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SODA JERK

I could feel the man on the back of my neck before he spoke. It was Al Shaw, the senior partner in the drug store where I was standing at the comic book rack thumbing through an issue of Superman. Al was a tall gray-haired man, with the biggest nose I had ever seen on anyone, and right now he was looking down it at me.

”We can’t sell those comic books if they're damaged, and this isn’t the local library”, Al scolded me in a loud voice everyone could hear.

I put the comic book back and stomped across the street to Jones Drug, muttering about the grouchy old bastard at the Rexall drugstore.

Our paths crossed a few years later when I was a freshman in high school. My mother told me she'd heard the young man who worked at Rexall was going to join the Army and the job was open, and Al Shaw’s partner, Dick Ellis, wanted to talk to me. My mind raced back to the comic book incident, and I pleaded with my mother to no avail. I said, “I don’t think I could work for Al because he treats kids like they’re dirt.” My mom countered with, “I worked for Al Shaw when I was a young girl, and he’s one of the nicest men I’ve ever known." The discussion was over, and the following day I went to talk to Dick Ellis.

Dick was the cleanest man I ever knew, and the local gossip among the young boys was that he was “queer”. I could only imagine what that meant. I also heard he was jilted by some girl when he was in the Navy and never got over it. I knew queers didn’t like girls so I didn’t believe the gossip and let it go at that. I walked in and Dick told me if I wanted the job it was mine and Al smiled and shook his head yes. I had a feeling my mother had influenced the job interview because I had the job when I walked in the door.

The job involved after school duties, Saturdays and every third Sunday. I came in after school and swept and swabbed the floor. I picked up the mail and put it on Al’s desk and then checked the shelves to see if they needed restocking. On Saturdays we got new stock, and I checked that in, priced and stored it in the basement.

After I began working in the drugstore, my friends started dropping by. Although I think they liked me, the store also had the best soda fountain in the area, and Dick Ellis had taught me every thing I needed to know to spoil any kid's supper and keep the older folks happy too.

I had been working for about a year when one Sunday one of my classmates dropped by the store. After she had milled around for a while and realized that the druggist and I were the only ones working, she called me to the side and whispered, “Morrie, I need a box of Kotex.” This was in the days when Kotex came wrapped in plain brown paper, so I quickly grabbed a package off the shelf, rang the sale, and sent her on her way. The following day in school she approached me and said,” Morrie!  You dumb shit! You sold me Extra Large! I felt like I was riding a pony all day.” My face turned two shades of red. I didn’t know they came sized!

The Rexall Drugstore was located next door to Reck’s Furniture Store & Funeral Home, and we had adjoining basement storage areas. I thought they stored furniture on their side of the building. The drugstore side of the basement was stocked with everything we needed upstairs, and I knew it like the back of my hand. Dick Ellis told my mother I was the best stock boy he ever had, and I took pride in doing the job right. One evening as I was gathering stock we needed upstairs, I noticed light coming under the door from Reck’s side of the basement. My youthful curiosity got the best of me, and I opened the door. Before me was a inclined marble slab, and there was a corpse on the slab with tubes running in and out of it. Five gallon bottles of embalming fluid were here and there. I stood motionless for a minute before I could get my wits about me. When I could finally move, I got the door closed and leaped back to the drugstore side of the basement. I was sweating and shaking and knew I had to compose myself before I went back upstairs. My friend's  grandfather had died the day before, and I had discovered where they prepared the body for viewing and burial. I didn’t sleep worth a damn for a week.

One afternoon I had just finished sweeping when I noticed a young fellow standing at the magazine rack. He was thumbing through a comic book, and I said to him, "You know we can’t sell those if they're damaged, and this isn’t the local library". I turned, and there stood Al Shaw grinning from ear to ear.

After I'd worked two years at the drug store, the young man who had joined the Army came back. He demanded and got his job back. Al and Dick said they were sorry but it was the law. My dad and uncle discussed my employment situation, and my uncle said, "Send him over to me at the blacksmith shop and I’ll either make a man out of him or a mighty sick boy." I felt a little ill the first six months, but I survived and went from Soda Jerk to Blacksmith.