Life after the express line

Photograph of James Moore (center) by Paul Dunn

Photograph of James Moore (center) and friends by Paul Dunn

By Barbara Kate Repa

IT’S BEEN FOUR YEARS since James Moore retired from his post at the express line at Mollie Stone’s. He seems much the same as the day he left — the same ready smile, the same bass blurt of a laugh, even the same gallant manner. “Let me buy you a coffee,” he says. “I don’t like to let women pay for anything.”

He stops by the Starbucks outpost at the entry to the store now and then. Nearly every shopper who passes by extends a greeting, a high five or a hug — sometimes all three. And he keeps up the familiar patter he perfected with customers passing in and out of his line back in the day.

“Hi, sweetheart. How’re you doing?”

“Hey, what’s up with you? You feeling good?”

“I sure have missed you.”


Upon a closer look, James holds himself a bit more stiffly now as his back mends from recent surgery. “I didn’t really want to ask what all they did — they put something like cement in my spine,” he says. “But I feel much better now. I go to physical therapy once a week, and they give me homework.”

He faithfully does it. “I’m going to be around as long as I can,” he says. “That’s one thing you can’t talk me out of.”

And there’s another change: He’s a little more serious now, even philosophical. “I’m 70 — that’s seven-zero — and boy, did that come fast after I retired,” he says. “When I used to see old people, I wondered why they walked and acted the way they did. ‘Why has he got a stick?’ ‘Why is she on one of those scooters?’ If you live long enough, those questions will be answered.”

At some point, he says, the aches and pains of aging somehow start to make sense: “You feel like you’re paying your debt for living. Everyone has to pay the piper.”

Just after he retired, James says, “I was living like a king, not doing much,” although twice a day he stopped in to see his mother, Eunicetene, who lived nearby in the neighborhood, to visit and bring food.

In August 2011, he got a call. His mother was making some tea when she left the kettle on the stove too long. The fire department had to rescue her from the smoke. The doctors diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s.

“When you’re close to people, you can’t see it,” he says. “You need someone to point it out.”
Once he saw the situation clearly, he moved in to take care of her. She died six months later.

Now he’s relishing retirement.

“I try not to make too many plans, and I’ve worked it out to have very few obligations,” he says. “I’m enjoying doing nothing. And I really and truly just enjoy being by myself. The key word is ‘retired.’ ”

On a recent Saturday morning, his agenda included walking up Fillmore, going to Walgreen’s, then working his way back home, with the afternoon spent in front of the television.

“But do I miss it here?” he says, gesturing toward the express line he commandeered all those years. “To tell you the truth: Yes. I miss the job, the work, but most of all the people. I miss seeing the kids grow up. It’s still sort of like a family here. The people who come to the store — they’re not above you; you’re not above them.”

James still remembers when he first came from Arkansas to California: “October 16, 1962. At 4 a.m. On a Greyhound bus,” he says. “At that time, I thought it was a big city. It’s not. But it’s big enough for me. It’s one of those towns where everything is easy. And living in the Fillmore, you get to see and know a lot of people. It got to be home.”

But the city has changed a lot in the half-century he’s lived and worked in it, mostly, he says, not for the better. “There’s more temptation for the young people out there these days — too much going on,” he says. “They don’t have a Big Mama — no auntie, no grandmother, no great-grandmother to keep them on track.”

The neighborhood streets seem a little less familiar, too. “It’s a different generation walking around here now. You don’t quite fit in with them; they don’t quite fit in with you,” he says. “But that’s another good thing about retirement — being out of the loop. I can sit on the sidelines and watch.”

Still, retirement wouldn’t seem like a natural state for a person like James, who seems to thrive on the energy he takes in from other people, and professes he has no hobbies or beckoning bucket list.

The city’s cuisine holds little allure. “I’m not a restaurant person. I used to like to cook, but with the stuff they put in food these days, it just doesn’t have much taste,” he says. “So I just make simple stuff now.”

He got gardening out of his system as a young boy on a farm in Arkansas tending chickens, growing cotton and corn and weeding his grandma’s garden. “It was as big as the whole Mollie Stone’s parking lot,” he recalls.

Fewer Sunday mornings are filled with church services. “I don’t go as much as I used to,” he says. “The old day stuff has been translated to the new day, and I just don’t get the feeling from it that I used to get. I’m a believer, but I have to believe in my own way.”

He was never that interested in sports, and doesn’t care much about listening or watching. “I’m a TV nut now — a flipper,” he says, doing an imitation of a channel surfer. His likes old Law and Order episodes. “They feel like real life,” he says. “Not like those reality shows — a combination of mean and stupid.”

Since leaving Mollie Stone’s, he’s made a couple of trips: one to see his cousin in Stephens, Arkansas, where he grew up; another to visit another cousin in St. Louis. “I’m not a traveler,” he says. “I like to go around in the city — not the whole thing, but the Western Addition and downtown. When I feel like I need something to do, I get my exercise in and go down to Union Square and walk around Macy’s. I hardly ever get bored.”

He has a constant source of entertainment from the “Fillmore Four” — a group of friends that has been getting together for 20 years for coffee and companionship. They gather weekly at 11 a.m. sharp. Through the years they’ve moved their setting to accommodate the changing neighborhood: from the Donut Hole to the Chestnut Cafe to the Boulange — and now, with only three of the four remaining, they meet at the Starbucks at the front of Mollie Stone’s.

When James first started talking about retiring, his friends all gave him the same advice — you need to find something to do — and he took on that worry. “But after I was retired about two weeks, I was like a V8 commercial. I was cured. What was I worrying about? I’m free-e-e-e.”

EARLIER: “Life in the express line

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