etta James “Sunday Kind of Love” lament.  And I eventually figured things out, mostly.
*Watching on TV with the rest of my fifth-grade class
**Working at a liquor store in Boise, Idaho.  I’d just come from my other job at a Super 8
motel and I heard the news on the radio. 
My friend Sara, who worked there too, commented that she thought I had
heard, or she would have told me.

One thought on “Essay: Etta.”

  1. I like this essay because it takes me to another time (other times) in our friendship. I really only know Etta's hits. But I remember all of our correspondence from this time. You trying to explain to me what Bread and Circus was. I remember you had to liken it to the Coop, because I simply had no frame of reference for a gourmet supermarket. Now, of course, Whole Foods is everywhere (even in Boise) and I have shopped there. It was such a context for your life and I just didn't quite get it. Then I worked in the Coop deli for a summer and I had a much greater feel for your experience. Now I need to go listen to Sunday Kind of Love.

    Thanks to youtube. Oh yes, I know this song! I was feeling out of the Etta loop. I like how it has a little sass to it, while it is still a lament.

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