I want to remember the long hours I spent there with my son, selling Cub Scout popcorn. On a warm October afternoon, the Flatirons rising jagged and purple behind us, the boys would draw customers while I sat next to a bin of pumpkins and rows of mums. I watched as they learned how to greet neighbors they didn’t know, how to meet their eyes, how to talk about what they were selling and why, how to make change, how to thank people who refused.
The best times to work the door were always the two to three hours before a Broncos game, early in the season when people still had their hopes up about whatever new quarterback was getting an airing. Football fans needed snacks. And at this King Soopers, people actually bought junk food — you’d see garish barrels of Broncos-orange cheesy puffs next to the kale in people’s carts.
The shoppers and employees coming off their shifts were generous with our boys, often springing for a bag of overpriced caramel corn. Eagle Scouts of all ages stopped by for an easy sale. Elders would offer encouragement. Sometimes they’d apologize and say the doctors told them they couldn’t eat this stuff anymore, but they’d slip the kids a donation anyway. We met kind, congenial people who were a lot like — and may have been — Kevin Mahoney and Lynn Murray. I so want to go back there for a moment, to selling popcorn and meeting friendly strangers at our neighborhood grocery store as the sun sets behind the mountains.
As far as I can tell, the management at the Table Mesa King Soopers said yes to every community request. Yes to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Yes to whatever charity wanted to take up a collection by the checkout. Yes to my kids’ schools, which received a donation whenever we used our SooperCard. The store routinely hired neurodiverse people who started out working at places such as Ramble, a Boulder clothing shop that trains and supports developmentally disabled adults.
The pandemic has made us realize how certain institutions fulfill so many more vital roles in our communities than their assigned one. A grocery store exists to sell food, but the Table Mesa King Soopers also funded our kids’ extracurricular programs. It employed people who maybe wouldn’t receive a chance elsewhere, and through deliveries, curbside pickup and senior hours, it provided the vulnerable with safe access to groceries during the pandemic.
It also gave many of our kids their first taste of freedom. My son’s middle school is a few blocks from the store. Before the pandemic, when they had half days on Fridays, if your kid was ready, you’d give them some money and allow them to walk over to King Soopers with their friends, instructing them to cross carefully at the less busy light to the south. The first time I allowed my daughter to do this and she didn’t yet have a cellphone, I drove my car around the parking lot and watched from a distance. But I only did this once. After that, I trusted her, and trusted that this was a safe place for her to go. Other parents did the same. We knew the neighborhood, we knew the people at King Soopers, and we wanted to grace our kids with the perfect liberty of five dollars and a free afternoon.
There are places in Boulder that cater to the young, fit, able-bodied and rich. The Table Mesa King Soopers is for the rest of us. Many people with mobility issues shop there, because the customer isn’t expected to remove all the items from their cart, load them onto the conveyor belt and then hustle around and help bag. At King Soopers, your checker unloads your cart. A bagger tucks everything away neatly for you. Teri Leiker was a beloved bagger, a woman with cognitive disabilities who’d worked there for 31 years and met her boyfriend at the store. Teri greeted me and every other customer with warmth, and took care to cushion the eggs, bananas and bread as she packed them away. It was a small gesture that she performed routinely, but really, what is small about kindness and gentleness in a world starved for both?
King Soopers was a slapdash-looking place. It needed a major overhaul, but it was just too busy for them to ever shut it down. The flooring was linoleum in certain stretches, and then seemingly at random it would switch to sealed concrete, which gave it the look of a place that was partway through a renovation when the money ran out, a condition many customers could relate to, as some of us linger perpetually halfway through fixing the damage from the 2013 flood.
The pharmacy doesn’t have its own vestibule as it does in a lot of supermarkets. It’s just jammed in there in the corner past the self-checkout and wide, chaotic aisle of seasonal and holiday merchandise. People seeking care and medicine at the pharmacy formed a shambling line that sometimes extended near the frozen pizzas. King Soopers’s layout, which verged on disorganization, felt welcoming. It seemed to suggest that everyone had medical needs, just like everyone had pizza needs. There is no reason to tuck these things out of sight.
I once took my daughter to a basketball tournament at a public high school a few towns over. We entered the gym through a palatial hallway lined with enormous portraits of the schools’ sports heroes. What did a kid who didn’t play sports feel when they entered the school through this hallway? Where was the wall of fame for the band members and the scientists? If I designed a high school, it would have a hall of champions for the kids who had to work while they were in school. Kids who maybe weren’t athletic superstars, but who were steady. Kids who were kind. Kids like Denny Stong, who was 20 years old, and started working at King Soopers several years ago. My daughter’s volleyball coach at Fairview, the high school up the street from the store, teaches catering, and Denny took all her classes. The coach told the team that whenever she needed help ordering massive amounts of ingredients, Denny took pride in helping her acquire everything she needed from King Soopers.
On Monday, medical helicopters landed in Fairview’s parking lot. In the year my daughter has attended the school, seldom entering it because of coronavirus restrictions, two current Fairview students and three recent graduates have died. One suicide, one skiing accident, one car crash and one mass shooting. Kids from Fairview used to pile into King Soopers every lunchtime. Nobody there would shake a fist at giggling, loitering, being loud. We all were young once, the vibe of this store suggested. We all need each other.
Those of us who grew up in Colorado remember Boulder as the patchouli-scented, hippie-friendly place it once was, welcoming jubilant spirits like Tralona Bartkowiak, who, with her sister, ran a boutique selling festival clothing. Now things are different. Some of those Dead Heads and Phishheads and Leftover Salmon die-hards have moved to places with less pricey real estate. There isn’t enough affordable housing for people with families or fixed incomes. The town is being homogenized, becoming less like the Table Mesa King Soopers and more like the way it’s portrayed in the glossy travel pieces. What happened on Monday wounded a part of Boulder that feels like it’s already dying.
On Monday afternoon, people on the South Boulder Nextdoor page posted frantic messages, asking after their favorite employees. “Is Tasia okay?” “Wondering about cashier Brenda.” “Big Ben with the tattoos, little Becky in the Bakery.” And then the names were announced and the thread transitioned to neighbors sharing photos and memories, and links to fundraisers and vigils. The store is now ringed with fences, and the barricades are piled with flowers and remembrances for 10 people, including Kevin Mahoney, Lynn Murray, Teri Leiker, Denny Stong and Tralona Bartkowiak. The whole neighborhood wants to express its love for this store, and these people, whose lives embodied the decency and generosity that binds our community together.