The news that 72 Dominick's supermarkets are going out of business in the Chicago area is, to some, purely a business story. But this one is about more than spreadsheets and accounting programs.
I grew up in the grocery business. I've seen the promise of stores opening, with balloons outside and excitement. And I've seen what happens when a store folds and hearts aren't merely broken but chewed.
Not just the hearts of the workers, but the hearts of the neighborhood.
I've seen it from the inside and the outside, as a customer and a worker. I know the rhythm of the market, from lights on to locking up in the dark, with the parking lot empty. There's the chill of the milk cooler on February mornings, the coffee in the back room, the butchers joking, running the saws, the drivers, the cashiers, the deli girls, the stock boys and the managers in the white shirts.
It's a family thing, even if the stores are overseen by some icy California chain and their white-bread executives with pinched faces. It's a family of those who do the real work.
Or maybe it's not a chain. Maybe it's just one store, or two, run by immigrant brothers driving beater cars who hope to make that month's nut, worried about the squeeze coming from City Hall.
You put enough time into something, it becomes a family. At least for the people who work there. And the people who shop there. It's about food and something else. It's about being fed, but it's not just about the food.
For the neighbors, who shop at the same place every three or four days, the news that a store is closing can sometimes be as hard as visiting the funeral home.
So when I heard the news, that's what I thought about: all those families.
The families of the thousands of workers who have just heard their jobs are in jeopardy. There's the cold-sweat worry at their homes at night, the dread at breakfast in the morning, those moms and dads going to work, wondering how long they'll be paid.
And also the families of the customers who come to shop. Whether they frequent a chain or an independent store, some connect with the place. It's like a contract.
They wait for the cashier they like, the one who asks them about their daughter at college, and even though other lines have fewer customers, they'll stand in that one line, waiting and waiting, though another would be quicker. The cashier knows about this contract. And so does the customer.
This doesn't apply to all cashiers, or all customers. Some shoppers just cruise stores for sales. Some cashiers are indifferent. But regulars are regulars for a reason. Customers and workers don't have to discuss this contract or write it down. They just know.
Or the customers might know the butcher, and he shakes his head "no" when they reach for an item, and he guides them to another, with a smile. Not this steak, that one. Not this roast, that one.
Or they know the produce clerks who recognize a face, and raise a finger, signaling "just a minute," and turn through the slatted plastic separating the main store from the back room. They disappear back there.
And they return a few minutes later from the back with a case of the big jalapenos and pull open the box. The cardboard snaps, and there they are: green jewels, big as a giant's thumb, the ones that are perfect for stuffing.
"I live a couple of blocks away and I come here almost every day," said Matthew Smith, of Streeterville, at the Dominick's at 255 E. Grand Ave. "Where else in the neighborhood are you going to shop for groceries?
"Fox & Obel went out of business," Smith said. "You got Trader Joe's down there and Treasure Island up there and Whole Foods. Otherwise, it's a big loss for the neighborhood."
When I heard the news about Dominick's, I thought of the one I visit regularly, the one with the produce lady who knows I want the big jalapenos. I thought of her, and the managers there, their stomachs churning underneath the white shirts, and what they must be feeling. I don't have to ask them. I know.
Supermarkets are a hard business. They work on a 1 or 2 percent profit margin, which few if any think about when they're whining that the other store down the street sells their Happy Smile lemonade for 32 cents cheaper.
Eventually, those 72 Dominick's stores will be weighed, bloodlessly, on some liquidator's scale, that cold flat place where businesses go to die.
But only after potential buyers pick up their phones and call their friendly aldermen at City Hall and other local governments. If you know how such things work, you can almost hear the calls, pleasantries first, then downright finagling over liquor licenses and refuse contracts, as the knives of commerce and politics are sharpened.
Not all of agribusiness is suffering, of course. Some of the big guys are doing OK.
Decatur's Archer Daniels Midland is asking for millions as a sweetener to stay in Illinois and may move its headquarters to Chicago. The ADM boss just bought a home for a couple million in the city.
But the night stock crews, the produce workers, the butchers, the cashier you know, the manager who sponsored your kids' Little League team, they're not getting any sweeteners.
Instead, they're about to be bagged and delivered into today's most common business story, the one about millions and millions of our countrymen forced into part-time America.