Often I am eight returning to my father and the air around him. His face was a harbor of unconditional love. That equanimity and affection carried not only in his eyes and unraised voice but most profoundly for me in those drug store vapors which clung to him.
His pharmacy was on that proverbial corner where many lives are turned. The door just a few feet away from our apartment house. The store was the shape of a bowling alley with a soda fountain on the left, perfume behind glass on the right and two globes of colored water in the rear signifying the prescription counter where on a raised platform he presided.
There was an odor to the pharmacy which I don’t think shall ever be replicated. Floral scents escaped from atomizers of perfume mingling with egg salad from the sandwich board along with fountain syrups. Put these together with fumes from fluid extracts, tinctures and rubbing alcohol.
The air contained camphor, cascara and Cocilana one day and eucalyptus, benzoin and menthol the next. Herbs might be seeping from apothecary jars, volatile oils from corked bottles. Acacia grew rancid in the glue bottle. In those days pharmacists made their own glue from acacia. Labels were not sticky otherwise, nor was there scotch tape or plastic vials. This was an arcane world and my father brought it home with him.
The store became an enormous Wedgewood mortar with two overhead fans as pestles rotating the immiscible aromatics and botanicals. Or maybe the vapors were condensed and scooped into a metal malt container spinning its sweet breath. One inhalation intoxicated me with his presence. The olfactory sense is an old factory, a warehouse of smells safely preserved. I can still conjure up that air.
My father died 40 years ago, today. He lives in me as much as I’m able to aspire to and in my daughters who knew him too briefly. Sometimes I pretend he is Spencer Tracy. They both exude a certain quiet assurance, a contained vehemence and vulnerability which made the world safe.
If there were an emergency his arms were the ones you’d want around you. He could be quick removing a cinder from an eye or deliberate listening to a customer/patient’s woes. There were an invasion of gnats on an August night which covered the Ex-Lax sign on the store window. It was his voice you wanted to settle the neighborhood crowd.
On that December Sunday of infamy I was in the store putting cigarettes in their respective bins and listening to the radio when the program was interrupted by the news of Pearl Harbor. I didn’t quite understand but the air was suddenly charged with a new voltage. He closed early that day after Mr. Buckley, the neighborhood drunk, came in for his daily bottle of cough syrup.
My father took on that gravity of the times. His business declined till he finally lost the store before the war ended. He was accustomed to loss. His mother had died shortly after childbirth; then raised by an aunt and uncle who was an impoverished peddler. My father sold newspapers on the street but was barely literate himself. He passed a high school equivalency test only after being tutored by my mother. It was sufficient to see him through two years of college with a license to practice pharmacy.
He also nearly lost his own name. My father’s father remarried and proceeded to sire three more sons, all raised in an orphanage. Perhaps in a state of intoxication he named one of them Samuel which was my father’s name. Sam meet your brother Sam.
Somehow he emerged from these travails intact. The hardships he carried seemed to have called up his inner resources. When he joined some left-wing groups in the thirties it was out of compassion for the downtrodden. Later with two FBI agents at our front door asking him to name names he stood tall finding his spine in silence.
I’ve written earlier how the outside wall of the store was the length of the soda fountain within. That wall with its ledge was my imaginary ballpark as I threw pink Spauldeens against it hundreds of times. It was as if I eventually beat a portal through that wall and I walked through taking a place alongside my father.
During my four years in pharmacy school (1950-1954) I witnessed the changes that would deodorize drug stores. Gone were the crude drugs and most compounded prescriptions by the time I graduated. Bottles suddenly appeared on the shelves from Squibb, Parke-Davis, Upjohn; all later swallowed by even Bigger Pharma.
While going to college I worked at night in a local drug store where my father was also employed. He had a way of holding the moment and slowing the world down to his deliberate pace. He carried a certain weight as if there were a heavy load on one side of the torsion scale he needed to balance. I found myself out of sync with him, unable to reset the weightlessness of my youthful clock. There was a gulf between us I couldn’t bridge until much later in life.
He did not aggress the world nor would he allow it to aggress him. No, he didn’t really look like Spencer Tracy. Tracy, at his finest, looked like him. He brought my father to mind with his patience and persistence depicting Thomas Edison and his quiet toughness in Bad Day at Black Rock.
The air my father carried remained as pungent as ammonia, bracing as bay rum, sweet as Evening in Paris and organic as the rhizomes and roots of shamans.