When you ask 95 year-old Mr. Holmes how he’s doing, he broadcasts a big, gleaming smile and singsongs, “Fine as wine, I’m just fine as wine.” And he is — he’s fine and cheerful and one of the most charmingly endearing people I’ve met in 23 years of living here.
I met Mr. Holmes while working on a project, and was privileged to spend long afternoons in his Upper Peninsula home, listening to his tales of growing up in a very different Charleston. He reminisced about his grandmother, a “vegetable lady” who pushed a produce cart up and down Tradd Street, and about one of his first jobs as a delivery boy for D.W. Ohlandt & Sons, a family-run grocery and Charleston mainstay on the corner of Meeting and Water Streets. “I could get 12 bananas for 10 cents or two loaves of bread for a nickel. As a delivery boy I had to go all over the city. Yes sir, these hands have seen all this history,” he told me.
“All this history” includes some not-so “fine as wine” times, too. Like when the city claimed the home he’d bought for his wife and children, and the homes of his neighbors, displacing African American families in order to build the Gaillard Auditorium back in the late 1960s.
This past spring when the posh new Gaillard Center opened to grand fanfare and no mention of the evicted families who once lived there, I kept thinking of dear Mr. Holmes and the sting of losing the home he was so proud of. And I think of him now, with the news of shuttering the Meeting Street Bi-Lo, the closest grocery, by far, to where he lives now, in a neighborhood splintered by I-26 and not far from the swanky new developments at Half-Mile North.
I’d drive home after my afternoons with Mr. Holmes to Mount Pleasant — my environs of predominantly white middle/upper class privilege that’s just a bridge away from where he lives, but worlds apart. In Mt. P., I pass three grocery stores in quick succession just after crossing the bridge. I can pick up my staples at the Teeter; cross the street and snag bulk organic oats for making granola and produce from Whole Foods, plus the $1.99 bag of popcorn I’ve become addicted to; then scoot three-tenths of a mile down the road and gather my Trader Joe’s standards (a bag of $1.79 carrots, ciabatta rolls, chocolate-dipped frozen banana bits…). Soon I’ll be able to go another two blocks and check out what Aldi has to offer, once they finish bowling over our former bowling alley.
And then when I’m home, if I’ve forgotten something or decided I really must have Espresso Chip Fro-yo, I can bike one mile to the massive Publix, built on a formerly-forested lot with a tucked-away pond where geese, heron, and ibis used to do their food “shopping,” and from there go smack across Ben Sawyer Boulevard to Bi-Lo, or triangulate 500 yards over to yet another Harris Teeter that has taken over the trusty old Sea Island Shopping Center Pig, God rest its soul.
The huge (mostly European) corporations that own these grocery chains are looking to make a buck in a highly competitive marketplace. I get that. But I also understand that behind the 50 cents on milk that I, as a Very Important Customer (VIC member), save at Harris Teeter, there are hidden costs — environmental costs for sure (the enormous footprint and related energy use) but also costs to the local economy, to small business owners, and to public health given our food chain overloaded with heavily processed goodies shipped from afar.
How it makes sense for south Mt. Pleasant to have six large-scale chain grocery stores within close proximity, all feeding, or rather feeding off of, a small residential area, is beyond me. As far as I can tell, we get no added nutritional value from yet another grocery selling more of the same goods already abundantly and conveniently available just down the street. Sure I appreciate having Espresso Chip Fro-yo in easy reach, but I shake my head at the grocery gluttony, while peninsula residents, including people like Mr. Holmes who can least afford it, are on a serious restriction diet.
When we question this disparity, we’re fed the same bland mush: market forces, zoning issues, blah, blah, blah. I for one would forgo having 23 aisles of cereal to choose from within a four-mile radius of my house if it meant a shift toward prioritizing local community needs over corporate profit.
Mr. Holmes is a hard-working, God-fearing, devoted family man who began saving to buy his first house by delivering groceries from a small locally owned store to residents across the peninsula. I can picture the “fine as wine” smile he must have flashed when making his calls. The city pushed him out of his home once. Surely we can find a way to ensure that he and his Upper Peninsula neighbors don’t get pushed out of their pantry.