I’m not good with office Christmas parties, being a last-minute kind of guy.

And so, several weeks ago, I made a dash that quick morning to what they used to call a neighborhood grocery.

The owner waited on me personally, in a stained apron.

“What would be a good side dish for rotisserie chicken?” I asked.

“How many people?”

“About seven or eight, I’m not sure.”

“I think we have four pounds of dirty rice left, let me go check.”

So he went into the back to make sure.

When he returned, he said, “We’ll have that out for you in about five minutes, sir.”

It was more expensive than other places, but you just can’t beat that homespun service.

As I waited, I looked around at all the neatly-stacked rows: jars of mayonnaise, cans of chili and bottles of kitchen cleaner, a dairy section next to stacked six-packs of soda.

It was all there for the asking, and you didn’t have to walk a mile like at a large, discount chain.

You can only get that a neighborhood grocery, and the extra price is worth paying for.

It reminded me a lot of a place in Lake Charles named Stop and Shop, but everybody called it Ernie’s.

With its small size, it seemed to have more room for produce than people.

Ernie was all things to everyone, the butcher, fixer of problems and feeder to the stray animals out back.

Sometimes he even rang up the cash register and said, “Please come back and see us.”

One year when I was 13, in the hot, humid summer of 1974; my friend Kyle had to use the restroom there and was pointed through the “Employees Only” door beside the meat counter.

He soon discovered, to his delight, the room contained several gentlemen’s magazines.

After that, we asked to use the restroom quite a bit. Soon a plot arose to go in there and, by any means possible, pocket as many centerfolds as we could.

Even though we were good kids who got our homework in on time and stayed out of major trouble, we sat across the street on large, concrete pipes, later buried with bulldozers into McNeese Street, and rehearsed our roles.

We cut up small, fallen tree sticks to see who would go, and Kyle and I “won.”

So we walked in, more nervous than a regular day, and pretended to shop for apples and lettuce. 

We got waved through the forbidden doors, folded up the pages and stuffed as many as we could in our pockets. For added effect we ran the sink, flushed the toilet and cleared our throats to imitate authentic bathroom sounds. We shared our catch with the boys, who anxiously awaited our return, and talked about what to do if the cops showed up.

In the days ahead we hung out at Ernie’s, listening intently for tidbits about the recent outrage in the men’s room. But in the end, our crime was so heinous we couldn’t even make the in-store gossip.

Ernie died in the mid-80s, and the place closed.

It sat there, dark and dusty, looking more run-down as each year passed.

About 15 years ago, a wrecking ball made way for a discount chain, and Ernie’s was as gone as it would ever get. Like others of its kind, Ernie’s finally dwindled into the bleak mire, a tradition that fades but hopefully will never end.