Today I got an email from a company in SC called Cromer’s. I don’t know why they sent me an email. It was just one of those things that happened that I can’t spend too much time questioning.
Cromer’s has been around forever. Their claim to fame is their peanuts, though when I was little they were sort of a party supply store, too. My grandma would take me there every now and then—or maybe it was my grandpa who took me there, I can’t remember. What I can remember, quite distinctly, is the smell—a mixture of cheap plastic, balloons, popcorn, roasting peanuts and candy. The aisles, as I remember, were full of what would now seem to me like junk. Cheap toys that worked well as party favors, but not much more. Bags and bags of balloons. Novelty items, though not like the ones my grandpa kept that were either risque or somehow related to poop or pee.
The main thing I loved about Cromer’s though was the monkeys. The location we always went to was a smallish store in a smallish mall. Imagine aisles of crap on one side, a big counter with popcorn and peanuts on the other. And in the back, in a glass case that hovered over all the circus-ness of it all were monkeys. Probably about four or five little chimps swinging on ropes and limbs.
You could get the best view from the front of the store. Just stand there and look up and there were the monkeys, bouncing around, guarding the popcorn and peanuts.
It was, to me, the best of the best. Monkeys, candy and popcorn all in one place. You didn’t have to stand in line, no one made you go anywhere or wait your turn. You were just there, in the mall, with the monkeys and the cheap crap and the smell of it all.
By the time I was a teenager, or probably around the time I was 12 or 13, that location of Cromer’s closed for good. If I use my adult intellect, I can pretty easily figure out why they closed, but to my kid-mind, it seemed senseless. Mostly I was concerned about the monkeys.
Cromer’s had another location, in downtown Columbia, and I went there when I was a freshman in college. It wasn’t the same. The popcorn and peanuts were there, but there was less junk, and no monkeys.
And today when I looked Cromer’s up online, I found even more disappointment. No mention of the monkeys, no mention of cheap crap. Just the popcorn, and not even that much about the peanuts.
I found something else. I read the history of Cromer’s and—finally, finally—I learned how they earned their famous slogan “Guaranteed Worst in Town.”
Here’s what the website says:
In 1935, Julian D. Cromer sold peanuts and a variety of vegetables at his one-man stand in the Assembly Street Curb Market in Columbia, SC. Every morning he packed up his produce and drove downtown to the market where he roasted his own peanuts. The fresh taste was a hit with the locals who were sick and tired of snacking on stale peanuts.
By 1937, Cromer’s one-man produce stand was booming, but his success could not go on unchallenged – another enterprising local (who will not be mentioned here) set up his own peanut stand directly across the aisle from Cromer’s.
To lure customers, the new competition promised the Best Peanuts in Town. He even went so far as to tell everyone who walked by that Cromer had the worst peanuts in the market.
Cromer was appalled. He called the man a scoundrel, a charlatan and declared his tactics were underhanded and downright dastardly. Infuriated, Cromer walked back to his produce stand and made a cardboard sign saying "Worst In Town." Later while he was still in a huff, he added one more word "Guaranteed." His competitor was astonished that any man in his right mind would advertise his products that way.
When customers walked by and chose between peanut purveyors they made the logical decision–everyone flocked to Cromer’s and Guaranteed Worst in Town was born.
Business was so good in 1939 that Cromer quit selling other produce to devote all his time to the peanut business. For 67 years, Cromer’s was a landmark in downtown Columbia, proudly displaying their infamous slogan.
After more than 70 years of business, Cromer’s is stronger than ever. Today Cromer’s is back in downtown Columbia and is owned by Julian’s granddaughter, Carolette Cromer Turner. In the years since Julian Cromer first started his one man produce stand, Cromer’s has grown to sell all kinds of fresh and flavorful snacks, as well as concession equipment, party supplies and advertising specialties. Of course, you can still get fresh roasted peanuts. And everything at Cromer’s is still…
Guaranteed Worst in Town.
And after reading this my adult mind shifts not back into my kid memory, but into my now, where thoughts of failure feel fresh and familiar.
On the door to my office, I have a quote from Samuel Beckett from Worstword Ho:
It’s there every morning when I get to work, it’s the first thing I see before I open my office door, before I begin my morning routine of checking email, making sure the tutors are doing what they should be doing, making sure all is well in the Center.
I enter my morning thinking I could fail better.
I think every day that I could fail better.
Mr. Cromer failed better. It has been his slogan for nearly seventy years, and it’s worked pretty well for his company.
I’ve been sifting through Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth: a Chronicle of Early Failure over the past few weeks. It’s an odd combination of voices, yes, but in some ways their messages are similar. Auster’s story smacks of narcissism, and the more I read, the angrier I become. Auster did as many writers do: he moved to Paris, where he got his ‘start’ as a writer. He did quite well for himself, so to frame his story in a book that he considers to be about failure is, well, pretty fucked up. He had a fairly privileged time of it all. Going to Europe was cheap, and he had the cash. True, he had to take on some odd jobs—translating weird stuff, writing strange scripts for strange people—but the money was coming in and once he got his feet wet he was able to find his rhythm in the writing life.
Rilke’s words to Kappus are beautiful and I’m finding a lot of inspiration here, just as I thought I would. I suppose the thing I see in this collection and Auster’s book is that push to write, to write and write and tap into that thing that tells you you must do it, that screams to you that this is your life and you are a writer and without writing you cannot live.
Some of it does conjure images of Horatio Alger and all that bootstraps crap, but that little bit, those moments when the writers are at their worst, those moments when it seems Rilke could rip through his letter and grab Kappus by the collar and shake him and scream at him for his lack of confidence, that’s the stuff I cling to. That’s the stuff that makes me want to find my rhythm again.
Today is Maiana’s twelfth birthday. Her life is so different from mine when I was that age. To me, everything happened when I was twelve. Maia asks me questions now—‘when did this happen to you?’ or ‘how old were you when that happened’? and nearly every time I tell her ‘I guess I was about your age.’ So much of my life lives in that time when I was eleven, turning twelve, twelve, turning away from eleven.
My character, June, is that age, too. Of course she is. She is telling my stories for me. Stories of the time I was baptized. When I realized that people grow old. When I learned what sex truly is, what it means and how suddenly everything is sexualized. I think I have other stories to tell from that time, too. I want to tell the story of how my sister left in the middle of the night to live with her boyfriend and begin her adult life way too early. I want to tell the story of how I took care of my family when my mother’s mental illness became so large that she couldn’t take care of us. I want to tell the story of the day my dad took me to the plant where he worked and he drove me around in a forklift and I finally began to realize what it was he did all day, and I realized that what he did in that plant all day is what gave my family the money we lived on. I want to tell the story of the time we moved into a crappy apartment that was full of cockroaches and how poor we must have been then, and how I became fascinated with a guy named Jimmy, who rode a motorcycle even though he had only one leg.
Maiana’s life is so different from what mine was then. She has unlimited text-messaging; I didn’t have any friends to call, and if I did, I would have to ask permission to use the phone. Maia is on a soccer team; I played dodge ball in the parking lot. Maia plays the flute, and sings in girl’s choir; my music teacher told me I was tone deaf and shouldn’t try to sing anymore. Maia bakes cupcakes and decorates them with great care; I cooked fish sticks and cube steak for dinner when my mom couldn’t get out of bed. Maia learned about sex from her mom; my mom told me that sex was when a man put his organ in a woman’s organ; I learned everything else from our encyclopedias.
I want to ask Maia a few things. I want to know what it feels like to be twelve. I want to know what she’s afraid of, what, if anything, makes her want to not turn twelve. I want her to tell me how to write about June again.
I can’t remember where I was going with all of this. There was something I meant to say about writing and failure and childhood. Earlier I could see how it was all connected. But now my mind bounces around from one thing to another—from Rilke to Mr. Cromer, to those monkeys, to June, to Paul Auster.
I have failed to make the connections I was trying to make in my mind.
But I have also failed to make those connections in what I have written here. And for that I suppose I have failed better.