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. 

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