(A photo of Vanderbilt Drug Company, aka Vanderbilt’s, taken before my time, probably in the 1940’s.)
Vanderbilt Drug Store was at the end of our street and was the halfway point on our short walk to and from both Whiting Lane Elementary and Plant Junior High Schools. It was a reliable meeting place, a frequent destination and almost like another room in our house.
It’s where we got the Sunday paper and where I got all my comic books. It’s where I gathered with my friends for candy, before and after school. There were packets of mouth-puckering, sour/sweet Lik-M-Aid, handfuls of red licorice, molar-destroying rock candy, those bizarre, chewable wax lips that melted into thick, congealed puddles on the sidewalk, boxes of spearmint leaves, packets of sunflower seeds so salty your eyes got thirsty, red-hot jawbreaker balls that rearranged your teeth, not to mention those wax six packs of brightly colored, sugary syrup called Nickel Nips and, of course, the ubiquitous and endless packs of baseball cards with the flat, powdery sheets of bubble gum. We traded those cards like inveterate gamblers. I’ll give you Roberto Clemente for Harmon Killebrew. Well how about Sandy Koufax for Hank Aaron? No, I’m hangin’ on to Willie Mays. Mickey Mantle? You got The Mick? You lucky dog! Lemme see…
Vanderbilt’s is where I had my first job in the seventh grade (a few dollars paid under the counter) cleaning the store. It was a thankless chore, scrubbing the counters and ice cream containers, mopping the tile floor, that nevertheless made me feel proud and manly.
It’s where I bought my first girlfriend an ice cream soda at age thirteen, feeling incredibly grown up as I handed over the coins.
Marie was the lady who worked the soda fountain for all the years of my childhood and adolescence. She wore the standard white soda jerk uniform with jaunty cap and sported glasses with pointy corners as big as Cadillac fins. I remember that she was dating a helicopter pilot, which made her very very cool.
I must have walked through the door of that establishment five million times. One Sunday morning, when I was fourteen, I walked up our street to get our Sunday paper. I had, just an hour prior, answered the door and listened to a rather boring lecture by two Jehovah’s Witnesses. I told them, probably with a bit of the attitude I could have at that age, that I disagreed with them and that I did not feel their religion was the only true way to live.
Shortly afterward, as I walked through Vanderbilt Drug’s front door, I heard a loud crash and the breaking of glass. A woman had accidentally stepped on the gas instead of braking and had just driven through Vanderbilt’s plate glass window. I had been a mere couple of seconds away from getting severely injured, if not killed.
When I told my parents what happened, my mom said rather dryly, “Well I guess that’ll teach you to mouth off to Jehovah’s Witnesses!” She was a missionary’s daughter with a sense of humour.
You know what? Ever since then, I have courteously listened, at length, whenever door-to-door proselytizers have come knocking. Even if I disagree with their claims of having “the only true way”, I don’t give them anything but my respectful attention. I figure it’s just good karma, shattering glass window reprisals or not.
One of our neighbors, John Hyberg, a Swedish American bachelor who lived with his elderly mother way down at the end of Dorset Road, used to walk to Vanderbilt’s most evenings around dusk for a coke. On those heavy, humid Summer nights, my brothers and I (and often one or two cousins and friends) would be sitting with our parents on lawn chairs in the cool dark of our front porch on Walkley Road, drinking mint iced tea.
As we sipped our drinks and smelled that strong aroma of lilacs from the bushes by the porch, we would peer into the dark to see the slump-shouldered shape of John Hyberg approaching like a talking shadow under the streetlights. When his barely visible self reached our house, he would say, without fail, the exact same thing, directed to my mother, in that distinct, adenoidal voice of his: “Hot enough for ya, Jean?” That phrase came without variation out of his mouth automatically as he passed, as if our front porch triggered it from deep within his chest.
We would laugh and imitate his voice, and I would feel privately a bit guilty for making fun of him. I doubt he could have known how comforting the ritual of his nocturnal walks past our house were to me.
His nightly walks, in fact, were a sign that all was right in our neighborhood, in our sleepy little town, in the whole state of Connecticut and quite possibly in the whole wide world.
When I remember those nights and those long childhood days, I realize how incredibly lucky we all were. Lucky to have one another, to laugh and love and be loved, to be safe in the embrace of our family in that town of long, shady streets and corner stores like Vanderbilt’s.