I'd heard and believed the urban legend that said meat sold at the Over-the-Rhine Kroger was so near the end of its shelf life it was as brown as the customers who shopped there. But everything at the June 2 Grand Re-Opening -- except the notoriously claustrophobic parking lot -- was new and/or expanded. And clean.
Cleanliness is next to gaudiness, right near shiny, which is in aisle 4A next to exuberance.
Out front, black men tugged a huge grill into the shade and off the parking lot blacktop. Personalities from WIZF (100.9 FM) operated a homemade roulette wheel for CD and T-shirt giveaways.
Inside, there's better lighting, wider aisles, bigger displays and more modern signage. Produce is arranged with surreal Martha Stewart accuracy. According to the board in the vestibule, Dave Miller is your store manager.
Cashiers spoke to customers in sing-songy tones, while other workers restocked shelves, helped old ladies retrieve Styrofoam coolers from high up and finagled brand-new carts.
There was no such hyperactive customer service the half dozen times I'd previously shopped there. But then this exhibition had as much to do with the proliferation of Kroger executives as with the refurbished digs.
I didn't know groceries exacted so much excitement and fanfare. The Vine Street Kroger, however, is more than a grocery store.
It's a landmark to the Kroger Co.'s prior lack of commitment to fulfilling Over-the-Rhine residents' nutritional needs beyond nicotine, sugary cereal, ribs, a rainbow of Kool-Aid flavors and 40 ounces. (More on that later.) It was an unspoken neighborhood joke. But wasn't shit funny. It was an eyesore among eyesores.
So it's reasonable that a gaggle of Kroger executives wandered the aisles, surveyed the store behind baggers' stations and answered reporters' questions above the din of Jazz Muzak piping through the public address system.
Befitting most other O-T-R culture, the fanfare came down to loyalists and tourists. That is, residents have such fine-tuned radar they can smell an interloper at 10 paces.
All the media, suits and hoopla ain't worth a fistful of double coupons to the mostly old, mostly female black and white neighborhood folks who'll still need groceries once the new-car smell dissipates. A woman in a suit with a Kroger nametag on her lapel warned two female shoppers.
"There's reporters in here," she said loudly. "Watch out."
The urban myth about the brown meat no longer holds true, but another surfaced. I'd heard about the expansive refrigerated beer cases, so after lunch at Tucker I returned to see for myself.
It's true. The cheap wine and wine coolers beg from stingy shelving, but across the aisle the refrigerated beer cases extend down the aisle. It's refrigeration's equivalent to the doublewide trailer.
Apples to oranges, the Hyde Park Kroger has a state liquor agency and the Over-the-Rhine Kroger has every brand, size and flavor imaginable of malt liquor. It's offensive to discover marketing so race- and class-specific, but there it is -- and on sale with your Kroger Plus card!
On my way out, a longtime employee confided her disbelief when she first heard the store would be overhauled. She's happy the execs kept their word.
The company is clearly recommitted to amped up and friendlier customer service and even a cleaner shopping environment. What about a response to the city's needs south of Central Parkway, however, where young, hip professionals are slowly answering developers' lures to live downtown?
Ask prospective downtowners what they want, and they'll answer that they need an accessible and well-stocked grocery store that doesn't close with the banks and with prices that don't skyrocket because most shoppers use Food Stamp cards.
On the edge of the parking lot, the spot is marked as an Ohio Historical Landmark. In polite language it traces Over-the-Rhine from its heyday of German and Dutch settlers to its present-day station where blacks live but few thrive.
Great, but what about making the store a viable landmark linking the two halves of downtown -- those who have and those who have not?
The reopening is typical of Cincinnati. We look lovingly at the past, expecting laurels alone to propel us forward. Then we wrap it all in new packaging so folks believe they're getting something new.
In Seinfeld language, it's called the re-gift.
What's beauteous is that amidst the hoopla of corporate presentation and everyday reality, black folks -- and our environments -- remain unfazed. The acrid and heady smell of urine whoomped up my nostrils as soon as I stepped off Kroger's lot to the sidewalk. And just as when I first pulled up to the store, a black man caught my eye.
"You driving?" he asked, wondering if I was a bootleg cab driver.
"Naw," I said. "Sorry."
And Kroger should be, too.
Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.