My immediate neighborhood, in my early years, was far different than that found there today. I suppose that most neighborhoods elsewhere also suffer from this commercial reshaping, but mine doesn’t even feel the same. Still, I am pleased that I can recall it (mostly) in what was, from my perspective time frame, its original form.
For starters, we had gas stations. So many, in fact, that I recall asking my parents why on Earth there would need to be so many concentrated in one place: Sunoco, Union 76, Checker, Clark, Shell, Standard Oil (later Amoco). It still seems nuts to me, even now.
Still, those gas stations – for a kid on a bike with a limited permissible range of travel – offered my first real encounters with liberated purchasing. Specifically, I could take the hard-earned coinage that I had saved and buy anything that I wanted. Anything, that is, that one can purchase in a gas station vestibule. I remember taking in everything for sale within the confines of the Clark station (my usual preferred shopping venue): road maps, ice scrapers, key chains, candy, soda, baseball cards: it was a commercial wonderland to my youthful self, even if I didn’t have a use for most of the things around me.
Gas stations, compared with those of today, were far, far different. The pumps were all electromechanical, the air compressors were free and abundant. There were no cages or polycarbonate cocoons for the attendant’s protection. Everyone paid in cash and, often, there were a line of kids there – including myself – purchasing cigarettes for parents who sent us with money in what was – I’m certain – an effort to get us the hell out of their hair for a few brief, blissful moments, followed by a period of calming as the first ethereal clouds of nicotine-laced smoke penetrated their alveolar sacs. In hindsight, breaking the law never seemed so mundane and boring.
Across from the Clark station was the local grocery store and drug store. Their location, for me, was off limits because it not only required a trip across the car-laden Auburn Street, but a traversal over some very active railroad tracks as well. I can still picture in my mind the bustling Eagle Food Store, with the Rexall Drug (later RevCo, who took over the entire facility, years later, after Eagle Foods went out of business in this location) attached and next to it. In the remaining sliver of the building, was a small hair salon that was more often closed or defunct than I ever recall it having been open.
Further down the road, at the Rockton intersection was Beaky’s Chicken – home of the Beaky Burger. I recall eating take-out from there on only a handful of rare occasions before it closed, and became an Arby’s. More often, we ate Connie’s Pizza on special Friday nights (complete with anchovies, which I still love to this day), or ate take out from the local Geri’s Burgers. Connie’s had the distinction of being the first place that I ever saw a video game. I believe it was a building climbing game of some sort, in a head-to-head, table-top format. I wish I could recollect it more, but I recall it made a massive impression on me, as I watched people play while we all stood around waiting for our pizzas to be ready. Geri’s was housed in one of the few remaining, original, McDonald’s restaurant buildings. It later became Manny’s .39 Cent Hamburgers and, then, was torn down to make way for a self-serve car wash. I remember being enamored with the unique and obtuse architecture of the place, and also recall being disheartened when that piece of my childhood was demolished. I mean: what fun is a car wash, for crying out loud?
Where the Pizza Hut now resides, was an AC Delco auto parts store. My Father never went there, however. Instead, we headed down to 20th Street to the Tietz & Lynde. The reason? My godfather’s brother worked there. My godfather, a truly admirable man named Gary Olszewski (pronounced ‘ho-shef-ski’) was also my father’s best friend for many, many years. He’s still a man I look up to in admiration, all these long years later. I’ll give my Dad credit: his loyalty to his friends was admirable. Although, I’m pretty certain, he probably got a discount for his troubles. I’ll have to ask him about that, now that I consider it.
Going to the Tietz & Lynde was like a mini-Christmas for me because I got to sit (read: play) on their rotating counter stools which were, essentially, playground equipment to a hyper kid like me. With each visit Old Joe, or Pete Lynde, or another of the regular, long-time employees, would have me ‘help them out’ by ‘testing’ certain candy bars and peanut tubes to make sure that the remainder of the box weren’t too stale for the other customers. For as intelligent as I was, I didn’t catch on to the underlying ruse until a few years later. Every one of those guys seemed genuinely glad to have me around as a distraction (I think that I made them laugh) and that sort of acceptance and attention was emotionally uplifting to a young man whose home life tended to become less and less positive as the years wore on. Those simple acts of blue-collar kindness helped to shape, I am sure, a facet of the man that I became. There will always be a special place in my heart for those kind hearted, working class fellows.
Rounding out the local haunts of my immediate neighborhood were one of the original Beef-A-Roo’s, a Taco Johns (later demolished to make way for Beef-A-Roo’s rebuild and expansion, which is still in place today, and probably for the best because the decor was an ocular abomination), and the Donutland where, on rare Sunday mornings after attending church at St. Edwards (way across town on Eleventh Street), we might stop and get a turnover, and the ice cream parlor whose name still to this day eludes me. What was cool (no pun intended) about the ice cream parlor (located next to the veterinary clinic, which I just recalled) was that it was decorated in old-time photos, posters, flyers, furniture, and knickknacks from the heady days of the Hollywood’s Golden Age. It also featured a player piano which, to a kid my age, was tantamount to black magic. I remember always getting a mint chocolate chip waffle cone (I was fairly insistent on this and, ironically, it’s a flavor I don’t much care for today), and often being more interested/inquisitive in my surroundings than the actual treat itself. The staff and owners were a part of the community who always had a welcoming smile and local scuttlebutt to share or receive. Intimate and unique places like that still exist today, but not nearly as many as I would like to see. When it finally closed its doors for good, a vital piece of the neighborhood was forever lost to the annals of time.
So, in my early years, that was the commercial neighborhood that I knew. For some, I hope to have evoked memories of the places that I loved, otherwise long forgotten or even unknown. For others, I offer this only as a building block for stories to come. I hope you’ll join me again for the next installment.
Heath D. Alberts (firstname.lastname@example.org)