The Big Brick Review 2016 Essay Contest: 1st Place ($300)
Building on the narrative of our lives...one brick at a time.
by Jeanne Brinkman Grinnan
WHEN I WAS five, I could look out my bedroom window at night and see a giant red neon sign on top of a big brick building several streets away. It spelled KODAK PARK in big blocky letters that glowed red-hot against the darkening sky.
Our house was a side-by-side double and I lived there with my father and mother, a big sister, a little sister, and a brand new baby brother. My uncle and aunt lived in the other half of the house with my cousin, Jimmy, the youngest of their three children. I remember a dog, too, and I think they called him Mort.
The street was only one block long, running east to west off Lake Avenue. Ours was the first house on the south side once you passed Nate Weinstein’s drugstore on the corner, the side entrance to the Lake Avenue branch of the Rochester Public Library, and Bill Sovatski’s Tailor Shop.
On the other side of the street was a similar brick building containing an assortment of businesses: the Parisian Liquor Store on the corner, next to a cafeteria-style diner, and a series of doors that led to apartments in the back and on the first and second floors. Directly across the street from our house, a wide cinder-filled driveway led to the back doors and delivery bays of a series of shops and businesses whose storefronts comprised Wagg’s Corners, one block to the north at Lake and Pullman Avenues. They included Wagg’s Dry Goods, Grinnan’s Market, Lloyd’s Hardware where every spring I bought a new skate key, and Johnson’s Bakery. Somewhere along in there was Frank Short’s Barber Shop.
Our street had a lovely name – Owen Street – and even as a child I loved saying it, feeling the sound of it rolling off my tongue. It was narrow and tree-lined and the trees would create a canopy of color spring, summer and fall. Childhood days were spent playing Stone School on the front steps, roller skating around the block and trying to figure out the world of grown-ups. Figuring out the rules and those who constructed them made getting along with them a whole lot easier. Mostly, things seemed shrouded in mystery, information was difficult to come by, and the language of the adult world was foreign.
As I try to recreate the geography of my childhood, images, names, faces, and events return to me with surprising clarity. Perhaps the weather is an invention of my memory and I wonder if the wallpaper in the dining room was really covered with salmon-pink paisley shapes that feel so vivid now. I know the events are real, alive with characters from that neighborhood, set against the backdrop of the 1950’s, rooted in the traditions and ritual of Catholicism and held up by the economics of a blue collar family.
One such memory begins with an errand to the drugstore. On a sunny summer afternoon, my mother handed me a carefully folded square of paper and a dollar bill. “Now, hurry!” she said and pointed me toward the door. As I marched up the street, I unfolded the paper and although I couldn’t read, I did recognize letters. The K matched the one that lit the sky at night but it was followed by others: O-T-E-X. Whatever it was, I knew it involved a secret and secrets always involved shame, so I quickly refolded the paper in half and then in half again.
Nate Weinstein’s drug store, Ace Drug Co., sat on the corner. A long narrow storefront, it was lined with shelves from floor to ceiling. I picture the entire store painted an aqua kind of blue, but perhaps I am inventing that and it was really white or gray or green. I remember the floor as being tiled in black and white linoleum squares set on their points in a diamond pattern, but perhaps that is another floor in another drugstore, years down the road ahead of me. I think the ceiling was composed of great squares of pressed tin painted white and that large circular medallions filled their centers; I know a phone booth stood in the back right corner. It had a wooden door, hinged up the middle. When pulled closed to afford the caller privacy, a light went on inside.
The store’s shelves were filled with liniments, ointments, hot water bottles, enema bags, toiletries, vaporizers and all kinds of substances foreign to the experiences of five-year-olds. In the middle of the floor, situated like a long, narrow island, sat a freezer case filled with Popsicles, Creamsicles, and pints of Sealtest Neopolitan ice cream. Dividing the store in half, it created two aisles that were also filled with drugstore merchandise of the 1950’s: newspapers, comic books, greeting cards, playing cards, cotton balls, Band-Aids, hot and cold compresses, Epsom salts, and Vicks Vapo-Rub. A circular metal rack was filled with cheap toys mounted on cardboard. Yo-yos, jacks, tops, and squirt guns were suspended like Christmas tree ornaments from little hooks on this strange metal tree trunk. A life-sized cardboard cutout of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz hawking Phillip Morris cigarettes stood near the cash register.
In an elevated area at the back of the store was the pharmacy. From this vantage point, Nate, or Mr. Weinstein as my mother had instructed me to call him, spent his days filling little gelatin capsules with salts and powders, sorting through vials of pills, and concocting tubes of ointments. He wore a white, short-sleeved lab coat that buttoned on his shoulder with six or seven tiny white buttons. Whenever someone came in the store, he could look out through a glass partition, survey the customer’s needs, and come forward as necessary.
His face was stained with a blood-red birthmark that ran like a jagged seam across his forehead, encompassed one eye, his nose, and half his mouth, then spilled down his neck and one arm. I know my mother warned me not to stare at him the first time I met him. And I’m sure I strained to look away or beyond the red stain in an effort not to embarrass him or be embarrassed by my own curiosity. I knew enough already to worry about hurting someone’s feelings by asking too pointed a question, or making too honest a response. Some things were not polite to talk about and his birthmark was one of them. It became a kind of secret, its presence denied by our silence.
What I can’t deny about Nate (the name we all secretly called him) is that he always had a smile, that he called me “Jeannie with the light brown hair” even though my hair was never ever light brown. Once I told him it was my birthday and he gave me a tiny Whitman’s Sampler, a wonderful little cardboard box filled with four chocolates. Over time, the stain disappeared, I think. Maybe I just forgot to notice it.
His drugstore was a gathering place for the neighborhood kids where we went to hang over the candy counter trying to choose between a nickel roll of Necco Wafers or butterscotch LifeSavers. Nate left us on the honor system to count out balloons at “a penny apiece” for water balloon wars on sultry summer afternoons. I remember hovering over a big cardboard box filled with colorful balloons pulling them out one at a time, knowing that the globed shapes would last longer in a volley than the thinner banana-shaped ones. I’m sure he watched from a distance, as we’d pulled them through a star-shaped hole in the top of the box or poked them back through upon rejection. And often he pretended not to see my sister, who was twelve, read an entire Katy Keene comic book through a slim opening of little more than 60 degrees so as not to disturb its newness.
It was long before the high tech superstores of today, before bar code scanners and UPC’s, where practically all of your shopping needs can be met by a single stop. What was high tech in the 1950’s, we considered high entertainment. We loved it when Nate was called upon to retrieve some product from one of the shelves high above his head.
He had a little stepstool to help him reach items that were only slightly out of reach, but he used a wonderful pinching contraption for merchandise beyond that. A magic wand? Not quite. A robotic arm? Well, sort of. It resembled a pair of tongs or forceps on a long wooden pole like a broomstick and he manipulated its blades, or pincers, by squeezing handles at its base.
When someone required an item stored high above the floor, Nate retrieved the tool from its corner. Brandishing it like a saber, he’d hoist the clip-part upward and poke at the item grabbing a corner of it between the blades. Then, he’d struggle to be sure he had a secure purchase on it before squeezing the handles. The clips would bite into the item like a strange goose-like bird catching a bug in its beak. Deftly, he’d pull the item off the shelf and release his grasp on the handles, allowing the tin of tobacco or the bottle of Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia to drop accurately into his empty waiting hand.
Most of the time, it was a wonderful thing to be a child in that neighborhood!
But this day, the day of the errand, was different. The terse command from my mother, “Now, hurry!” and the secret written on the fold of paper in my hand, set the stage for a very different transaction. Like a soldier on a crusade, I marched. I marched up the street and entered the store in a very business-like manner. There was no lingering over the Black Jack gum or Luden’s Wild Cherry Coughdrops.
I headed straight down the aisle to the pharmacy and handed Mr. Weinstein the note. He unfolded it, read it, and, if it were possible for me to discern where the stain on his face left off and started again, I might say he reddened a bit. Then he gathered up that magical arm and moved toward an array of blue boxes set up above a display of Dr. Scholl’s Corn Removers. I think the box was imprinted with a pink rose and 5 block letters spelling out its contents. Quickly and with unusual dexterity, he grabbed the box with the beak-like jaws, then let it fall into his free hand. He slipped it into a brown paper bag and took the dollar I held out to him. I imagine there was some change making involved in the transaction, but there was no dialogue exchanged. No “How’s my Jeannie with the light brown hair today?” In fact, he continued to avoid my eyes—perhaps he was afraid that I might question him about the contents of the box. I watched as he crumpled the note I had given him in the palm of his purple hand; I heard it drop with a little papery rustle into the wastebasket he kept for our candy wrappers next to the cash register.
Nothing more was ever said about that errand and I was drawn into a conspiracy of silence that denied my own intuitiveness, curiosity and sense of honesty. As I walked toward home, the paper bag thumped against my knees. My reflection stared back at me when I passed the great plate glass windows of the library. I didn’t look any different than I had a few moments before, but I remember feeling different—and I wouldn’t be able to articulate the difference for many, many years.
My mother met me at the door, took the bag, and disappeared inside. I was left on the porch with an indelible impression that, like conjoined twins, secrecy and shame are inseparable—just like Mr. Weinstein and the birthmark on his face.
Jeanne Brinkman Grinnan, a native of Rochester, is retired from SUNY The College at Brockport where she taught writing and Children’s Literature. A lover of words, sentences, paragraphs, typefaces, and their possibilities, she is exploring, through personal narrative, the “geography” of growing up in a blue-collar, Catholic family in the 1950s and 60s.
"Owen & Lake" photo © 2016 Gregory GerardTweet < back to the Reviewl