All The World’s A Stage
Three shabby tenements crawled out of their foundations to have a commanding view of East 172 St. in the Bronx. At the base of one of these buildings, on this unremarkable street, stood a remarkable candy store. This candy store was the focal point of our neighborhood, our command post. This was where the boys hung out. This was where neighbors made, and received phone calls. This was where insults soared with the flies that hovered over its tacky Formica counter.
Adjacent to its entrance stood a crumbling oak newspaper stand. To prevent it from a total collapse, it was held together by screwed-on metal signs, advertising Raleigh cigarettes, Model Pipe Tobacco, and Sodas by Hammer. At night, when lit, three light bulbs above the stand, attracted more insects than customers.
Yes, All The World’s a Stage, and shows were performed daily in our candy store to SRO (standing room only) crowds. In this store, Bob Hope would have had bottom billing, and Cecil B. DeMille’s spectaculars, would have been unspectacular.
The original owner was Steve the Greek. He, and his 10 year-old-daughter lived in a shabby backroom of the store. We were eight and nine year-olds waiting for the phone to ring so that we could call a neighbor to the phonebooth and receive a soda or milk bottle, redeemable for a two-cent tip at the grocery.
Penny candy during the Great Depression, with customers having not much more in their pockets, could not provide an acceptable income for Steve. In addition, one of the older boys, The Bull, who was an occasional customer, would harass Steve and his daughter to a point when Steve saw The Bull coming, he would shout,
‘Uh,Uh. Here comes da Bull”, then turned turn off the lights and closed the store.
Steve sold the store to Refugee Jack. Jack and his wife were s Holocaust survivors.
Nearly all the neighbors and building janitors were occasional customers. The most favored visit for Jack was a young lady, any young lady.
Through the door came an attractive neighborhood divorcee and her three-year-old son, Arthur. She had a skirt as tight as a tourniquet and a neckline that plunged down to her ankles. Jack’s mouth salivated and his eyes lit up like flashbulbs.
“Tell the man what you want, Arthur.”
“I want a Moyshee bar and tomato chips.”
When Arthur dropped a few potato chips, his mother bent down to pick them up. Jack nearly fell over the counter searching for cleavage. To supplement this scene, the boys sung their favorite refrain for Jack. It was sung to the tune of Gentleman Jack..
A sex maniac
There’s no such thing
As a piece of dreck
To Jack, Jack, the sex maniac.
Jack barely eked out a living so he sold the store to our friend’s father, Morris. His sons, Sol and Peanzy worked behind the counter while Morris drove a cab.
To celebrate the day of the purchase, Jerry ordered a Coke from the fountain. Peanzy removed a long spoon from its ceramic canister in order to mix the syrup with the seltzer. Dangling from the end of the spoon was a roach hanging and twirling by one leg. Jerry deferred to a chocolate Mello-Roll (ice cream cone).
Sol would be as active behind the counter as over it. One day Fat Anne came into the store. She was quite free with her body to the older boys, so Sol, with his white apron flailing, hurdled over the counter, wrapped his leg around Anne and shouted,
“Let’s go to it Anne.” Unlike Queen Victoria, the boys were amused.
Then there was Flat Anne. Just as Fat Anne had mega-mammaries, Flat Ann was as flat as my handkerchief. She had an unusually long stride to her walk so, in addition to Flat Anne, we called her Gunder after the Swedish runner Gunder Haag who, in the 1940s, broke many middle distance track records.
A feeble click on the door handle would announce Gravel Gertie. Gertie and her husband were the janitors of 1524 Seabury Place. Prunelike, dry, wrinkled skin highlighted an alcohol-induced, mottled cherry to blue complexion fading to gray as it reached the bristles above and below her chin. She was a sight that chased the most vicious dogs from her alley. When she reached a state of sobriety, she would elevate herself to a vertical position, stagger into the candy store and then shout,
“One up on the dope!” Sol knew what this meant: “A glass of Alka-Seltzer to counter my bleeping hangover!”
Of course, the door handle wasn’t exclusively for Gertie.
Strictly, who lived across the street would reluctantly enter the candy store. Sol baptized her Strictly after he listened to her conversation in the phonebooth.
“Flame Glo lipstick? It smears It’s strictly for the birds.”
“Janet? She strictly wears sweaters. She thinks she’s an oomph girl.”
“Strictly, between you and me, I think they’re falsies.”
She hated the name Strictly and Sol knew it.
Strictly entered the candy store.
Sol, performing for the boys shouted,
“What’ll you have Strictly?”
She was about to turn and leave when her mother who was paying for a newspaper replied,
“Sure she’s strictly. She’s strictly kosher.”
“Strictly kosher my ass, said Sol. She’s strictly bullshit.”
Two senior patrons, Mr, Silver, the owner of a grocery on Minford Place was verbally dueling with Beep-Da-Da-Brook (We never knew his real name) when a sexy young girl came into the store for a pack of cigarettes. After she left, Beep-Da-Da-Brook slobbered,
“Oy vat I could do mitt her!”
“You could do notting mitt her,” said Mr. Silver.
“So, nu Mr. Bigshot, vot kenn you do mitt her?”
“She could get me so eggsited, I could kerry a pail mitt it. Translation: I could get such an erection that I could carry a pail with it.
Nu, vot ken you do?”
”I could get so eggsited, I could put fifteen pennies on it.”
“Yeah,” said Beep-Da-Da-Brook. Vun on top of the odder!”
Is there a script-writer who could dream this up?
It was a day like any other day at the candy store. We anticipated laughs and were never disappointed.
It was unusually quiet in this 12’ x 20’ asylum. Lunchee Blum yelled out,
“Let’s outstare The Painter!”
The Painter was a character who lived on the second floor of a building directly across the street from the candy store. He would stand frozen like a saint in a stained glass window, staring down at the candy store.
The boys left the store, gathered together as in a tight-team photo, and tried to outstare The Painter. The moment he twitched, a roar of “Ray!” resounded off the nearby tenements. Until he moved from the neighborhood, he had no clue as to the entertainment he provided for the boys.
How cold I forget Coaltown and Citation? We called them Coaltown and Citation after the fabled Kentucky Derby winners. They were two slight, frail, 80+year-old Orthodox Jewish men who lived somewhere in the neighborhood. With support from their canes, arm in arm they took measured steps, like windup toys teetering towards our candy store.
Coaltown wore a black, tight-fitting overcoat with wide lapels attached to a black velvet collar surrounding the nape of his neck and shoulders. A black derby pulled down to his snowy-white eyebrows completed his fashion statement. Citation wore a loose-fitting gray overcoat embellished by a large, black, Persian lamb collar swirling around to the first button. His derby seemed stapled to the top of his head.
I was about to leave the candy store to call Mrs. Kalig to the phone when I saw them coming. I knew that they were there to recruit the boys because they didn’t have a minion (ten men for a prayer service). I returned to the store.
“Coaltown ad Citation are coming!” I shouted.
This precipitated a sacrilegious dash for the nearest hallway to avoid a pious conscription for their prayer service.
Jake the Snake and Willie the Weasel decided to expel the chalk dust and cigarette smoke from their lungs from Pop’s poolroom to pay us a visit. Hanging from Willie the Weasel’s arm was a threadbare, navy-blue overcoat. Jake the Snake was holding two oranges. Willie dropped the gauntlet.
“This cashmere coat says that no one in this candy store can throw an orange further than my man, Jake. Ante up fifteen dollars.”
“That coat belongs in the Salvation Army, not in my candy store,” said Sol.
“He got it off a truck in the Garment district. It’s brad new.”
To perk up the afternoon, the boys pooled their money and came up with thirteen dollars.
Monty, a sidekick of Willie and Jake ran across the street and brought down two of his
older brother’s suits to up the ante. The suits were pre-war vintage and what would
anyone do with a raggedy overcoat?
Sol went to the cash register and removed four dollars. Seventeen dollars was the bet.
Why would anyone think of suits and an overcoat? It was summer. The only thing we thought about clothes was shedding them. But fun was the name of the game.
I was selected to challenge the Snake. On the hill outside the candy store, the sewer lid in the middle of the gutter was the throwing point.
Jake was first to throw. Unexpectedly, he threw the orange down the middle of the street at quite a distance. It splattered at the intersection between Minford Place and E. 172 Street. Next, my throw went down the street, passed the intersection, and hit a fire escape on a building to the left, several feet past Jake the Snake’s orange.
A quick measurement was followed by the anticipated argument.
“Anyone can see that Jake’s blast in the middle of the street is far ahead of Danny’s,”
“What are you blind?” replied Alvin. The fire escape didn’t move. “Danny’s orange is far
ahead of Jake’s.”
As the squabbling began, Jake and Monty dashed up the hill. Jake grabbed the cashmere and Monty grabbed the suits from the newsstand and disappeared.
The garments would have to wait for another scheme since a replay was declined. But the curtain was not drawn on their performance. Willie announced that he had a delicious dessert for the evening.
“I imported some vanilla trade from Java. For five dollars, guaranteed to see rockets.”
Translation: “I have some lightly pigmented girls. For a five dollars tryst, you’re guaranteed to soar to the stars.”
These were just a few featured performances on our stage’s Playbill.