Tops Never Stops

Over the years of Goodyear, Comstock, and Princeton, there was one more-or-less constant presence. I speak of course of the Tops behind the Amherst Theater; it also happened to be in front of the Princeton Apartments and next to the backyard of one Rev. Mooney. It was an unfortunate distance from Comstock, and even when someone had a car Wilson Farms beckoned, but frequent trips to Dan’s house and the desire for any type of obscure food would dictate a “run” to Tops, the home of cheap food and many a sugar ration.

In the passing of years and acquisition of roughly 10,000 gallons of Mountain Dew, it was bound to happen that notable events would occur at Tops. Some of these have been previously told of, such as Dan shouting “In the BROWN!” somewhere around the checkout aisle, or some feeb’s naked run through the lot; others are lost to history. In fact, as I write this, I realize that very few of the Tops connected stories are related to the University Tops; nevertheless I shall tell these and move on to the rest of the story. No doubt the comments on this subject will be better than my telling.

One instance that Larry has never ceased to tell, and which I will relate here, is the time that for some reason I drove Larry to Tops. Why this occurred I cannot say, because it was nowhere even close to any of Larry’s stores; but I assume I was somehow returning from or headed to ODS in Williamsville. Either way, to hear Larry tell it, we were walking in “Aisle 9” when the following occurred:

“Larry… Stop.”
“What, dude?”
“Something bad just happened. We need to leave.”
“What??”
“I just drew mud.”

This was followed by Larry nearly dying of laughter, and me trying to find a solution to my dilemma. Naturally there was no better alternative than to head over to Dan’s house, where Dan was not expecting us at all, but luckily was home and not naked. I demanded immediate entrance to his bathroom, and defiled it thoroughly. As some kind of brutal reminder of Comstock, there was no toilet paper and I had to call out for assistance from Dan (of all people). Apparently disoriented, Dan complied and I was not even forced to use sandpaper or some kind of paper towels (missed your chance there I guess). One side note here – Dan talks a big game about his crap eating films, but he is thoroughly disgusted by a description of bodily functions. I will spare our readers the details, but I reveled in telling Dan this tale and am somewhat hopeful that this memory will cause him discomfort.

Aside from diet-induced exploding intestines, the other story I know of related to the University Tops is that Chet worked there. This is not particularly interesting, except that it came up one day in a discussion of Chet’s economic philosophy. I made some sort of salary related comment, to which Chet responded:

Chet: “$50,000/yr should be enough for anybody.”
Louis: “That’s bullshit.”
Chet: “Bullshit? I had to work full shifts bagging groceries for $3.50/hour. That, sir, is bullshit!”

I should note that this was probably years after he worked at Tops, but who knows. This exchange might be meaningless but it stuck in my head so I am writing it down. Another random fact: when I worked at UB in the summer of 92, I walked from the chemistry building to Tops each day to get lunch. Lunch usually consisted of a sour cream donut, a chocolate chip muffin, and a 24 oz Mountain Dew.

Of course, Tops was also a welcome presence across the Buffalo area (this was in the days before their merger with bland corporate Giant Food, and also before Wegmans literally browned Tops into irrelevance). Many were the associations with Tops, not the least of which was that Schultz worked there. He worked at Tops for years, rising through various ranks to become associated with the meat department. This led to many hijinks and hilarity as it was common practice to go find out if Schultz was at work, and bother him in various ways during his break. It also introduced various unsavory Tops workers into our midst, since Matt would date them. In any case, I cannot order the events of Matt’s Tops career in chronological order, so I will simply spew them forth in a stream of consciousness fashion.

The first incident I recall was the time Sean B., Aaron, and I visited Matt while the poor unfortunate Schultz was on cart duty. It was a fairly cold, windy fall night and we taunted him as he slowly wandered the huge parking lot on Elmwood Avenue (next to Channel 4!) and stacked cart after cart for a long journey back. We decided without question that Schultz had to try harder to earn his scratch, so as he took one train of carts back to the store, Sean drove his station wagon (the one with wood paneling) over to a lone cart which was kind of close to the entrance.  We signaled Matt (to be sure he was watching) and then Sean skillfully drove the station wagon right behind the cart, pushing it slowly it first, and then faster, almost alarmingly fast, driving the cart from one end of the parking lot to the other end – in fact, a remote corner near the street. Matt’s expression of disgust was priceless. I think we did this or something like it more than once that night. For pure harassment value this had to rank slightly above asking Matt (or any other server at a Denny’s, IHOP, or Perkins) for a milkshake. (When you order a milkshake, they are required to clean the machine afterwards, and apparently it sucks.)

Another effect of Matt’s time at the Tops meat department was his sudden, but short-lived, “no red meat” diet. Matt declared one day that he was sick of “meat, meat, meat!” and that was it. There would be no more beef or pork for him; he was a chicken and fish man, that was it. I didn’t understand how that was possible given our frequent consumption of Mighty Taco and Burger King, but for a time he did stick to Bean Tacos and Chicken Sandwiches. Matt further explained that “working in the meat department is incredibly gory. One of our policies is that blood, bone, fat, and gristle are free. Last night, some lady asked for a bucket of blood. Why the hell would someone want a bucket of blood! I guess she was making some kind of vampire soup out of it. We had to practically milk the sides of beef to fill up this bucket with blood. Then you get the people who ask for the fat and you have to take all these goopy shavings of fat. It doesn’t make you want to eat red meat.” I guess it doesn’t. The question I had was, who asks for gristle? But it never was answered.

Tops was also the subject of idle speculation on living a life of crime. Schultz once revealed that the “cash room” had over $400,000 on a typical week day before the money was taken out of the store. Our theory was that no one would expect you to rob a grocery store, and this would be a lucrative way to rip off cash… certainly far better than bank robbery, and safer than knocking off an armored car. The difficulties in such a plot are twofold: One, the cash is largely in change and small bills; and secondly, the cash room is somewhat vault-like and located in a corner of the store with cameras. One could never hope to take on the Tops behemoth in a standard robbery, lest you end up like the fools who tried to rob the Wal-Mart in Amherst years later (at opening time no less – dumbasses). Thus was the plan of the EMP bandits born. The team attempting to rob Tops would use a large truck, like a full size pickup or van, and knock out all electronics with some type of EMP weapon. Then the truck would be used to haul the loot away, apparently after somehow also demolishing the wall. We never really planned that part. I’m sure it is for the best, since we also didn’t possess a portable EMP device or any means of laundering $400,000 in small bills.

Speaking of crime and Tops, one of my classmates at Canisius worked there as a stock boy. One day he was assigned to work security just before Thanksgiving. Sure enough, he watched a guy walk out with a turkey without paying for it. As he put it, “The guy just tucked it under his arm and marched out, as if he owned it!” Of course, the employee did nothing, because he was not getting paid enough to actually confront a shoplifter. This shows a flaw in Chet’s logic: he may have had to bag groceries, but what the hell, he didn’t owe his penny-pinching employer anything either for his meager take. Such is capitalism.

Eventually, the age of Tops faded. Matt ceased working there, became a UB employee, and eventually lost his hard-working, two-job ways in favor of railing against the man and being a “liver”. If only he had taken up the offer to become a butcher, he might have remained a productive citizen rather than having his mind corrupted in the highly-overrated university setting.  After the Princeton days, Tops became just another destination in the car, too inconvenient to attempt when Wilson Farms was always closer, and not good enough for Wegmans lovers such as MikeO. The Royal Ahold corporation sacked all of the corporate types (bet they were making more than $50,000) and moved operations out of state. Nowadays it is indistinguishable from other cookie-cutter grocery stores, although I hear they are going to try a comeback under new ownership. For most of us, it is now irrelevant, but I suppose Wolf may reap a slight benefit if they return to past glory.

Because this story, and particularly the ending, is so weak, I will relate one more tidbit of information. Every year he worked at Tops, Matt would proclaim his triumph; he survived the “annual purges” that occurred every year before the union contract required a 25 cent per hour pay hike. He managed to quit on his own terms after a long tenure. I guess even Schultz has his day.

And, unlike Tops, this post finally stops here.

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8 Responses

  1. An excellent post Louis. It is good to finally see you writing again, though you continue to tease us by not posting the creamer story. This will suffice for now.

    I am reminded of a number of additional Tops-related stories which I have moved to another post.

    This is not Tops-related, but with your tale of Tops robbery planning I recall the planning of untraceable terrorism. The plan was to secure a mortar in a van with a sunroof. You could then fire from miles away and move immediately. Somewhere in there was also a plan to cut power lines randomly. Also formulated was a plan to hold a Tops ransom by bribing a mass of homeless to stage a sit-in throughout the isles of a Tops.

    I will follow suit and with a weak ending. Over the years of my association with the people documented herein this blog I had to develop the skil to “over talk”. This is a skill that is not easily turned off, and my wife admires in me greatly.

  2. Well, she’s got to admire you for something!

    Great post Louis! It brought together plenty of minor happenings tied together neatly under a common theme.

    During the Comstock days, especially in the second year, Aaron and I started a habit of making a weekly Tops run on foot, loading up with as many non-L&T groceries we could carry back. Generally whatever seemed like an acceptable load at the cash register became unbearably heavy about half way back. It became a tradition that each time we went, we returned with a quart each of Nestle Quick chocolate milk.

    I was on one of these runs solo during the Bills greatest comeback ever game. Paul and I had been listening to the game on the radio (it didn’t sell out) and became dismayed by half time. Disgusted, I decided to make the trek to Tops to drown my sorrows in the rich chocolaty goodness of Quick. Perusing down the aisles, I noted that everyone was becoming excited. “They scored another touchdown! I think they are going to do it!”. I paid for my purchases and ran all the way back to Comstock; bursting into Knauses room and insisted he turn the game back on. We listened to the last 5 minutes elated at the miracle.

    As for Tops now, they are struggling to find their identity under the area dominence of grocery superpower Wegman’s. The Tops International was briefly closed, renamed ‘Martins’ and reopened with much fanfare but little excitement. While although they became more Wemansy, they foolishly make the aisles too narrow to fit two carts down side by side earning my scorn and subsequent switch back to Wegmans and Jubilee. The grand experiment failed and they closed once again and reopened as Tops. The damn aisles are still too narrow.

  3. Didn’t anyone else work at Tops?
    Speaking of your skill to “over talk”, you succeeded in demonstrating it by posting less than 24 hours after my long dissertation. As for your Tops stories, I think you should have cut a lot of that and posted it. The pact was previously mentioned and I think the post called “The Pact” sums it up, why don’t you edit that with any extra info?
    Finally for any Homeland Security types who read this post via an automated Web interception system (when they aren’t sending in the meter reader to go through Matt’s underwear drawer), the “plan for untraceable terrorism” was just some random crap people thought up, not a “plan” – if you couldn’t figure that out by the associated plan to have homeless people hold Tops for ransom.
    Aaron, make sure you thank me for saving you from a trip to nowhere-land paid for by the US Gov’t.

  4. OK punk, I have edited the previous Pact post and I have pulled out my Tops related comments for another post. I have also pulled by new post. I will repost these at a later date. Happy punk? Now post the damn creamer story!

  5. Wow, what an extreme reaction to a little chain jerking. Why don’t you put your post back, it’s more than 24 hours now

  6. I will damn it. The vaulted front page position is mine!

  7. DAMN YOU AARON! THAT POSITION WILL BE MINE YET! YOU HAVEN’T HEARD THE LAST OF ME!

  8. I think I went and settled that quite well now!

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