Ralph Gardner Jr: My Manager, George

Mar 16, 2019

George Palmatier

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I don’t regularly check out the obituaries in the New York Times but I do in the Columbia Paper, our local paper in Columbia County.

There’s something affecting learning about the lives of the beloved but sometimes unheralded – the schools they attended, the jobs they held, those they cared for and cared for them, their favorite sports or hobbies.

Those in the Times – the paid, not the news obituaries – tend to be a self-selecting crowd if only because a paid obit in the “Newspaper of Record” costs a couple of thousand bucks for a bare minimum of words.

It’s rare that I come across an upstate obituary of someone I actually knew since I’m a part-time resident. But I did a few weeks ago, of a gentleman I haven’t seen or spoken to in years but who I nonetheless considered a friend. As I suspect many did.

His name was George Palmatier and he was once the manager at the Grand Union supermarket in Valatie, NY.

George was into customer service well before it became corporate America’s mantra. He worked harder stocking the supermarket’s shelves than any of his employees yet he always had time for conversation.

He was perennially cheerful without being over the top. And it goes without saying that if there was something you couldn’t find George would find it for you. And if he couldn’t he’d endeavor to get it before your next visit.

George Palmatier was the personification of community. And his public service – I consider running a clean, efficient, well-stocked supermarket a form of community service – didn’t end when he left work for the day.

As his obituary noted he also led weekly Bible study classes at the Hudson Correctional Facility and he volunteered at the Ghent Food Pantry.

Born in 1947, the obit also revealed that George had been employed by the Grand Union Company for 41 years.

It was a sad day when the Valatie Grand Union went out of business – the handwriting was on the wall as soon as a much larger Hannaford’s opened down the road – and George was reassigned to a distant Grand Union; at least too far for me to travel to conveniently.

I should probably also mention that I may have stronger feelings about supermarkets and the Feng Shui of supermarkets than most.

It probably has something to do with having grown up in New York City where, because of the limitations of space and the price of real estate, supermarkets – at least in the days before Fairway, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s – were supermarkets in name only.

The aisles are so narrow it’s difficult for two shoppers to navigate them simultaneously, even without carts.

But I remember the feeling of visiting my grandparents upstate and shopping with them at Hudson’s comparatively oceanic supermarkets. The sheer variety of things like breakfast cereals and sodas, cakes and candies, let alone the width of the aisles, was awe-inspiring.

Deep into middle age I haven’t forsaken much of that childlike sense of consumer wonder. I still experience something resembling well-being upon arrival at a well laid out supermarket.

My wife, perhaps because she grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, often prefers to wait in the car while I shop.

I suppose it also has something to do with the length of time I linger over the merchandise, unit pricing one item against another. But that’s for a different day and a different commentary.

However, I have to believe that a failure to experience joy in the supermarket shopping experience is evidence of a character flaw of some sort.

I’m not going to play favorite among our local supermarkets, though I have my preferences and opinions.

Yet as bounteous and generally eager to please as they are the old Valatie Grand Union remains my favorite. Obviously George and his welcoming smile was a big part of it, but not the entire reason.

I also consider daylight important and the Grand Union had a wall of windows facing east, if memory serves me correctly.

I can’t quite articulate why this should be important to me. You’re not going there for the view, obviously. But it’s possible to experience frustration claustrophobia and stress in a food store the size of an airplane hanger if it’s not orchestrated thoughtfully, if not necessarily lyrically.

It reminds me of casinos where the windows are tinted grey to dupe your senses into believing that it’s dreary outdoors and better to stay inside and keep gambling.

Speaking, if only for myself, a well and somewhat naturally lighted supermarket encourages you to shop; it adds an element of nature to what otherwise might seem a highly artificial environment.

Which may be why people like supermarket managers and cheerful checkout clerks you come to recognize play an out-sized role. They humanize the experience.

Yet none I’ve encountered has ever surpassed George Palmatier.

If one’s ministry can be said also to treat everyone you encounter with dignity, respect and an unforced smile, George practiced it every day.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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