Park anywhere. Except tor three lonely cars and a few empty shopping carts, the lot is yours. It’s night and the air is damp. The apron of the large, box-like building is wet and slick as if recently hosed down. You can hear the strong, steady hum of the exhaust fans breathing; and you can see a sleek yellow taxi slowly prowling Robinson Avenue like a hungry cat.
You’re ready for Sinatra to saunter across the lot puffing on a Lucky, with a crumpled trench coat slung over one shoulder. Instead, a short guy in a pea coat steps out of the darkness and treads toward the building. He is grim and bald and walks straight ahead, glancing neither right nor left. Another guy, this one wearing a coonskin cap, whooshes out of the building canying a small brown bag. He hops into a green Dodge Charger and roars off. A man pulls up in a gasping Toyota and asks if there are any cheap gas stations around. Directed, he chugs off in his wheezing machine.
It's 1:30 a.m. Standing beside a pair of pay phones and a silver train of piggybacked carts, you figure you’re ready for Mayfair Market’s morning crowd. The store lights up a quiet section of Hillcrest at night. It sits just northwest of Balboa Park, in the grid formed by Fifth, Robinson, Sixth, and Pennsylvania avenues. Open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it is the last remaining all-night Mayfair in San Diego. A beacon, a final outpost, a last stop, this supermarket attracts a fascinating clientele.
A young man orders a cab by phone, goes inside and returns shortly with a six-pack of beer. Pacing up and down in front of the store, he is muttering, “Goddam hick town. Can’t even get a cab.” A friend in a high school “letter sweater” strolls up and joins him. He also has a six-pack under his arm. “You get one. too?” laughs the pacer. A taxi slinks up at 2:05 and the two pile in, carrying the twelve. A middle-aged woman in a red windbreaker with a shoulder patch that says “Caution: Coots Powered” walks inside. A disgruntled chap with a boot-camp haircut storms outside in a snit. “I’ll kill that son-of-a-bitch,” he says. Climbing into a waiting car, he explains to the driver angrily, “No, we didn’t get any beers. I got in line and . . . .” Slam. Zoom.
But most people come and go rather casually here at 2:30 in the morning. Many are in such condition that haste would be foolhardy. Some forget to turn off headlights. One shopper drops his keys three times in an unsteady gait from store to car. A man in denim and rhinestone shuffles past. (There is a gay bar nearby.) A young couple gently carom off one another. They walk in laughing at something and walk out laughing at something else.
Shortly, you arc adequately chilled, and turn to go inside. The glass doors glide aside as your foot falls on the black mat — ssschink — and there it is. The Emerald City. Suddenly you are warm again, aglow in comforting American supermarket fluorescence. Tons of cans, boxes, and bags in thousands of shapes and shades are stacked, shelved, and piled all around. It is all there waiting for you. Soothing Muzak softly invites you to grab a cart and stuff it full of goodies. There are no checkers at the registers. You wander around.
Down through the labyrinth, back in the bowels of Mayfair, you come upon a stern old man somberly pushing a cart toward the front. He has three grapefruit in the cart, and they bob around lazily as he rolls by.
Wide-eyed, you marvel at all of the things available to you in the middle of the night. Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, “new” Crave cat food, the one-pound “fun size” of Snickers, Kava, Pennzoil, Cremora, tangerines, and Bremner's Poppy Seed Crackers. Don’t forget the Salvo. It's 3:15.
You find yourself in another aisle. Two young men wearing aprons, ties, and shirts with pens in the pockets are working in this aisle making sure that the merchandise is all stacked neatly and pushed to the front of the shelves. Just so. This is called “facing,” they say. They talk about what it’s like to work the twelve-to-nine shift in this store. In the background, their portable radio oozes the sound of “soft rock,” drowning out the Muzak.
Tim and Frank are willing to chat, but continue to work. Frank is talking about people who come to shop in the wee hours. “Well, some are what we call headhunters,” he says. “These people are bargain hunters who know their coupons and they go from store to store. We get a big order now and then, but mostly we get two- or- three-item shoppers.
“One old gal, though,” he recalls with a chuckle, “comes in two or three nights a week carrying her parakeet in a little wooden cage. She must live in one of these retirement homes around here, and she’s afraid that if she's gone and the building catches fire, no one would save the bird. She’s probably right.”
“We get a lot of people from the gay bar,” adds Tim, “and we’ve got one guy who goes through our trash and smokes butts out of the ashtrays up front. A lady gave him five bucks once during the day, and he jumped on his bicycle and put the money in his bank account.” They talk about the man who comes in and walks around the store with his hands in his pockets, scanning the floor for money. “He even looks under the cigarette machine," says Frank.
Summing up, he notes, “You get practically every type of human being in a grocery store. Everybody has to eat. They can’t all go to restaurants, but they do have to eat. Most people are really pretty super, though.”
“You must work different nights than me.” blurts Tim. They laugh. You move on.
In the dairy section, a fat man checks a dozen eggs for cracks.
The meat department is sealed off behind a barricade of carts. A sign reads, “No meat, cheese, or deli sold between 12 a.m. and 7 a.m.” No butchers work the night shift and the unions make sure that nobody but butchers handles meat.You walk up to the front, passing up the Kraft Marshmallow Creme, the Swanson boned chicken.with broth, the Hanes 1OO% cotton briefs, and the Dr. Scholl’s Toe Caps. A guy asks if you know where the paper plates are. He works a late shift himself, and prefers to shop in the morning. “Except for the meat department being closed,” he says, “I kind of like it here. You practically have the whole store to yourself.”
Over by the canned soups, you meet Fred, another employee. An affable fellow in his late thirties, he has worked the late shift for nine years. “Monday through Thursday,” he states, “it’s pretty much a cigarette and beer crowd. But it can get hairy around here on the weekends.” He talks about catching the “overflow” from sporting events like Mariners games, and he notes that occasionally gay men from the bar across the street will come in and ask for prophylactics. “They grab and kiss one another,” he says. “It’s a little strange.” Fred discusses the old people who visit his Mayfair. “A lot of them take cabs here. They won’t walk at night. They come in for their prune juices, soups, and vegetables. Maybe a little produce. They’re pretty nice folks,” he adds, “but they do get upset sometimes about the meat counter.” Fred excuses himself and returns to work.
You linger awhile in the cookie aisle, then head up front. A young man named Jerry is “checking.” A clerk stacks cases of bottled water near Jerry’s register. The clerk mentions that many people come in late at night to buy medicines like NyQuil and cough syrups. “Since Ferris and Ferris started closing nights,” he says, “you can’t get this stuff anywhere else. They’ll drive up from Spring Valley for it.” And crazy phone calls? The clerk tells of a phone inquiry at four a.m. a few days ago regarding “Invitation to a party” cards. "We had the cards,” he smiles, “So these people came by and got them.” He talks about the little old ladies with the “shakes” at six in the morning waiting for the liquor department to open. The clerk does a pantomime of a little old lady shaking.
Jerry adds that bar owners shop here a lot. “That guy who just left owns the Twenty Club,” he says. ‘ ‘He comes in a couple of times a week after closing up. Most people, though, just want smokes or snack items or things they need earl y the next day.” He folds his arms and leans back against the counter. “But you do kind of wonder about some of these characters. There was a guy named Clarence who used to come in here. He was in his mid-forties and he told me he got messed up in the war. The guy was on some sort of allowance. He would buy a banana, go outside and eat it, and then come back in and get a few pieces of candy. Then he would go stand outside and eat the candy. I guess he didn’t have anyone to talk to. Clarence died in a fire a couple of months ago,” says Jerry, “but we used to see him every night.”
You glance at the literature available around the check-out stand. Among the other ‘4impulse items” like chewing gum, razors, and transistor batteries, you spot a tabloid called the Midnight Globe. “Why Fonzie Can’t Wed,” reads the headline. There is also a stack of Dell “purse books.” one title being 3500 Names for Baby.
A customer, a large man with a broad, freckled, Midwestern face, appears with a few purchases. “Morning,” says Jerry. “I wish you’d carry Planter’s cashew nuts,” comes the clipped reply* “so I wouldn’t have to go all the way to Fashion Valley.”
You head for the produce section. There isn’t much cellophane or cardboard over here; mostly unpackaged green or red or yellow fruits and vegetables. The pinto beans are thirty-nine cents a pound tonight. You meet a spirited senior who rails against the morning ban on meat sales. She wears a square, laminated identification card at the neck of her blouse where a cameo might be more appropriate. The woman works late at the Post Office, and can only shop at night. “Oh,” she says disgustedly, “I could do it in the day and go without sleep.”
By now you’ve about had it.
You don’t need the crushed can of V-8, the dented Del Monte spinach, or the violated rigatoni box which lie, like crippled and pathetic outcasts, in the “Reduced for Quick Sale” bin. The forty-nine cent “Goseout” bin full of “Springtime” cutlery must also wait for some other morning. It’s nearly four a.m., the Muzak is now a nagging murmur, the lights are hot, and it is damned ridiculous to be standing in a supermarket right now.
On the way out, however, you speak to Larry, a graduate student and something of a regular here. He defines for you the attraction of the all-night Mayfair Market. “First of all,” he begins, “it’s in a great part of town. Neighborhoods, like people, have peaks and declines. Hillcrest is ready for another peak. There’s commercial building going up all over. And there's an awful lot of young people. I don’t know where they all come from, though,” he shrugs. “But there’s an intriguing combination of old people who are left over from the old peak, and new people who are creating the new peak. They meet here at midnight and something funny happens. You can feel it.”
Larry looks around. "On the negative end,” he confides, “their prices are high here to absorb the cost of these stupid contests.” He points to a sign by the exit. It refers to the current “Quik-Cash Jackpot” in which any lucky bag-clutcher can “Win up to $1,000.” “The popularity of the place actually has very little to do with the store,” he continues. “There’s a weird social payoff here. I’ve had to wait as long as forty minutes in line, but I didn’t mind because the people around me were interesting. Plus,” he smiles, “I’ve picked up two separate women here, and I’m not a guy who ordinarily picks up women.”
He says that there are a lot of people here who are free, in a sense; who haven’t anyone else to talk to; who are at “in-between stages of their lives.” '“They’re just not going to go to bed at ten,” he says. “Basically, though, the magnetism here has something to do with the age-old attraction of the marketplace.” Larry says so long and vanishes down an aisle.
You go home by yourself, have a beer, and think about all of this.