It was right down the street from our apartment, a half a block away. It was a throwback even then, to another time; a much simpler one. I never knew Gus’ last name. I never even knew what the hell Gus was short for, but all I knew was that was the name of the nice old Italian man who ran the local grocery on our corner. At least I think he was Italian.
Outside there were wooden tables loaded with vegetables; fresh corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini; anything you wanted or needed for an evening’s meal. Inside it was small, with limited shelf space so he just stocked a few items of each kind. Five bags of Gold Medal Flour would sit next to six canisters of Baking Soda; eight rolls of Scott tissue would nestle next to six boxes of Kleenex. If he ran out, he would go “in the back” and re-stock the shelves, but always with the same amount of items. There was an ice box like you see in the front of filling stations of the day, loaded with Coke, Pepsi and Mountain Dew along with six or eight five pound bags of ice. Gus would reign behind a refrigerated deli counter which contained already cut portions of salamis and bologna, along with the obligatory American cheese. He made sandwiches for the lunch crowd such as it was, and when it was time to pay, whether it be for a container of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee or Lipton Tea, or a ham and cheese, or a Good & Plenty or Mary Jane, he did it all in his head. No cash register to be seen. Just Gus, a brown paper bag and a stub of pencil behind his ear. I would marvel standing at my Mom’s side as he would add up a list of her items, a long list, in long math on the side of the bag, and do it in seconds. Today it would take me twenty minutes, and even then I would want to check it against the calculator on my phone. But not Gus. He could add numbers like Jackson Pollack could stain a canvas…..quickly and beautifully. I don’t know where he got the talent, as I am not sure if the guy could sign his name to a document, but man, he knew numbers. There probably is a scientific name for that talent; I just called it amazing.
Gus’ store had sawdust on the wooden floor, high tin ceilings and one fan circulating warm air, and it was the go to place when Mom realized he needed one ingredient for a recipe she was making. Often she would dispatch Don to bring back the item. There was never a receipt as the price, the amount tendered and the change were scrawled on the side of the bag and she never once doubted the math. No one did. It was right every time.
As you can guess that store is long gone, and to be honest I am not even sure how long it was in business. It was there when I was born, but how long before that? Who knew.. And then one day it was just gone, even then probably a victim of rising rents. I didn’t like to think Gus had passed on or anything; I like to think he decided to retire and head off to a nice little spot in Florida. In another life he could have been a financial planner with his talent for numbers. But he probably did more good running that store that was so essential to the families it served. He was just another part of the wonderful mosaic that was Greenwich Village a long long time ago.