Monday, March 17, 2008

Charlie's

I lived in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester/Mattapan, in the city of Boston, for the first 37 years of my life.

(The Post Office said I lived in Mattapan, but maps say it was Dorchester. Take your pick. I was right on the border.)

When I was a kid, during the 1960’s, there were many small neighborhood stores in the area. Within a five-minute walk of our home on Caddy Road, there were 6 or 7 places for a kid to buy things like baseball cards, penny candy, comic books, Cokes, Popsicles, Hostess and Drake’s cakes, and other necessities of a happy childhood.

When you wanted to check out the latest Green Lantern or Avengers, McDonald’s was the place to go. It was located at the intersection of River and Washington, and it had a wooden magazine stand that took up most of a complete wall, lined from one end to the other with not only the mainstays, like Superman and Batman, but also interesting new titles that the real junkie (me) would give a shot; stuff like The Hawk & The Dove, The Inferior Five, and Luke Cage, Hero For Hire.

(Trivia note: Luke Cage was the first black superhero character to have a whole title devoted to him. I remember visiting an older female relative at her house in Brockton and lying on a bed reading that first issue. She came into the room where I was doing so, looked at Luke Cage on the cover, and got a look on her face as though she had been physically violated. She said, "Is that comic book about a nigger?"

Until that point, I hadn’t thought that what I was reading was all that unusual. Luke Cage just looked really cool on the cover; that’s why I bought it. The story was good, and made sense, too. He had acquired some special powers – I forget exactly what and how - so he decided that he’d hire himself out, for money, to solve folk’s problems. I figured that’s what I might have done, too, if I had somehow gained superpowers. Anyway, thoughts concerning the race of the main character hadn’t entered into my decision to buy it. Her comment, however, made me feel very radical for reading literature that could have such a startling effect. I became a big Luke Cage fan. I bought every issue during its short-lived tenure, and whenever I was outside with one, I made sure that I carried it with the cover showing, just in case anyone was unsure of my credentials as a freedom fighter.)

In the unlikely event that McDonald’s didn’t have some title you craved, there was always Clover Drug, just across the Neponset River in the richer suburb of Milton.

(You’ve heard the phrase, "Born on the wrong side of the tracks?" Milton was literally on the other side of the trolley tracks from my neighborhood. Whenever my friends and I ventured over there, we were no longer fairly-well-behaved middle-class white kids, most of whom came from comfortable homes with loving parents. In our minds, we transformed into tough kids from the slums. We had no doubts concerning our ability to whale the piss out of any Milton kids who happened along. Of course, that’s how kids from the projects up on Morton Street probably felt when they came into OUR neighborhood, so it all evened out.)

Comic books were the only item of interest sold at Clover Drug, so you never went out of your way to go there unless you needed an issue that had the finale of a two-or-three-part story. You’d often end up waiting in line behind some matronly Milton woman having a prescription filled, and that might take a good 5 or 10 minutes – an eternity for a kid. McDonald’s had no such wait, and it also sold postage stamps, took payments for electric and phone bills, and provided other services that made it useful for moms and other grown-ups to send you there.

There were other "mom and pop" stores. Sam’s was sort of an all-purpose butcher shop that, in addition, sold baseball cards for some reason. It was located on River Street next to the liquor store, a decent place to buy a cold soda or a Slim Jim, even though the other mystifying liquids they sold were temporarily out of our age range. Shirley’s was a tiny place on Cedar Street, not known around the neighborhood for any specialty. It was basically where you went if every other place was closed. However, the undisputed king of the neighborhood stores in our area was Charlie’s, on Sanford Street. There were no comic books, but everything else a kid could ever want was available. And Charlie was there, too, which was the best thing.

The guy at McDonald’s (I assume, McDonald himself) never smiled, at least that I remember. He always had a stubby cigar jammed in his puss and you could feel his eyes burning into your back as you perused the comics. Sometimes you'd grab something you weren't quite sure you wanted and take it up to the counter to buy it just because you were spooked. Sam always seemed less-than-thrilled when a kid walked in. Shirley was friendly enough, I suppose, but we went there so rarely, it wasn’t really a consideration.

Charlie wasn’t a saint, by any means, but he talked to you as though you were a real customer, not just some pain-in-the-ass kid he had to deal with until someone with actual money showed up. And he trusted you. He let us go behind the counter and pick our own nickel or dime’s worth of penny candy, expecting that we’d be honest about the whole thing, not putting any in our pockets when he wasn’t looking. 19 times out of 20, we met his expectations.

Most important, aside from his proximity to our house – literally, just around the corner - was the fact that Charlie extended credit. If your parents were a bit short on cash that week, they’d send you to Charlie’s with an instruction to tell Charlie to "put it on the tab." After your purchases were totaled up, Charlie would write the amount, with grave flourish and in pencil, on the back of a torn up cardboard cigarette carton with your name at the top of it. These scraps were considered a sacred honor, and I never knew anyone who cheated Charlie out of what he or she owed. It was a neighborhood sign that you had reached adulthood when Charlie allowed you to start running your very own tab.

Charlie, whose full name was Charlie Capabianco, was a thin man of medium height, perhaps 5’ 7” or so. He always seemed to have a two-day growth of stubble on his face – never clean-shaven, but also never with an actual beard or mustache – and his gray/black hair was receding. He had the dark complexion common to Italians of Sicilian heritage. In my youth – or, at least, in my youthful memory - he always wore the same clothes: a light gray button-down waistcoat of the sort associated with meat cutters; dark green corduroys; black shoes; and a plaid shirt under the butcher’s jacket. He had slightly outsized features for his small frame – big hands, a not-quite-Durante-but-still-substantial nose, thick avoirdupois lips, and ears that (when taken with the nose and lips) didn’t look out of place. He usually sat behind the counter on the right-hand side of the store, next to the long glass-enclosed penny candy display case, on a small wooden stool. The cash register, and pile of tabs next to it, sat on the shelf behind him. He rarely left that stool. As a matter fact, about the only things that got him off of the throne from which he ran his small empire were when he was called upon to get an item situated on a high shelf, out-of-reach from a customer, or when he was asked to grind hamburger.

We kids always looked forward to our parents sending us to Charlie’s for ground hamburger. This couldn’t happen today if you went to a million different stores across America, but it happened at Charlie’s. When he was done grinding the meat, he’d let the kid whose family ordered it run his finger around the opening that dispensed the ground-up chuck, taking the small remnant of raw meat for a tiny snack. I don’t know how that sounds to you, but to us kids it was delicious and a rare treat. None of us ever died from it.

(Another thing that could never happen today: Charlie sold cigarettes. If one of your parents was out of smokes, and didn’t feel like going to the store themselves, they’d send you for a pack. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t odd for other grown-ups to see you walking down the street and shout to you, "Jimmy, would you mind running down to Charlie’s and getting me a pack of Camels?" That was a cause for rejoicing. The cigarettes themselves cost only 25 cents in those days, so the person would give you a quarter for them, but they’d also – depending upon their current cash-flow and overall generosity – give you either a nickel or dime for yourself, for doing them the service. And, in those days, a dime pretty much put a kid in business for the entire day.

When you went for the smokes, you also took a trip behind the counter to pick out 10 cents worth of penny candy – and it really was penny candy, too. In some cases, the candy cost LESS than a penny. There were these things called Mint Juleps that went two for a penny. God only knows what they were made of to cost so little, but they were spearmint, hard and chewy, and a pocketful of them would allow you to rot your teeth from sunup to sundown.)

I said before that Charlie was no saint. While he generally treated kids decently, and let them do such wonderfully death-defying things as scrape raw meat from his grinder, he drank Old Granddad whiskey pretty much all day. One of the things I recall about Charlie, with particular fondness, was how he would pour the last drink from his whiskey bottle and then do a pantomime wherein he “wrung out” the empty bottle, pretending to squeeze it vigorously, producing one or two more drops. He also wasn’t averse to calling you a little cocksucker if you did something he didn’t like; perhaps dropping a coke bottle, necessitating him to get off of his stool to mop it up, or if he thought you might be stealing a piece of candy. His mean outbursts were rare, though – probably justified, too, now that I look back on it - and most of the kids thought of him as a sort of extended member of the family, albeit one who was sometimes half-drunk.

I want there to be no doubt: We loved this guy, even if he drank like a fish and sometimes called us obscene names. Let me see if I can tell you one more story that shows him in the right light.

Charlie usually closed up at around 6:30 or 7 o’clock each night. On Halloween, however, when we kids would go out trick or treating, Charlie kept his store open late. And kids from blocks around went there, knowing that Charlie would put some treat into their bags. This was an Irish-Catholic neighborhood, in the days when birth control wasn’t prevalent, so that meant LOTS of kids. And some of these kids probably never went to Charlie’s any other time of the year. It didn’t matter. Charlie gave something to every kid, and not just one of the cheap two-for-one Mint Juleps, either. Everybody got a bag of chips or a pack of cupcakes or some other nice higher-priced item.

Charlie didn’t have to stay open. None of the other little stores did. And he didn’t have to give us 10-cent goodies. A one-cent piece of Bazooka Joe would have been enough to get rid of us, and with a smile on our faces, too. But he did stay open, and he did give us the expensive treats. That’s why he was loved, and why, after all of the other little stores had long since closed, Charlie’s was still open.

Charlie’s was a profitable concern when I was very young. As a matter of fact, he had so much business, he hired an assistant, a teenager from the neighborhood named Pete. Pete dressed in the same manner as Charlie, with the button-down gray coat, but he stocked shelves, swept the floor, and did other manual labor, leaving Charlie time to drink his whiskey undisturbed by such tasks.

Life was good. Charlie, and all of the other owners of small stores in the neighborhood, prospered. Then, disaster struck, although most of us didn’t realize just how disastrous it was at the time...

Go To The End Of Charlie's

11 comments:

Mushy said...

This is good stuff Sul...great descriptive writing...I can see it all, and remember most of it...only in a different place and time.

David Sullivan said...

You are so right about perceptive "toughness". In Boston, there is always someone tougher and crazier a block away!

I also know that what goes around comes around because after I moved away and came back bigger than most of those bastards that used to whale on me there was hell to pay. Us Irish have long memories, go ask the English.

Anonymous said...

Disaster???? A disaster you did not finish and leave us waiting with baited breath.

Buck said...

Another cliff-hanger, eh, Jim?

Cool!

Janet said...

What a wonderful reminiscence. I felt like I was in Charlie's, too, though in Nashville in the 60s, we had nothing like that. At least not near us. We had something like a 7-11 (but it wasn't) that sold icees and we were allowed to walk the 2 blocks there by ourselves. That was it.

Janet said...

And oh, yeah, the cliffhanger thing? soon please.

jillie said...

What a great post! You're childhood sounds a lot like mine. I grew up in the 60's. Small town and there were the small little five and dime store that we always frequented. I miss the penny candy!! Thanks for sharing and bring back some fun times ;o)

Thanks for your comment on Cay and for stopping by.

Happy St. Patrick's Day ;o)

CrazyCath said...

Moooooo!
You are learning from Shrinky and it is not fair!
What a wonderful story. We had a shopkeeper a bit like that. We only had the one shop in the village and he didn't stay open late or anything, but I remember the meatgrinding, potato sacks, the penny sweets, going to get mum's cigarettes, the comics, etc.

Post the second half soon! Hope Charlie was / is all right...

CrazyCath said...

Just seen David S's comment - yes. They have!!! lol

Jeni said...

Had to chuckle about the "how things have changed" bit about Charlie selling kids cigarettes for their parents. It reminded me about the local pub here in the village where I live and how, back when I was jr/sr high age, our neighbor two doors older would often send his daughter, 3 years my senior, up to the bar to get him two quarts of beer. I usually would walk up there with her and the bartender never batted an eye when we would come in and she would tell him she wanted the two quarts of beer for her dad. If the local bars today would ever do that, they'd be found out and shut up tighter than a drum in nothing flat. I don't know if he extended the same courtesy to guys in that age range if they tried to buy beer though. But you know, back then, teenage girls didn't drink so maybe he figured we weren't lying about my friend's dad having sent us there. The funny thing though to me is that we never ever thought about being dishonest and going up there, buying beer under false pretenses and then taking it and drinking it ourselves. I doubt very seriously if my kids would have operated that way though.

David Sullivan said...

In Hyde Park we had Mrs. Dunn's Store a block in one direction and Maxie's a block in the other. I have plans to write a similar post about Mrs. Dunn's in the future.

Back when "penny candy" was a penny.