Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sweet memories

Over at Lemons and Lollipops, Lisa was recalling the corner store from her childhood. Bert's Place sounds like a store in a storybook. A kindly elderly lady keeping shop in a picture perfect little establishment. Me, I had Harry the Gyp. I don't know that his name was really Harry but we called him the Gyp because he had a habit of shortchanging my brother and his friends. Looking back, I think now it's because he was charging them for the candy they shoplifted on their previous visit but that's another story.

Harry was probably in his late 40s. He was a big man with a bigger beer belly and he always wore a dirty white tshirt. If the condition of the store was any indication, maybe he never changed it. He smoked cigars and he was mean. He never smiled and always seemed a bit grumpy that we interrupted his day. Sometimes he would even holler. He took a lot of phone calls. I'd guess in retrospect, he was probably a bookie. It seems unlikely he could have been making a living solely on the business he did in the store.

Ah, the store. It was housed on the bottom floor of a regular looking, if ill kept house. Harry lived upstairs. It was dimly lit, maybe with one bare bulb in the center and reeked of cigar smoke. The floor was worn through to bare wood, stained a mottled grey by years of unswept footprints. There were dusty shelves of (probably outdated) canned goods sitting next to the bread in the dim recesses at the back of the store and a big section of cheap booze towards the front where the sunlight fought to penetrate decades of filth encrusted on the plate windows that fronted the street.

Yet we made the pilgrimage to this unsavory place and braved the possible wrath of its slightly terrifying owner almost daily for one reason and one reason only. The candy. Harry had the best collection of penny candy that I've ever seen then or since. In those days it really did cost a penny. Sometimes you would even get two or three pieces for one red cent.

Now don't get me wrong, his ice cream selection was also superb. We spent many a delicious moment on a hot summer day contemplating whether a creamsicle, a King Kone or one of the double stick popsicles, (which he carried in a complete rainbow of colors) was going to do the trick to cool us off. I would usually went with the blue popsicle myself. It just looked the coldest. But I digress. The candy.

Harry the Gyp was the Willie Wonka of penny confections. I remember them all with fondness. Fireballs and wax lips. Jawbreakers that changed colors as you sucked through the layers. Bazooka bubble gum with Joe Palooka* Bazooka Joe comics tucked inside. Mary Janes, and Bit-o-honey and squirrel nut zippers. Safety pops with the looped handles, root beer barrels, Tootsie rolls and Tootsie roll pops. Wax "soda" bottles, Lik-a-made, pixie sticks and long sheets of candy buttons that never came off without some paper on the bottom. Baby Sugar Daddies and the taffy bars on a stick. Licorice in black or red, in tubes or whips. The tubes are similar to what that still sell today already cut to length, but Harry sold it in pieces long enough to almost use as a jump rope. And the whips were thin, like cooked spagetti and twice as long.

He had green bubble gum cigars and candy cigarettes in every form. Chocolate, pink bubblegum, the white hard sugar ones with the painted red tips that you had to break off to get a single ciggie from. Once in while I would forgo the candy to get the kind that blew "smoke" while the tip glowed. Loved them all. Probably why I became a smoker not that much later in life.

Come to think of it, Harry is why I became a smoker not much later in life but that's a story for another day.

* [thanks to Elisson for the correction]

[Graphics gratitude]


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