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.