The drugstore delivery boy is a mixture of Mercury and Sherlock Holmes for a suburban town. When you go out on deliveries, you get the chance to keenly observe your fellow townspeople.
From the front stoop, you might hear a child crying from an earache in an unseen bedroom. At another home, piles of newspapers and magazines and the tinny sound of old 78 big band dance music. At another, the pink silk nightgown of the housewife who smiled at you and looked you right in the eye, leaving you unable to speak or move, and smelling, after the door had closed, the faint scent of lavender.
When you returned from your journeys you were greeted by the huge metal sign, rusting at the edges, painted orange, black, and white, that hung over the street, buzzing. Its neon tubes lit up the word Rexall to guide weary husbands. A glass display window twenty feet long lined the sidewalk. I sometimes got to help Mrs. Aulert, a sweet and perpetually cheerful lady who was the mother of my childhood friend Mike, create seasonal displays. She happily arranged elves and Santa Claus for Christmas, bunnies for Easter, and so on. The huge expanse of sidewalk was something we stock clerks had to maintain religiously lest someone slip and sue the store’s owner, Frank, for negligence. The pavement was my continual nemesis. It had to be salted and shoveled so the walkway was bare each winter day. I was required to sweep it clean of leaves in the fall, and to clear away those maple tree “helicopter” seeds, which seemed to cling tenaciously to the concrete, each spring.
Once you were done you had time to hide in the storage area and do your homework. If there was no homework, you could stand by the cash register and look out over the landscape—the auto repair shop across the street, the real estate office, the Italian beef eatery.
If this had been a small town, and if this street had been called Main Street, the Rexall would have been the place to congregate. There would have been a soda fountain and benches outside for people to loaf—a term you never hear any more because no one knows how to do it correctly. The sound of voices, and gossip, and laughter from bad jokes would have been heard outside. People would have asked, “What’s going on?” or “What’s the good word?” and stayed to smoke a cigar or chew a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint.
But Oakton Street was four lanes of fast-moving traffic. People stood on the corner of Oakton and White only to wait for the bus. When the door opened with a hiss and the exhaust belched as the big vehicle lumbered away, they were gone without a word. Women talked only to ask what cosmetics were on sale. Men might have inquired about how the Cubs were doing. But they were inevitably losing, so there was no need to ask. People always seemed to be in a hurry. They accelerated madly at the green light. It seemed they were either late or worried about being late. One young man in a Bears jacket would run in and ask the way to the expressway. He was not moving quickly enough already; he wanted to move even faster. A man in a suit might poke his head in the door–no more than his head–and begin to ask, “What time is–?” but then see the big clock on the wall behind the cash register, and say “Never mind” and disappear before I could even open my mouth.
I took notes as I stood and watched, and jotted down observations and thoughts for my columns. I noticed that shoppers seemed to want to scour the aisles for petroleum jelly or first aid cream or suntan lotion without having to ask where it was. They handed over their money with a curt “Hi.” I counted the change, then looked through the coins for any rare ones to add to my coin collection at home. Once or twice, I found an Indian head penny or a Buffalo nickel or a Mercury dime. That was the high point of the evening.
Ernie, the pharmicist, would stroll the aisles with nothing to do, a Camel with half an inch of ash dangling at the end perpetually hanging from his mouth. “Price controls,” he would say. “What is Ford thinking? Roosevelt tried that and look where it got us. Nothing but debt.” He looked at me as though he expected a response, as though I was familiar with the Roosevelt administration.
But Mrs. Aulert would say something harmless—“Oh, you wouldn’t want to go back to those days—“ and he would be appeased and shuffle back to the prescription area, stoop-shouldered and muttering, surrounding himself with the controlled substances we were not allowed to touch.
At 10 o’clock we would close up, and I would get on my bike and ride the six blocks or so through the silent streets with a chorus of crickets for company. I looked out of the corner of my eye for the gnomes. They were never visible, though the traces of their work were everywhere.