Saturday, July 9, 2011

Back in the Day

I grew up on a one-block-long street in the suburbs of Philadelphia that was named after Edward Braddock, a colonial-era British general whose main claim to fame was losing a) an expeditionary force of British regulars and colonial militia, b) his life, and c) nearly the entire French and Indian War* all in a single campaign.

I’ve often wondered exactly why someone chose that name, but it was a great place to grow up anyway.

A couple of blocks away – just past the volunteer fire company – there was a little strip mall where the neighborhood did most of its shopping because it was within walking distance and full of the kind of useful stores that you would never find in such a setting today.

At one end was Tommy’s Hardware, the kind of old-fashioned wood-planked store that sold everything from tools and paints to balsa wood gliders. The gliders came in four varieties – 17-centers, which were the basic blue model, 29-centers, which were much the same only bigger and red, 59-centers that were also red but bigger still and with little rubber-band-powered propellers, and 79-centers that were the same as the 59-centers but with the addition of wire struts and wheels for landing gear – and we neighborhood kids probably spent a fortune on those planes. It was a rare day when any of them were red, but we had a grand time.

The neat thing about the 79-centers on the few occasions that we could afford them was that, given the trends in automotive design in 1975, we could use the trunk and rear windshield of any nearby car as a runway for launching them into the air. Streamlining had its advantages.

At the other end of the strip was Little Red Hen, our own bucket-o-fried-chicken place. Between that and the mysteriously named Boston Style Pizza in the middle of the strip, we had our Friday dinners pretty much set.

The rest of the strip was a grand playground of stores. There was the Havaline pharmacy, which had a wide candy section securely arranged in front of the cash register, because they knew us well. There was another pharmacy a couple doors down that had an official name that nobody ever used – it was just Randy’s to us. Randy was the thousand-year-old black man (a rarity in that neighborhood, though not in the township as a whole) who ran the soda fountain there and maintained a fairly indulgent attitude toward kids perusing the magazine racks, for which we adored him. There was even a little grocery store – Mertz’ Market, which sold all sorts of things. Mr. Mertz was a big man in his 50s who as near as I could tell never moved from his chair by the register. His father ran the butcher shop in the back and could cut exactly a pound of sharp cheddar cheese off a block with one swift unmeasured stroke of his cleaver.

I got to watch him do that a lot, as a kid, and it never ceased to amaze me.

My grandmother moved in with us when I was about Lauren’s age, and she used to send me down to the stores to pick up odds and end for her. She’d give me $20 and a list of things to buy, and for this I’d get a quarter – which, back in the mid-1970s, was enough to buy a candy bar or a snack-sized bag of Doritos, so I was happy.

The first stop was almost always Mertz’ Market, where I’d get a couple of tins of sardines and a pound of sharp cheddar (and my Doritos), along with whatever else was on the list.

Then I’d go to Havaline, march up to the counter and ask for a carton of Benson & Hedges Gold.

And they’d sell it to me.

Then I’d walk back home, happily chewing my chips and looking forward to a piece of the cheese. The cigarettes never appealed to me and the sardines appealed to me even less, but it was good cheese.

I look back on that with a certain amount of wonder. Here I was, all of 9 or 10 years old and unaccompanied by any adult on these trips, and they’d happily sell me whatever I asked for, even cigarettes.

I don’t think my daughters would get away with that today.


*Yes, I know that in most of the world it is referred to as The Seven Years War, but all this happened in 1755, prior to the start of the European phase of the war. In the colonies it was The French and Indian War, a marvelously confusing name since the French and Indians were on the same side. Of course The Seven Years War lasted nine years in the colonies, so it’s kind of a no-win situation either way.

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