Sidney Gross (1941–2016)
Although Block’s got my fountain and newspaper business, I didn’t purchase candy bars there. Why not? Well, across Bay Parkway stood Miller’s. Miller’s did not have a fountain, but they did have a merchandising ploy which drew me and all the other neighborhood kids like flies; they sold candy bars at a discount. A nickel bar such as an O’Henry or a Three Musketeers or Black Crows was four cents, and ten-cent bars, such as Almond Joy, were only eight. With the change, you could select from a marathon assortment of penny candy—red licorice, small wax soda bottles, cellophane wrapped nougats, “peanuts,” which were yellow and tasted like bananas. You name it, and Miller’s had it. You had to be out of your mind to buy candy anywhere else but at the store where you got more for your money.
Once a year, I made a big purchase at Miller’s, a Valentine heart for my mother. The really cheap hearts held only a pound of candy and were made entirely of cardboard. The three-pound size was covered in satin (your choice of pink, red, or blue) and topped with a fake rose. You could buy a three pounder for two dollars back then, but what kid had that kind of money? Mrs. Miller deftly resolved this problem for all the neighborhood kids—we could buy our Valentine hearts interest free on the installment plan. Each week for a month and a half before Valentine’s Day, I would come in with a payment of twenty-five cents or more. This would be credited to my name, which had been entered on a wall chart along with those of many of my friends. When the shipment of hearts arrived at the store, I could make my selection, which would then be labeled and put in the back room for safekeeping. There were years when I didn’t have the heart paid up in time. Needless to say, the Miller’s released the merchandise and trusted me for the rest.
As if the neighborhood candy stores weren’t enough, there were all sorts of further snares set out for youngsters with a sweet tooth within a stone’s throw of the schoolyard. School went from 8:45 to 11:45 and then from 1:00 to 3:00. Many of the students brought lunch to school, but even those like me who ate at home were back by 12:45. The school covered half a city block from Sixtieth to Sixty-First Street and from Twenty-Third Avenue down towards Bay Parkway. Right next door was St. Athanasius (St. A’s) parochial school. So there were lots of young, hungry customers for the itinerate food peddlers who ringed these venerable institutions every lunch hour.
One such merchant sold giant soft pretzels from a wicker basket, which he set on the sidewalk directly opposite the schoolyard gate. Even after a full lunch, I could never resist the temptation of a salty, chewy pretzel from Salvo. Usually there was not enough time to eat the entire pretzel before I had to form my class line and re-enter the school building. Each home room had its own position in the yard. We were to line up in size places and stand at attention. When the assistant principal blew her whistle, we were to march smartly into the building. To make sure order was kept, the yard lines were patrolled by student monitors. If you did anything on line other than stand at attention, you were reported.
Needless to say, eating an unfinished pretzel was strictly forbidden. I easily got around the law by breaking the pretzel in half and stuffing the pieces into my waist pockets. Then, when the monitor wasn’t looking, I would break smaller pieces of pretzel between my thumb and index finger and transport them surreptitiously to my waiting mouth. Forbidden fruit tastes twice as good, and the healthy disrespect for arbitrary authority which I learned became an enduring part of my education.
Aside from Salvo and some ice cream vendors, the most picturesque of the street vendors was a person known only as “the candy lady.” She came from another era, and I doubt that middle class children today have ever had the opportunity to deal with this kind of person. She always dressed the same way, in a navy blue cotton skirt and emerald green blouse. Her shoes were flats, and she wore white anklet socks. In winter, she wrapped a voluminous dark wool scarf over her head and chest. She carried her stock-in-trade of penny candy in a beat up baby carriage, on which a plywood board served as a counter. She was poverty incarnate, but I didn’t know it at the time; to me, she just looked strange. Everything on the cart was two or three for a penny. There were jaw breakers, bubble gum, fake wax harmonicas and mustaches, and candy cigarettes. Nothing was wrapped, and we who flocked like flies around her baby carriage fingered through every last piece before making our “discriminating” selection. By today’s standards, the candy lady would no doubt be closed down as a health and possibly a psychological menace. But back in my youth, we all accepted her for what she was, and I’m still around to tell the tale.