It started with flowers. Roses really, the color of cherry tomatoes, delivered fresh from the truck to living rooms or offices throughout my neighborhood. Veldkamp Florist had been around, it seemed, since forever, and my mom always called them whenever we had to go to a funeral or an anniversary party. I went to school with a couple of Veldkamp kids, but I sort of felt sorry for them: They never could go out for the basketball team or attend the winter dances. Christmas and Valentine’s Day were just too important for florists. I guess those Veldkamp kids needed to help trim the roses.
Flowers turned to root beer. My friend’s mom owned and operated one of the last existing A & W Root Beer drive-ins in our city, and one summer in high school, I needed a job. So, I car-hopped. I took orders and poured root beer. I watched my friend’s mom flip burgers, scoop ice cream and count money at the end of every day, hoping to take home enough to pay her light bills after she paid us. It wasn’t easy work, but it was hers.
I followed my nose throughout college and a short career in public education, in and out of bakeries owned by three generations of Millers, pizza joints run by Italian immigrants, and beauty shops operated by Millie and Jessica and CarolAnn. I liked going into these small places; they were homey and real and familiar. I liked seeing family photos taped to the cash register or handwritten message boards outlining the day’s choices when I walked in.
They were different from the shops at the malls that always felt like a hospital ward in comparison. I never liked hospitals.
So the habit stuck. Through most of my adult life, I’ve remained a faithful fan of the small business. While some friends cheer the Giants or applaud the latest techno-gadget thing or — gasp! — order their books online from the beast-who-will-not-be-named, I’ve always been a sucker for the underdogs around the block.