Main Street, USA

It was 1959, I was 4, and Mick – the German man who ran this tiny tobacco and candy shop on Main Street was 78.  That made him quite old to me, although he lived for many more years.  It was Christmas Eve and there was supposed to be a parade and Santa Claus was going to be at the end of the parade.

My dad and I stood opposite Mick’s Newstand and waited, but it was freezing cold and raining, and they cancelled the parade.  My mom, always sensible, had refused to go in the first place, but I was so convinced that Santa would magically be there, that my dad went and stood in the cold with me until it was formally announced by a police car cruising Main Street:  No Parade.

To ease my disappointment (I was a resilient child, I can’t say I was devastated, I certainly didn’t cry about it), we walked over to Mick’s Newstand (where my mom had once worked, in one of her brief stints of part time employment) and Dad talked with Mick and I looked at comic books (I could read a bit, I liked Archie comics) and I chose some candy.  I got this long pointed lollypop thing that has had to be outlawed since then, because it was so long and pointed (shaped like a rocket, I thought) that a child could easily poke their throat or their eye or fall and stick it through their brain (or so I was told).  According to Mick, of the 25 or so rocket pops he had on hand, one of them was guaranteed to have a prize inside.  I wanted the one with the prize, badly.

So I looked at each one, thought about it, and finally made my selection.  I’ll never forget Mick’s gnarly old finger coming over the counter, pointing downward, and with his slight German accent, saying, “No, I think you want that one.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I looked up at him with such gratitude, I felt so favored, I felt better than a princess.  I grabbed the one he pointed at, we bought it, and I unwrapped it right there in the store.

At the base of that rocket pop was a dime.  An entire dime!  No prize of any kind could have been more cherished by me.  I already had a bank.  Every penny I found, the coins dug out of the couch – and usually, all the pennies from my dad’s pocket at the end of the week – went into that bank.  It was cast iron, looked like a bank, and was held together with a screw that was difficult to open – for another year or two, I needed help getting that bank open.

I was always saving for something, and I also dipped into the bank every Sunday to take something to church, to Jesus.  It was usually just a penny for the offering plate, but my total bank balance was in the neighborhood of 100 cents or so.  I guess I should have thought about giving a tithe – but I didn’t do percentages yet.

Now, I know a bit more about those rocket pops and know that they didn’t come with prizes.  Mick put that dime in there.  He tampered with the packaging (would he be arrested today?) and put it in there.  How long had it been there?  Why did he choose me?  Well, he knew I was a disappointed 4 year old on Christmas Eve.  But that’s the kind of Old White Man I grew up with.  Mr. Aardappel, who ran the appliance and hobby store across the street wasn’t that old but he was so nice too.  He sold me chemicals to make my own chemistry set.  He was the only person in town who had any 45’s, that I knew of, and he also sold Matchbox Cars.   I knew just about every shopkeeper on Main Street, actually.

So, I want everyone to know that when I talk about “Old White Guys,” I do not include these wonderful, ethnically Anglo-European old men I knew as a kid, and I knew many.

Oh, and by the way, the word “redneck”, when I use it, still refers to exactly what it referred to throughout most of my life.  To be a redneck, you have to be a pale skinned person who wears an uncollared shirt in public (a big no-no in my own family, with the exceptions of the redneck members who were the palest and the proudest of their sunburned skin – perhaps more on them, later, it’s a sad story).  My dad has never, ever appeared in public in just a T-shirt.  T-shirts (of any kind) were regarded as underwear by all proper men and never worn in public by virtually anyone I knew.  A man in his front yard – maybe (even then, you wouldn’t catch my dad in the front yard in one).

In addition, to be culturally redneck these days, you have to have more vehicles than there are people in your household, at least some vehicles stored in your front yard, and a penchant for either chain smoking cigarettes OR deep-frying everything (or both).  Your hobbies may include muddin’, off-roadin’ or heavy drinking and gambling – but those are optional.  That’s my short taxonomic list for “redneck.”

Mick, the tobacconiste, never smoked in his store (I don’t think he smoked at all) and always wore a shirt with a collar – in fact, most of the time, he wore a dress coat at the store and men’s dress pants.  About three years after the Christmas incident, mom and I had stopped at his store to buy candy and say hello.  We went there often, he really liked my mom – who wouldn’t?  He had needed a person to run his store for awhile, and my mom accounted for every penny, fronted every product perfectly, cleaned the whole place and could not have done a better job as a temporary minimum wage employee.  I suppose we were buying cigarettes for Dad, too (Viceroys, always Viceroys), as this was before the information about second hand smoke or any of that.

We were in the car already, it was just getting dark and Mick came out of the store and bent down at my window, which was rolled down.  “Do you know what year I was born?”         he asked me.  I shook my head.  I was about 7.

“1881,” he replied and let that sink in

“1881!”  said my mother.  “I had no idea!”   This was 1962, the final year of cultural innocence in the United States.

“Yes,” said Mick, “and I have kept this silver dollar with that date, 1881, for many years.”

He pulled the silver dollar out of his pocket and showed it to me.

“Have you ever seen one that old?”

“No,” said I.  I had a couple of silver dollars that relatives had given me.  These were not in my piggy bank, but in a special jewelry box that my mother stewarded.  I was amazed.  Later, I would ask my grandma Nina about her year of birth, as she too seemed very old.   I’m not sure she was all that pleased to tell me (1890, I think).  Grandma Grace was 1887.  So Mick was really old, even by grandparent standards.

“I don’t have any grandchildren,” said Mick.  “So I want you to have this and always remember me.”

Even at 7, I was such a serious kid and I believe I did get tears in my eyes.  I didn’t know what to say – or if my mom would allow such a gift.

She did.  She understood.  “Why, Mick, that’s just such a wonderful thing for you to do.”

“Thank you, Mick,” I said (because he always told me to call him by his first name).  “I would never forget you!”

“We’ll put it in a special place,” said Mom.  I got out of the car and hugged Mick and we all admired the silver dollar and the grown-ups talked about how long ago 1881 was, and how that was before the Great War, even, and the Turn Of the Century.  They talked about how Mick had watched horse and buggy days disappear, seen electricity be linked to people’s homes, seen airplanes invented – and space travel start to happen.  He was only 81 that year.

Mick lived quite a bit longer – at least another 15 years.  I was away at college when he died.  I’m not sure I ever knew his last name.  He sold the tobacco and candy store when he was in his late 80’s.  It was a place filled with mystery and memories for me.  Men’s magazines behind the counter, the only place in town where a person could buy Playboy.  All kinds of vices (Coca Cola, candy, cigarettes and cigars, Popsickles).  And those comic books, which he would let me read without buying.  Oh, and those magazines:  True Confessions and True Stories, which he would not let me read and which I would have to wait until my early teens to sneak a peak at, at my best friend’s house (her sisters were older and bought those magazines on their own).  The pulpy underside of America, the sweet, branded fragrance of all those American candies and pops, the occasional grape soda on a hot September day – and all of this just half a block from the Santa Paula Library.

It was like growing up on Main Street, Disneyland.  The only things missing were a player piano and men wearing straw skimmers.

Oh, and yes – I still have that silver dollar.  For me, that’s a major feat and a promise kept.

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