About Me

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DISCLAIMER: I don't really use a typewriter anymore. Oh, and this picture of me is, well, old. If you don't know me already, I'm happy to let you draw your conclusions from what I post here. I do, myself. As William Faulkner said, "I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Are you saving the stamps?

Looks like that's pretty close to four pounds.

   I don’t want to live in the past, but I do like to keep in touch with it.  One of Faulkner’s    characters said “The past is never dead.  It isn’t even past.”  (Forgive me; you’re going to have to put up with these Faulkner quotes.)   He was referring to the ongoing influence of some unpleasant history, but the same is equally true of the good stuff, and that’s what I consciously carry around.  It’s been pointed out to me that I grew up with a way of life that isn’t familiar to a lot of people of my generation (we used to call that being behind the times).   I’m going to take that as a license—nay, a mandate!--to indulge myself here with some nostalgic posts about my childhood and youth in the small villages and towns along the Delaware River, and in the unbelievably lovely surrounding country. 

   The photo at the top of this post was taken in the early 1960’s, which unfortunately is another way of saying “in the middle of the last century”.  The man behind the scale is my Uncle Gordon, who kept a general store.  He could sell you bandanas and bullets and flour and eggs and gas, but it wasn't anything at all like Wal-Mart.  There was a low wooden porch and a screen door that slammed satisfactorily in the summer time.  

 Right inside was the soda cooler.  Before the door stopped vibrating behind you, you could open the lid, reach in and pull out a dripping bottle of Coke, pry off the cap on the opener set into the front of the box, and wet your whistle.  A dime on the counter, and you were square with the man in charge.    

We lived just up the hill from the store, and I often got off the bus there after school to buy a soda and a bag of potato chips or Dipsy Doodles.  My grandmother lived in a small apartment in the back of the store when she wasn’t staying with us or one of her other children’s families who might need her extra pair of hands for a while.  If she was home I’d want to check in with her before spending my money, because she might have fresh cookies or a piece of coffee cake to offer.

   All the “pharmacy” items were behind the counter with the ammunition, cigarettes and loose tobacco.  The main freezer from which the ice cream cones were dipped was back there too.  Eight cents for a single, fifteen cents for a double.   If you zoom and look hard at that first picture, you can probably identify some familiar brands on the shelves---Velvet pipe tobacco, Contac, Haley’s M.O., HEET---those are fairly easy.  I can also spot the Vicks 44 cough syrup, Chapstick, Lysol concentrate, Absorbine Jr., Listerine in its brown paper wrap, and Johnson’s baby oil.   The corner of the glass candy case is there to the right of the scale. On top I recognize the big tub of pretzel rods--3 for a nickel-- and Planter’s Peanuts, Tums, Bic (pens or lighters?), Luden’s cough drops.  Too bad we can’t see what was inside that case---fireball jawbreakers, Tootsie Roll Pops, Bazooka bubblegum, Sugar Daddys and BB Bats, full size candy bars, Rolos and Lifesavers.  Beyond the candy case was the meat case, and then the small freezer that held the popsicles, ice cream bars and Nutty Buddies.  

   What is that slab of meat on the scale, there, do you think? Somebody was going to have a lovely Sunday dinner, I’ll bet.  If you wanted a pound of ground meat, Uncle Gordon would rip a perfectly sized piece from the huge roll of butcher paper on its dispenser with the built-in cutting edge, and lay it on the scale.  Then he would scoop .a mound of raw beef from the bulk bin in the refrigerated case. Splat! onto the paper, and miraculously the needle on the scale moved  to register precisely one pound. Flap, wrap, and round about with a piece of string from the spool next to the roll of paper. Slight jerking motion to cut the string on its own sharp mounted blade. Quick knot. "Anything else?"  “That’s it, I guess. Put it on the bill."    

   Uncle Gordon ran a tab for almost everybody within 10 miles in any direction.   Each family had their name written on the top edge of a small tablet, which stood lined up in a drawer under the counter. Most people settled up regularly, but there was a separate section in that drawer for those whose totals ran too high, or who went too long without making a payment.   No more credit on those accounts until they were reduced to a comfortable level.

  The main shelves of Gordon's Store were stocked with essential household supplies, the usual canned and boxed foods---Campbell’s soups, vegetables, cereal, flour, sugar, basic spices---and a few exotic items like Chun King Chow Mein and Appian Way pizza mix.  I never ate real pizza until I went away to college; I was married and living in Louisiana before I encountered a Chinese restaurant.  I’m not sure how I came to be the adventurous eater that I am now, but in those days, eating unidentifiable vegetables in a gelatinous sauce poured over crunchy brown noodles that came from a can was considered very cosmopolitan!

    In Louisiana,  I had a choice of supermarkets within walking distance (that was important!)-- either Winn-Dixie or the A&P.  I did most of my shopping at the Winn-Dixie.  It was clean and modern; the variety of meat and produce was wonderful, and I had no trouble staying within my budget, tight as it was. Besides, they gave out the same Top Value trading stamps Uncle Gordon used to reward his customers.   The A&P was a little farther away and harder to get to...it involved crossing a fairly busy access road divided by  one of Louisiana’s ubiquitous drainage canals. (Back home we’d have called that a ditch.)  I took the trouble to go there when I was feeling a little homesick, though, because the aroma inside  an A&P store was the same everywhere, and could whisk me instantly from the suburbs of New Orleans back home to the great Northeast.

Too bad Ann Page left town
At home, the A&P had a store-front on the main street, with a wooden screen door---no automatic opener.  It didn’t have a huge parking lot, wide aisles, or a deli counter full of prepared food, either. The floor was bare wood, and it creaked a bit here and there.  It was a little dark inside and smelled richly of wood, spices and freshly ground coffee. Long before gourmet coffee bars and exotic flavoring captured the nation’s fancy, long before I developed a taste for any kind of coffee, I loved the smell of freshly ground 8 O’clock beans.  A&P store brands were packaged under the watchful eye of a woman named Ann Page, who I assumed grew up with Betty Crocker, and took some basic cooking lessons from Aunt Jemima.   The A&P in Gretna, Louisiana, didn’t look like the one I grew up with in Hancock, New York, but it smelled exactly the same. After shopping in there I could go “home” and feel that Home wasn’t quite so far away.

I really am grateful for the convenience of modern supermarkets.  I appreciate the pharmacy on the premises, the availability of a roasted chicken when I’m too tired to cook, the acceptance of debit cards.  I am happy to see the growing number of products made from recycled paper and plastic on the shelves.  But I don’t think in 20 years (should I still be doing my own shopping!) I will feel nostalgic about any of those things.  I miss the sound of creaky screen door hinges, and kind of wish that “running to the store” still meant hurtling down the sidewalk, leaping over tree roots and having an extra dime for a creamsicle to eat on the way home.


  1. This post makes me happy. Herndon had its own general store until I was about seven, I think, and while its wares and so on weren't exactly as you describe, it was close, and, more importantly, the people who ran it--Bill and Eileen--are cut of that same cloth. I miss places like that, though we do have the Kaycee General Store, if one is willing to drive north on I-25 a ways, and it offers that charming eclectic and necessary stock, as well as home-made doughnuts and espresso beverages.

    This post is one of many reasons I continue to miss Pennsylvania. Thank you.

  2. You are tttttalkin' 'bout my gggggeneration! I just loved this. We had similar shops (did you have mint leaves and blackballs?), with sawdust on the floor in the butcher section. Same Coke cooler, same screen door. I think that's why we grew up so sane. And oh yeah, Creamsicles! Our A&P recently got bought up by Métro from Quebec, so Ann Page and Mother Parker are no more. Thanks, Linda!

  3. @Tiffin Spearmint leaves, yes! I'm not sure about blackballs. Were they licorice?

    @Holly I'm happy to say Gordon's store is still there, still operated by a member of his family, who may chime in here if she sees fit.

  4. Blackballs did taste like licorice. Impossible to chew so you sucked one for ages. It went different colours as you went in: black, pale pink until you hit the middle, which was white. You ended up with a black tongue. I loved wax lips when I was wee too.

  5. Blackjack gum...Big Hunks...oh, and those Nutty Buddies (they're called something else now - Drumsticks? - and I still love 'em!). Such an evocative post. I want to climb into the time machine and go back before there were miles and miles of big box stores! Fortunately when I read these kinds of essays, I can do that in my mind. Thanks Linda.

  6. I was in a little gift shop yesterday where they had old-fashioned candy for sale---they wanted $1.60 for a pack of Teaberry gum!! I restrained myself. I really LOVED Teaberry gum, though.

  7. This isn't living in the past, Linda, but rather a wondefully nostalgic visit to yesteryear. You and the commenters have cleared the cobwebs from a lot of things I either forgot or just plain don't remember.

    I'll never forget those Coke chests, though. Those wet, icy-cold bottles of Coke were the best, and it doesn't even come close in cans.

    About the Top Value stamps (and S&H Green, Thrifty): they weren't "free" at all. Grocers and gas stations had to pay for them so that Top Value could afford to "give away" a million toasters and make a profit. Many merchants raised their prices to cover their costs, while others did it to retain goodwill and customers.

    Tui, my Canuck friend, I don't remember blackballs either. To me, a blackball meant you didn't get into the motorcycle gang or the country club. Maybe they were unique to Canada.

    Linda, like Bob Hope used to sing, "Thanks for the memories."

  8. Glad to oblige, Charlie. Good to see ya.

  9. I don't remember blackballs, but do fondly recall fireballs and long sticks of taffy for a nickle.
    Someone should bring back those coke chests. Of course, nowadays you would probably pay $2 for a bottle.

  10. Thanks for the little trip back. I still remember how that size Coke bottle fit on the lower lip. Can't be matched. And for some reason I can't get the taste and texture of those red wax lips out of my head, now.

    I was recently researching what people might buy in a store in the early 1800s, and how they'd pay for it (they didn't, exactly)--and you know? It wasn't that much different from what you're describing.