We live half a block away from Colucci’s Hilltop Market. After many years in New York and San Francisco, it took a move to the cozy city of Portland, ME for me to be able to enjoy one of the urban conveniences I’d always wished for: A fairly well-stocked deli right on my corner. Old roommates from circa 1997-98 might remind me that there was indeed a deli around the corner from us on Henry Street in the Lower East Side. But it was one of those bodegas whose doors would lock after sundown and you’d have to hand your money through a revolving bullet-proof window to get your bag of Wise Potato Chips. Useful, perhaps, but not quite the shining refuge in the dark that the weary city dweller yearns for.
So finally, Colucci’s on the corner: “Real Italian” sandwiches, incredibly tasty home-made sausages, an obscenely colossal rack of potato chips, and all the beer you could ever ask for. Picnic tables out front on North Street, potted geraniums in its windows that line Congress Street. Flyers for local causes and events, from anti-puppy-farming rallies to local boxing matches. They’ve got a marque sign that glows warmly in the night, and a chalkboard that advertises their daily hot meal specials (Amercian chop suey, shells and red sauce, meatloaf).
But Colucci’s is a world of its own, and frankly, I don’t know what to make of it. If I decide to take it as a microcosm of Portland ME as a whole, I would then be forced to say that the city is populated by the living, shambling, and barely-functional dead, but on the plus side, those shuffling troglodytes are then graciously served large portions of warm food by polite and fun-loving service industry professionals. The atmosphere of Colucci’s is one of surprising graciousness. In fact, in my visits to Colucci’s, I’ve seen lots of things, but rudeness–from either the customer base or the deli staff–is not one of them.
If I’m going down to Colucci’s, Suz will ask me to come back with a story. This is easily accomplished. On my last visit, I ended up on line behind a young woman in sweatpants and furry boots buying two cans of Four Loko. It appears that I was not up-to-date on my malt-beverage-related current events, as I thought Four Loko had been outlawed after people drank it and their brains exploded, presumably. But it turns out Four Loko is still in business, and I’m about to learn the hows and whys of its resurgence from the Laconic Gentleman behind the counter at Colucci’s.
Before that, however, I should say a few words about the three types of counter help I’ve encountered in my visits to Colucci’s–each of which has their distinct charms. First, there’s the Portly Older Guys. These guys posses that grumpy-but-good-natured vibe I tend to associate with uncles I don’t see very often. The Portly Older Guys are men of few words, expect when sharing a smoke on the corner with their similarly-girthed middle-aged pals.
Then, there’s the genuine backbone of Colucci’s: The Sharp-Eyed Women. I speak truly when I say that the eyes of this trio of women fairly gleam with intelligence and good humor. They do all the cooking and they seem to know every customer personally. I would make the assumption that the Sharp-Eyed Women (most likely in tandem with The Portly Older Guys) are the principle owners of the Colucci’s operation; that they themselves are Colucci incarnate. Finally, Colucci’s also employs a few Laconic Gentlemen. These are slow-moving, dark-haired, ruffled looking dudes with a slightly rock-and-roll appearance. Now that there are no longer any record shops left to employ them, your typical well-read, drug-friendly post-college kid has to take his paycheck where he can get it, thusly a few of these kids work at Colucci’s (or maybe it’s just one kid and he changed his haircut).
Returning to my recent visit, this particular Laconic Gentleman, as he rang up his customer’s purchase (she of the sweat pants and furry boots), asked her if she still liked Four Loko now that the government had forced it to remove caffeine from its ingredient list.
“What?” She asked.
“Do you like those even though there’s no caffeine in them?” He spoke slowly.
“Yeah.” As she spoke, I felt like I was watching a ventriloquist’s trick. I couldn’t be sure that her tiny voice was actually originating from her lips. She was rummaging in her purse and she avoided eye contact with the Laconic Gentleman. It was like she was throwing her voice into her purse.
“Do you like them better now?”
“What?” She asked. Still no eye contact with the Laconic Gentleman, and still her voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else.
“Do you like them better?”
“Me too. That always seemed like a pretty dangerous combo.”
“Yeah. It’s like vodka and Red Bull. I don’t want that. I don’t want those two things together.”
At this point the young woman’s friend, similarly dressed in sweat pants and chunky boots, walked in.
“Did you pay yet?” The friend asked, also rummaging in her purse.
“No.” Finally, her voice finally sounded like it was originating from her mouth. I was relieved.
“Good, I gotta get bla bla bla.” She mumbled something I didn’t catch. Neither of the women seemed to look anywhere but into their purses. As far as I could tell, she had asked for either blunts or beef jerky, since the Laconic Gentleman walked over to a display of one of those two items (I couldn’t tell which, and I forgot to investigate when I got to the counter. But my money is on the tobacco products–why would Colucci’s keep beef jerky behind the counter?), handed her a package of something, and she walked out, leaving her friend to complete their mutual purchase.
After the transaction was complete, the Laconic Gentleman made a parting Four Loko comment to the furry-booted woman as she left to join her friend.
“Yeah, right? I know, seriously!” She laughed harshly and hurried out the door. The Laconic Gentleman slowly turned towards me. He didn’t have anything to say about my tub of coffee ice cream, but he was very polite.