Today, is my third day in the Twilight Zone. I have no parent, teacher or boss to tell me what to do for the first time since I'm eight years old. It feels weird great. My dreams the last few nights are being directed by David Lynch on recreational drugs. In one, I dated Donna Reed and her father was Bilko (Phil Silvers). Every time I went over the house, he gave me a drill sergeant dress down.
When I was eight in 1962, My first job was Joe's Candy's store on York Avenue between 83rd and 84th Street. Here's what happened.
My First Coffin
My first coffin was metal. It measured six feet long, three feet wide, and three feet deep. It rested on a wood base that lifted its height up by one foot. It sat in near darkness at the rear of the parlor. Everyone paid their respects. Upon close examination, you saw it bled sweat and you heard it release a soft steady communal hum. It held something we cherished and missed all the time. It chilled soda bottles in Joe’s candy store.
The cooler was battered and colored red, with a raised Coca-Cola bottle cap appearing on all four sides. A similar model followed Ike across Europe throughout World War II. I loved the coffin. I kissed it when no one was looking.
Joe’s candy store was our neighborhood’s home base. Till I knew better, I thought a couple of kids lived there. Joe was a fifty-year-old moody Italian bachelor. Every day, Joe arrived at the store with grey work pants, a grey tee shirt and a puss on his face. Joe was a man of few words. Here’s a day’s worth.
“What do you want?”
“Put the comic book back.”
“In the right place.”
Joe was a miser. He made Silas Marner look philanthropic. There were no fans in the store and minimal electricity. Con Edison had Joe on their “to be watched” list. To save money he used low wattage refrigerator and aquarium light bulbs in the store, giving the space a glow of gloom.
Coming in from the bright sunshine into the wartime blackout you became disoriented. With enough kids in there you could get a good game of blind man’s bluff going without the blindfold. Despite his record-breaking cheapness, Joe was no fool. If you had a candy store you must have ice cold soda. Kids boycotted candy stores that ignored this rule. The water temperature in Joe’s cooler always flirted with the freezing mark.
Sometimes, you needed to submarine your hand through a thin crust of ice forming on the surface. 200 bottles of soda buried deep beneath the sea, in a light so dim the eels bumped into each other. More than twenty different brands slept on the ocean’s floor. With the cooler sitting on a foot tall base anyone less than four feet tall needed to lift himself to plunge into the
Mission soda was a local favorite with 10 different flavors. Mission’s bottles had zero variation in style, texture or height. All Missions being equal led to a courage speech I’d give myself before each attempt. “You can do it. I’ve seen you do it. Do it.”
Shorter than the top of the coffin, I’d hop up, and swing my arm over its front wall. My armpit was now responsible for keeping me airborne. I’d sink my other arm into the icy water with a numbing splash. I was 100 percent dependent on my tactile skill for the bottle retrieval. My hand and forearm would tighten up before I achieved bottle depth. When I reached the wreck, my numb digits embraced the familiar Mission shape and pulled one up. Orange.
“Ooooh,” I moaned.
Back down the bottle would go. I’d do my best to remember where I replanted it. The bottles were snug as sardines. I had limited time before my arm below the elbow lost all sensation. If my search stretched beyond a minute and my favorite soda remained unlocated, sensors went off. The front of my arm turned into a bottle-nosed dolphin. Using the pain impulses shooting through my hand, sonar signals would strike the bottles then return to my brain revealing vital bottle data. Rotating my arm in a corkscrew motion increased blood circulation allowing a brief search extension, but the water was too cold. Pride swallowed, I raised the last bottle I touched before my hand passed out. It was a Root Beer. “Grrrrr.”
I moved the second place soda gently from my puffy blue hand to my landlubber hand. I tucked my arm under my noncombatant armpit, rocking back and forth till warmth returned. With phony bravado, I grinned at my friends. A wicked pleasure swept through the crowd when someone chose a soda you knew wasn’t their first choice. Everyone knew each other’s favorite soda right behind knowing their favorite sports team or movie star. When I was in the hot seat, I sat there drinking the soda, faking enjoyment, saying, “hmmm” or “aaahhh,” followed by a satisfying swipe of my mouth. I knew, they knew, I was lying. It didn’t matter, I went down swinging.
Addressing the mob, I’d say, “I do like it. I really do like it. I just didn’t tell anybody.”
One day when I was eight years old, I was moping around the store doing nothing. Joe, ready to throw me out, switched moods and asked me to take a newspaper around the corner to Mrs. Todero. I did. Two weeks later, Mrs. Moose was added to my delivery route. After a month, Joe asked me if I wanted to deliver the New York Times on Sunday mornings. He said my pay would be a dollar and any flavor milk shake I wanted. Excellent money. I knew I’d get decent tips so the dollar pay was gravy. First Sunday, I showed up at 7 a.m. Joe gave me 15 papers to pile into a grocery-shopping cart he told me was on loan from Sloan’s Supermarket. “On loan?” I thought, “that’s nice.” Two hours later, three dollars richer in tips, I returned to the store triumphantly baring an empty cart and an awful milk shake craving.
Behind the counter, Joe gave me a grunt with not too much mood. I rode the cart to the back of the store and returned to the counter for my beautiful reward. I was in a death match struggling between chocolate and vanilla, chocolate and vanilla. They were both so good and I didn’t want to wait till next week for either one. Mom did this black and white thing with her egg creams and I toyed with that for a while but settled back to vanilla.
“Joe, I’m ready.”
“What flavor do you want?”
“I’d love a chocolate shake please.”
My tongue left my mouth to circle my lips. I spun around and did four revolutions on the counter stool off one push. My record was five. I eased my effort not wanting to be too dizzy while sucking down the shake. A couple more takeoffs and the mixer roar died down. I turned as Joe approached me with a big smile. This unnerved me. It took a while to leave his smile and return my eyes back to the important matter, my delicious chocolate shake. I looked down. I smelled it before I fully thought out the word... strawberry... strawberry... Joe walked away before I could confront him. I began presenting my case toward his back.
“Joe I asked for chocolate. This is not chocolate. I don’t like strawberry. I can’t eat it.”
Joe never turned around. I didn’t see his face the whole time I sat there playing with the shake. After it got luke warm, I pushed it to the edge of the counter. On the way out, I said goodbye. Joe was washing the long stirring spoons - for the second time in the previous 10 minutes.
“Hey Joe, can I get a chocolate shake next week?”
Liar, I thought.
Joe never made me a chocolate, vanilla or black and white shake. I stopped hopping on the counter after Sunday paper deliveries. What was the point? Joe delivered a strawberry shake each time. At least he stopped smiling. Over time, I realized that Mr. Stingy was moving his stock and the strawberry had to go. My compensation sunk back to a dollar. I hardly noticed. At eight years old, counting tips, four dollars in my pocket made me a wealthy man.
(Previously published in A Prairie Home Companion)