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WORLD TURNS UNFAMILIAR FOR ELDERLY GROCER

It's like a dent in one of his soup cans, the quarter-sized depression on the side of his forehead.

"See," he says. "That's what this last one left me with."

Waldemar "Walt" Kaminski may be the oldest grocer in Buffalo. He has run the one-room place near the Broadway Market since potatoes were two cents a pound. He is 85, wheezes when he climbs stairs and stands bent like a tree in the wind. But his shoulders are broad, his eyes sharp.

He is grandfather to a neighborhood that went astray on him. He is the figurative grandfather to us all, a child of the Depression, the long hours and hard work as much a part of him as the grain in old wood.

Once he knew every customer's name. Now he'd be happy knowing every customer's intention.

They got him again one afternoon two months ago. Three young women came in. One grabbed a bottle of V-8 off the shelf and cracked him across the head, hence the dent in his skull. As he fell, the second woman knocked him out with a can of Crisco -- he keeps the crushed can behind the counter, a grim souvenir. They escaped with cartons of cigarettes, left him bleeding on the floor.

It was the eighth time he'd been robbed in two years, but the first time he'd been badly hurt. Now the store is open only from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and he buzzes people in. It's a concession to reality, one of the few Walt Kaminski has made.

He is as much of an anachronism as the nearby Central Terminal, its tattered magnificence a reminder of the neighborhood as it once was. He lives above the store, lives simply. Books are piled on shelves. Cereal boxes line a wall on the kitchen floor. An RCA XL-100 with a rabbit-ear antenna sits atop the refrigerator. A crucifix hangs above his bed. He wears baseball caps and checked flannel shirts. He never married. Any extra money goes to charity.

The world could have opened up for him. He has an IQ of 133, way above average. But his older brother in medical school was the family's pride and hope. The Depression buckled their knees with debt. Somebody had to stay behind -- shades of George Bailey -- and help William and Mary Kaminski with the store. That was 70 years ago.

Time did not stand still. What was once a working-class neighborhood turned grim decades ago. Erosion quickened into a landslide, the middle class fleeing to the 'burbs. Absentee landlords bought houses cheap in the panic. Now the streets -- Paderewski, Krupp, Kosciuszko -- are pockmarked with vacant lots and boarded-up houses. The good folks here, and there are many, swim against a tide of crime fed by crack and desperation. It's no Broadway musical.

The red neon sign in the window reads Kaminski Foods. The store is as it always was, stocked with everything from shampoo to onions to cat litter. Only the prices changed. There is an ancient, big-keyed cash register and a wooden pole with a clasp to grab items off the high shelf.

All of the old regulars are gone or too afraid to venture out. Only unfamiliar faces walk through the door -- some polite, some acting like Kaminski owes them a favor.

People tell him to leave. It's not safe anymore. What's the point? His niece in California wants him to join her. Friends, the ones who are left, live in the suburbs. Walt Kaminski stays.

"I was brought up poor," he says. "I got out of the service with $300. I'm not looking for a comfy life. This is convenient. I have everything I need."

His life wrapped around the grocery store, and it wrapped around him. He will stay, he says, until his health fails.

There's a stack of pill bottles on the kitchen counter, for the kidneys that betray him. His old golfing buddies are gone or can't get around. He only took the boat out on the lake for walleye twice last summer. The things that time doesn't change, you want to keep the same. So he stays. So he keeps the store open. So he still lives in the apartment upstairs.

"It's odd, as you get older," he says, "how stubborn you get in your ways." He doesn't have to explain. We understand how it is.

We wish it were different. But we understand.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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