"It’s a family thing"

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It’s not much fun to shop at Ralph’s anymore. You can no longer find Pioneer French Bread, or Job Squad paper towels, and for some reason, they no longer carry Stewart’s Root Beer and Orange ‘n Cream, the dietetic versions of which got me through my Atkins phase without a suicide attempt. Somebody in the know mentioned that the distributors are still pissed-off at Ralph’s from the strike. Me too.

What Ralph’s does have in abundance is terrific checkers. I was wheeling past the check stands the other day, grumbling into my basket because I was forced to go to Gelson’s to find fresh peas huskier than a pencil, when I thought I heard Ella Fitzgerald in person quietly singing “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” Well, that’ll alter my mood faster than you can ask “why did you move the butter again and where?”

Debrah Caraway has a face like a giant candy kiss. So I said to her over coffee, “Lady, you’ve got some kind of voice, where does that come from anyway?”

“I stole it from my mother.”

If you’ve lived in Malibu for more than a minute you can bring her smile to mind.

I asked her, “Any other vocal influences?”

“Maybe a little Ella, a little Gladys Knight. But mostly gospel, my mother sang around the house all the time.”

“Where are you from originally?”

“The original South Central. 52nd and Central, the hard core area.”

“Did you study?”

“Uh-huh. Twenty years ago I took a six-week singing course at El Camino College.”

No, I thought, it’s customary to unwrap a gift in a classroom, but you don’t collect it there. You bring with. I got a little excited. “Did you ever sing professionally?”

“Now and then at those little jazz clubs …”

I succumbed to nostalgia. “Small smoke-filled rooms deep down Crenshaw Boulevard?”

She laughed. “Exactly, exactly!”

“I used to hang there in the early Sixties. So tell me about your hopes and dreams.”

“Well, I’m a Jehovah’s Witness,” she said.

Debrah may have noticed my agnostic face drop.

“Part-time.”

“Congratulations, but what about when you retire?

“Well, I plan to be a fulltime witness. Once I retire in two and a half years, why, I’ll witness fulltime.”

“Like a minister.”

“That’s what we call it, The Ministry.”

I probably pouted. “When you gussie up and go out knocking on doors instead of relaxing at the beach?”

Debrah’s smile is consistency and cream. “Uh-huh.”

My prejudice rendered me momentarily speechless.

She laughed, not at me exactly. “You’ve never seen me on a good spiritual roll. When I get goin’ I really get goin’.”

I asked a few routine questions.

Debrah is the only girl and the baby in a family of nine children and has never missed having a sister. She sat out the recent strike on disability due to a torn rotator cuff suffered in an auto accident. She’s unmarried and has one 25-year-old son named, get this: Tresbien. Tresbien Caraway is already a star, no matter what. If my mother had named me Tresbien I’d be appearing above the title.

“He’s an assistant coach for the Santa Monica College girls’ basketball team.”

“He’s a star,” I insisted. “So, you’re two years shy of 30 at the check stand?”

“Four months as a box girl. And from ’77 to ’81 I worked in the service deli at Market Basket.”

Old Malibu excites me. “Market Basket!” I shouted as if I’d located a long-lost cousin.

“Uh-huh. Then in ’81 I got promoted to cashier.”

“How did you wind up in Malibu from South Central?”

“I was at Pepperdine studying Business Management from ’74 to ’76.”

“You seem supremely happy.”

“Well, I like my job, I like the interaction with the people. I’ve watched all their kids grow up. It’s been quite a nice experience. One thing I’ve noticed by visiting other stores. It’s not the same. You don’t have the action you do in Malibu. People say to me, ‘If you live in Gardena why do you go all the way out to Malibu to go to work?'”

“Good question.”

“I tell ’em, familiarity. It’s a family thing.”

“What about special dreams after retirement?”

“Well, I’ve thought about it. Maybe voiceovers, something music-wise. Maybe something I’m a little more passionate about. But nothing with any grandeur.”

“You don’t want to be Malibu’s answer to Queen Latifa?”

“I don’t have to be that, no.”

Whatever Debrah Caraway needs to be she apparently already is.

Mayor Sharon Barovsky puts it this way: “Even if Debrah’s line is the longest, I just get into it and stand there and go into my Zen. I sink into pleasantness; I can’t think of a better way to bring my pressure down.”

Debrah concluded our time as follows:

“You know who gets me goin’? Dick VanDyke. He’ll be at the counter and he’ll look at me and he’ll start a lyric. Like “Oh, you beautiful doll.” And I’ll come in right behind him with my version of it. And we’ll do that. We’ll go on and on. Line by line.” Here she gets exquisitely lost in the zone. “You great big beautiful doll.”

Family agrees.