Saturday, August 11, 2018

Rites of Passage

Part of me is still a street urchin and will never leave the candy store. My place of first permission. Hearing street talk, unfiltered. To mingle with grown-ups. To watch them cry the day Roosevelt died. It was raw. Buying and selling, haggling and yelling. Fast nickels and slow dimes. Nasty and sweet together. This was the stuff of poems. If the candy store was a baptismal the drug store was my Bar Mitzvah.

I went from the smells of Gishkins to the aromatic vapors of the drug store. A few years after my father’s store closed I worked after school in four different ones through high school and college. I’ll merge the first three. I was the stock clerk / soda jerk / delivery boy. One store had no typewriter; labels were hand-written. We made our glue from macerating acacia.

I lasted just half a day behind the fountain; the toughest job I’ve ever had. Trying to remember who got the black & white shake, who ordered the vanilla malt, the strawberry frosted and who the root beer float. There were sundaes and frappes, Charlotte Ruses and banana splits. I put a bottle of Pepsi in the freezer when I started that day and forgot about it until it exploded by day’s end. Never again. I take my hat off to the memory of those who stuck it out….and still somehow found time to smooch with the girls.    

Thanks for coming in today, is how Buddy, the regular fountain 
man greeted everyone who walked in, even the pharmacist, cosmetician, salesclerk and me, and again as he left for the day. He must have been high on cough syrup. His chatter never stopped. After my first and last day, by mutual consent, I stayed away except to make myself an extra thick malt (which almost broke the mixer) as a reward to myself before going home. 

I was the guy who wrapped the Kotex and Modess in green paper. God forbid its name would show. Such were the times. All the merchandise was behind the counter, on shelves or in drawers. Windows were dressed by artists down on their luck, Bromo Seltzer, Ex-Lax and Epsom Salt stacked architecturally in empty boxes with pins. At fifty cents an hour plus tips I walked around with coins jingling in my pocket. I was almost rich enough to catch a few sets at Birdland listening to Dizzy, Ella, Billie and The Prez.

Pharmacy as practiced as late as 1950 was part sorcery and I was the sorcerer’s apprentice. The dispensing area was like a garden of herbs or at least their crushed leaves, elixirs, resins, and fluidextracts. Botanical names had to be learned, Prunus Virginiara (Wild Cherry syrup), Glycyrrhiza root (licorice), aqua mentha piperita (peppermint water) are a few that still cling to my bones.

My final drug store experience happened one summer in midtown Manhattan. This turned out to be my initiation into gangster capitalism. I was a clerk in the Roosevelt Hotel pharmacy. The owner had stores in five other high end hotels as well. I was startled, one evening when I heard the pharmacist invite the boss up to his apartment and see the new art he bought with money he had stolen during the month. Hundreds of dollars had gone into his pocket instead of the cash register…and that was perfectly O.K. with the owner because he was satisfied getting half of the $200 paid for a $5.00 bottle of Testosterone tablets. For reasons unknown to me very wealthy playboys and businessmen from South America and the Caribbean stayed at that hotel. On another occasion I was told to bring a box of Kotex (wrapped, of course) to the hotel cashier. I was to collect $39 instead of 39 cents. The money flowed and was regarded as nothing more than a redistribution of wealth.

All that old pharmacy air had vanished between my entrance into college and my graduation. By 1954 the store became deodorized and deracinated. Gone was the romance, the rhizomes and roots.  A deep inhalation yielded only plastic and glass. To reach the vapors escaping from apothecary jars I had to close my eyes and imagine. The old organic remedies had fallen into disrepute. They could not pass the F.D.A. test for safety and efficacy. In some cases the active ingredient in the crude drug had been synthesized to yield a more exact therapeutic measure. I was now a counter and pourer and would remain so for the next fifty-three years with all this arcana withering in my head.

Two months in that hotel pharmacy gave me a glimpse into a world I would never encounter again. I had traveled from sorcery to larceny. This was the territory of Donald Trump. There must be stops in between to be discovered. It was time to get out of town. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


The candy store was the hub that defined the neighborhood. A block away with six apartment buildings between was a different neighborhood. They had their own.  Ours, around the corner by the subway steps, we called Pops. Old man Pop was out there day and night with a change belt sagging around his waist taking in nickels, giving back pennies with a double click. Like the man in the Automat he knew the weight of twenty nickels if you gave him a buck. In the early hours he sold the Daily News, Mirror, Times, Herald, Compass and Trib. In the evening was the Journal-American, P.M., Post, Sun and World-Telegram. At night around nine a truck pulled up with the Racing Final. He was always there to cut the rope.

Deposit bottles got us two cents; he could tell if it was his or the A & Ps. He stored them in a shed in the back covered with chicken wire. I could see them from my window on the third floor. In my criminal mind I dreamed of scaling the tree that hung over the stacked bottles and slashing my way into the empties. Too many serials watching the Dead-End Kids. I could have ended up like George Raft or Cagney doing a stretch up the river, even gotten the Chair with Pat O’Brien walking me down that last crooked mile.

I had a second candy store around the school yard where I hung, called Gishkins. I could smell it from dead backboards a block away…. and still do. It was his cigar mingled with bubblegum cards, throw in some airplane glue and a two-cent plain. There I am with my hand in the red cold-box outside the store fishing for a Mission orange soda or chocolate Nehi. Now I was Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy playing the kazoo. Gishkin sold them and harmonicas too.

Inside, in a miracle of concision, were comic books and school supplies (notebooks, reinforcements, stencils, book covers, fountain pens, pencils) and colored chalk. He had water pistols and Waterman ink, ink eradicator, jump rope, marbles and kites. Stuff and more stuff!

Both Pops and Gishkins kept our teeth in constant decay with their jaw breakers, juju beads, milk duds Milky Ways and dozens of bars, gums and suckers. Then there were baseball mitts, football needles, Spauldeens, toys, film and, of course, a dozen brands of cigarettes, Prince Albert pipe tobacco and White Owl and Dutch Master Cigars. It was Woolworths fit into a space shorter than a subway car.

There was a third candy store five neighborhoods away where I became famous. Famous, that is, in my family. I went there furtively in the shadows of an October Tuesday. Ask for Murray, they said. Luckily, I caught his shift. He passed along the issue of The Daily Worker where I was the headline on the back page having picked seventeen winners out of twenty in the college football pool. As the Communist Party newspaper it conferred no bragging rights. I knew then I would never be Gable or Astaire, neither a leading man, nor a song and dance guy. Just a, gulp, Jimmy Stewart, humble and Aw Shucks. I’d be the heroic G.I. who ditches the train one stop before his town to avoid the brass band and hoopla.

Pops, Gishkin and Murray along with Saturday matinees taught me everything I needed to know. As Tarzan said, It’s a jungle out there, but now I could handle it with enough street-smarts and movie-smarts to get by. Seventeen out of twenty ain’t bad in a world of upsets.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What Grows in America

Crowds gather waiting for Amorphophallus titanum to raise a stink at Huntington Gardens. A matter of life and death together blooming with a stench of rotten fish and sweaty feet calling pollinators to spread the seed. The mortuary meets the maternity ward inside the greenhouse.

They call it a corpse flower. Is it the sight of the open petal with its five or six foot phallus that draws the vigil or the inhalation of death? Thousands have been coming to the greenhouse in Pasadena for the past week as Shakespeare put it to watch as each hour it (we) ripe and ripe and each hour it (we) rot and rot.

Beauty reeking to high heaven like truth. There is, of course, no death; only the smell of it to summon the bugs which roll around in the pollen, then fly away and propagate. At least that is what happens in the Sumatra rainforest.

In a few months the forests of New England will become a destination for tourists marveling at the dying of sycamore, birch and maple leaves. In late summer they lose their chlorophyll and by autumn their carotenoid blazes in ruddy to amber dress. Tis a glorious demise as if the diva has held back her most majestic aria as she goes down in full regalia. And yet again the bare branches are already pregnant with next season’s singing foliage.

The ecosystem is self-renewing. Some trees depend on fires for renewal. Whose woods these are, I think I know, said Robert Frost. Yet with heedless predators like us one wonders if they stand a chance. We are scorching our grassland and forests. Every year the fire season is expanded with record temperatures and high winds. We are witness not just to the smell of death or the cyclic grandeur of dying leaves but the bitter sorrow of lost Nature and slow burn of our Democracy.

As if the electorate has committed suicide we’ve entrusted our precepts, our heritage, our dignity, the very air we breathe to a man beneath contempt. The shell of a human being without soul or conscience. The stinkweed of America has been fertilized and watered so that now it creeps out from under rocks. It reeks of tyranny and brutality. It can only be eradicated as it is seen, an infestation not indigenous to this land or any.