"What am I doing?" I thought, as I drove down the unfamiliar three-lane 110 freeway on Saturday afternoon. A bead of sweat rolled down the inside of my arm, and I reached over to turn up the air conditioner. It was hot, the sky was streaked with grey from the fires, and cars were zooming around my 1999 Silver Corolla as I peered anxiously at the exit signs, willing one of them to say "Avenue 64." I was on a top secret mission to secure obscure and exotic root beers, and despite my apprehension, I would not be thwarted by the distance (15 miles) I had to trek outside my West Hollywood comfort zone to get them.
It had all begun with a NY Times article that appeared in the paper this past June. The article shared the results of a root beer taste test, listing the top 10 root beers of the 25 that the panel sampled. I knew as soon as I finished reading the piece that I had stumbled upon the perfect gift idea for my root beer-loving friend: bottles of each of the reviewed sodas so he could perform his own taste test. The only obstacles? His birthday was five months away, and the only place likely to carry all the different labels was Galco's Old World Grocery, located in Eagle Rock far far away from my apartment.
As I drove up to the old school market, I cringed at the shoddiness of the signage and exterior of the one-floor building on York Blvd. I pulled down on the hem of my denim skirt, not sure what sort of characters I was about to encounter. This was not the image of a jolly old-time soda shop. I had pictured it being cute and cozy and full of bright colors -- I didn't anticipate that it would be dusty and dirty and somewhat reminiscent of an abandoned warehouse. Yet, as I walked through the sliding front doors, something magical happened. One moment I was in 2008 and the next, I was back in the 1950s.
The customers that pushed their metal carts around the four-aisle market were moving at a slower pace than the ones I pass by at Whole Foods or my local Trader Joe's. They were taking time to browse, to chat with the several employees eager to help and answer questions, and to even give a newbie like myself a few pointers. A woman who was there with her son told me to use an empty soda case to transport my root beers so they wouldn't roll about in my cart, and another patron pointed out a product that he insisted I add to my collection.
After just a few minutes, I had found all the root beers on my list except for Sea Dog Old Style. I asked a passing employee if they had it in stock, and while he said "No," he made it his mission to make sure I left the store with several additional bottles of root beer that were not included in the NY Times piece. I wanted to tell him to stop filling my cart with unnecessary items, but I was charmed by his enthusiasm for the product. As he extolled the virtues of the Red Ribbon bottle and began recounting the history of Sasparilla -- the precursor to root beer -- I couldn't help but feel a sense of nostalgia for a time that I never got to experience. When I ask someone at Trader Joe's if they recommend the spinach lasagna, I am met with a blank stare. In this self-interested age and in this self-interested city, it is rare that a person will spare the breath to inform me that "No, the lasagna sucks, but the meatless meatballs will knock your socks off." At Galco's there is no such attitude nor pretension.
When I had finally completed my shopping (which included a bottle of Mexican coke for myself), my new friend guided me to the check-out. I started to reach for the hefty box of sodas, but he immediately stopped me.
"Let Darrell do it." He said with a smile, nodding toward the fresh-faced young man behind the register. "You're probably too young to get that." He added.
"No, like Mikey." I said, returning his smile.
He was impressed. As was I when he helped me to my car, loading the heavy box into my trunk without flinching at the scuffed bumper or distinct layer of soot/grime that coated my older model Toyota. It fit right in there -- a little dusty around the edges, but with an engine/heart that keeps it running smoothly.
The bottles on the shelves might have imperfect labels, might contain over or under 12 ounces of fluid (as my friend discovered later), and might be a little shelf-worn, but the product itself is perfect. A testament to soda, and a testament to a time when grocers didn't discard apples simply because they aren't pretty enough to put on display.