The Neighborhood Corner Store

Recently, I took a trip down Memory Lane, strolled through the old neighborhood to see what’s changed since the lazy days of my capricious youth. Street names almost as familiar as my own; tree-lined avenues dotted with elaborate stone houses built in the nineteenth century; a willow weeping at the edge of a hushed inlet. I must admit, the local high school looked so much less daunting from this new perspective, meandering down the street with four small children in tow, finally grown up and comfortable in my own skin. Well, mostly.

In contrast, the sports stadium, with its high-gloss makeover, made me feel like Alice in some kind of freaky modern Wonderland. Everywhere I turned, it seemed, another landmark small business had fallen prey to some faceless international franchise. It felt like a whole new world, one that didn’t belong to me anymore, and although it makes perfect sense for things to have changed, it seemed strange to realize suddenly that a place can still feel so much like home, and yet paradoxically, so unfamiliar. I pointed out my old bedroom window to the kids as we passed, but when I noticed a short, blonde girl scurry around the corner ahead of us, my mind drifted to another girl, another place in time…

“I think I’m melting,” Cress groaned.

“Me, too,” I whined. “I’m about to spontaneously combust!”

Summer vacation, 1989. In the park across the street, Cress and I had been sitting for hours, cross-legged and barefoot on a patch of grass, arguing over who was more likely to marry Joe McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. Heat rose from the concrete in lazy waves. Green leaves wilted on drooping trees. Even the younger kids, usually robust and energetic, dragged their feet in the sand beneath the swings, or sat in small clumps inside the playhouses around the climbing structure, hiding from the sun’s angry glare.

“I’ve got about ten bucks leftover from babysitting Donny Goldstein on Friday night. Wanna get a Chipwich or something?” I asked.

“Sure,” Cress agreed. “You don’t have to ask me twice!”

On the way, we resumed our conversation. “So, anyways,” I inquired. “Say I do marry Joe… who’s your second choice?”

“What makes you think I need a second choice?” Cress joked. “You first.”

“Um,” I hesitated for a moment, “River Phoenix. You?”

“Slash,” she replied, matter-of-factly.

Laughing, we entered the air-conditioned store at the corner. The cold floor was a balm to our burning bare feet. At the chest freezer, just to the right of the ancient cash register, we pressed our sweaty palms to the glass and allowed the coolness to seep into our bones for a moment before retrieving our treats: a Chipwich for me and a red Jumbo Mr. Freeze for Cress.

“Hello,” the store owner, Mr. Patel, greeted cheerfully. “Back so soon?”

Before we could answer, Mrs. Patel, her pretty face framed in the small pass-through behind the cash that led to their adjoining apartment, chirped, “Hi, girls! Staying cool today?”

Cress chuckled, “Barely.”

“Trying to,” I said.

Mr. Patel handed back my change. I counted the coins and nudged my friend, “Hey, want a few Swedish Berries and Sour Keys?”

“Who says no to penny candy?” Cress asked, smirking.

“No one that I’ve ever seen,” Mr. Patel replied, handing over two tiny paper bags.

As he wandered to the back of the store, armed with a clipboard, we counted our sweets.

“There’s 50 cents on the counter, Mr. Patel,” I called out. “We took 30 Swedish Berries and 4 Sour Keys.”

“No problem,” he mumbled, back turned.

After dinner, Cress and I reconvened at the park. A group of familiar boys tossed a worn football in the fading light. As dusk descended, we watched Stan and Jack argue over a play, a pulsating cloud of hungry mosquitos above their heads.

“Wanna rent a movie?” Cress asked. “I saw Clue at the store earlier.”

“Did you?” I slapped my leg and blood smeared across my calf. “Yeah, okay. Let’s go.”

Mrs. Patel sat on a burgundy cushioned stool watching a small TV mounted on a shelf above the cash register. Smiling warmly, she waved us to the VHS movie section, and returned to her program. After we’d chosen a film and collected our junk food (two freezies, two bags of chips, a banana Popsicle, an orange Mr. Freeze, and another Chipwich), Mrs. Patel rang us up. “That’ll be $14.73, please. Nice to see it has cooled down some, eh?”

Nodding, I scratched my leg, a bump already beginning to form where I’d been bitten. Cress pulled out a ten dollar bill and three quarters.

“Oh, dang. Got any change, Arwen?”

“Sorry,” I shrugged. “Didn’t think to bring it.”

“How much are you short, honey?” Mrs. Patel inquired.

“About three bucks.”

“No problem,” she offered pleasantly. “You can pay next time.”

“Are you sure?” Cress looked uncertain.

“Of course. Life is short. Enjoy your evening, girls!”

“Thanks, you, too,” we answered in unison.

Strolling through the vacant park one last time, arms linked, we sang at the top of our lungs in that unabashed way only pre-teen girls can muster, then headed over to Cress’ garage to get high on sugar, while watching Clue: The Movie, followed by countless reruns of old SNL. Just another endless summer night.

You can’t buy a Chipwich around here anymore. I discovered this sad fact in 2006 when I was pregnant and craving a sweet connection to my childhood. I suspect it has something to do with Nestle’s bottom line, I don’t really know, but I do know that you also can’t buy a Swedish Berry for a penny these days, and even if you could, pennies have gone out of circulation. The corner stores we frequented as kids—no shirts, no shoes, no problem—run by families who knew our names, had children our own ages, and permitted a tab, are vanishing. All we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, as the places of our youth disappear, and brand-spanking-new condominiums or franchises rise up from the ground like alien lifeforms to take their place.

As the sun slowly began to set, dripping golden honey rays, I suggested we stop at the old park. All four kids bounced and shrieked for joy. As we approached, I couldn’t help but notice everything looked pretty much the same, but the trees were taller, and some of the tired moms looked a lot like girls I used to know. After an hour and just-one-more swing, we decided to stop at the corner store. At Patel’s, we found a “For Sale” sign on the right, the front doors completely bricked over. Chest constricted, tears burning the back of my throat, I pulled out my cellphone to quickly snap a photo, and quickly posted it on Facebook, as one does now, for nostalgia’s sake. Then we headed back across town to the place we call Home.

*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*


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