It wasn’t all be-bop night, rock ‘n’ roll sock hop, midnight drifter, midnight sifter, low-rider, hard-boiled corner boy 1950s life in old down and out working class dregs North Adamsville. Not at all. But a lot of it was, a lot that bespoke of the early phases of American deindustrialization, although we would not have called that then, if we had been aware of it even, with the demise of the local mainstay ship building and its associated industries, great world war warship shipbuilding and then later gigantic oil tankers that sail the known oceans, that came in low riding, like some easy rider, and left sailing on top of the world, and then, then nothing, maybe a sailboat, or a row boat for all I know, I just don’t know more, or why consult The Wall Street Journal, okay because I got corner boy remembrances on my mind not some damn coupon clipping.
All I know, or at least all that I know from what I heard my father, and other fathers say, was that that industry was the life’s blood of getting ahead, ahead in the 1950s life in that beat down, beat up, beat thirteen ways to Sunday town (yah, I know it is only six but it sure did seem like thirteen on some hard father unemployed days). And so low-rider, hard-boiled corner boy, the easy life of pinball wizardry, dime store lurid magazines, slow-drinking Cokes (or Pepsis, but make mine local Robb’s Root Beer), draped around heavy mascara-eyed, sweater form-filled girls, cashmere the sweater material all sweet innocent curves-enhancing, and the occasional armed robbery to break up the day, and bring in some much needed dough held a higher place that it might have, and almost certainly would in some new town West.
But what was a guy to do if to get out of the house, get away from Ma’s nagging (and it was almost always Ma, every Ma house in those days), siblings heckling, and just breathe in some fresh air, some fresh be-bop rock corner boy air, if at all possible.
See, this is way before mall rat-dom came into fashion since the nearest mall was way too far away to drag yourself to, and it also meant traveling through other corner boy, other maybe not friendly corner boy lands. So if you didn’t want to tie yourself down to some heavy felony on some soft misty, foggy better, night by hanging around tough corner boy, Red Hickey-ruled Harry’s Variety, or your tastes did not run to trying to cadge some pinball games from those same toughs, or you were too young, too innocent, too poor, too car-less or too ragamuffiny (I’ll put in the sicfor you) for those form-filled, Capri-panted girls with their haunting black mascara eyes then you had to hang somewhere else, and Doc’s, yah, Doc’s Drugstore was where you hung out in the more innocent section of that be-bop 1950s night.
Wait a minute I just realized that I had better explain, and do it fast before you get the wrong idea, that I am not talking about some CVS, Rite-Aid, or Osco chain-linked, no soliciting, no trespassing, no loitering, police take notice, run in and run out with your fistful of drugs, legal drugs, places. Or run in for some notions or sundries, whatever they are. No way, no way in hell would you want to hang out where old-timers like your mothers and fathers and grandparents went to help them get well.
No this was Doc’s, Doc-owned (yah, Doc, Doc Adams, I think, or I think somebody told me once that he was part of some branch of that Adams crowd, the presidential Adams crowd that used to be big wheels in the town, and the country, America too I think ), Doc-operated, and Doc-ruled. And Doc let, unless it got too crazy, kids, ordinary kids, not hard-boiled white tee-shirted corner boys but plaid-shirted, chino pant-wearing (no I am not going to go on and on about the cuffs, no cuffs controversy, okay, so keep reading), maybe loafers (no, inserted pennies, please, and no, no, no, Thom McAn’s), a windbreaker against some ocean-blown windy night on such nights, put their mark on the side walls, the side brick walls of his establishment. And let the denizens of the Doc night (not too late night either) put as well every self-respecting corner boy, tee-shirted or plaid, make his mark by standing, one loafer-shod foot on the ground, and the other knee-bent against the brick wall holding Doc’s place together. True-corner boydom. Classic pose, classic memory pose.
And see, Doc, kindly, maybe slightly mad Doc, and now that I think about it slightly girl-crazy himself maybe, let girls, girls even hang against the wall. Old Harry’s Variety Red Hickey would have shot one of his girls in the foot if they ever tried that stunt. Girls were to be draped, preferably draped around Red not around Harry’s wall, brick or not. Now, after what I just described you know that you’re into a new age night because no way Harry, and definitely not Red (real name Daniel, but don’t ever call him that though, not if you want to finish your sweet short life in one piece) Hickey, king hell king of the low-rider night that I told you about before, just a couple minutes ago, would let some blond, real or imagined, Capri-panted, cashmere swearing wearing (tight, very tight cashmere sweater-wearing, if you didn’t know), boffed, bimbo (ouch, but that is what we called them, so be it) stand around his corner even. Dames (better, right) were for hot-rod Chevy, hard-driving, low-riding sitting on the seat next to, and other stuff. But plaid-shirted guys (loafer-shod) liked, do you hear me Red and Harry, liked having girls hanging with them to while away the be-bop hard night corner boy lands.
Before you even ask, Doc’s had not pinball machine and no pinball wizards (as far as I remember, although a couple of guys and a girl were crackerjack bowlers). But see, Doc’s had the things that mattered, mattered for plaid-shirted guys with a little dough (their allowances, no snickering please for any hard-boiled readers, or poor ones) in their pockets, and lust, chaste lust maybe, in their hearts. Doc’s had a soda fountain, one, and, two, a juke box. Where the heck do you think we heard a zillion times all those songs from back then that I keep telling you about? Come on now, smarten up.
And, of course if you have corner boys, even nice corner boys, you have to have a king hell king corner boy. Red, Red Hickey understood that instinctively, and acted on it, whip chain in hand. Other boys in other corners acted on it in that same spirit, although not that crudely. And corner boy king, Doc’s Drugstore corner boy king, Brian Pennington, plaid-shirted king of the soft-core corner boy night acted on that same Red premise. How Brian (“Bri” to most of us) came to be king corner boy is a good story, a good story about how a nowhere guy (my characterization nowhere guy) used a little influence to get ahead in this wicked old world. Red did it by knocking heads around and was the last man standing, accepting his “crown” from his defeated cronies. Brian took a very different route.
Now I don’t know every detail of his conquest because I only touched the edges of his realm, and of his crowd, as I was moving out of the neighborhood thralldom on to other things, Frankie, Francis Xavier Riley, scribe things. Apparently Doc had a granddaughter, a nice but just then wild granddaughter whom Doc was very fond of as grandfathers will be. And of course he was concerned about the wildness, especially as she was coming of age, and nothing but catnip (and bait) for Red and his corner boys if Doc didn’t step in and bring Brian into the mix. Now, no question, Brian was a sharp dresser of the faux-collegiate type that was just starting to come into its own in that 1960s first minute. This time of the plaid shirts was a wave that spread, and spread quickly, among those kids from working class families that were still pushing forward on the American dream, and maybe encouraging their kids to take college courses at North Adamsville High, and maybe wind up in that burgeoning college scene that everybody kept talking about as the way out of dead ass working class existence.
Brian was no scholar, christ he was no scholar, although he wasn’t a dunce either. At least he had enough sense to see which way things were going, for public consumption anyway and put on this serious schoolboy look. That sold Doc, who had been having conversations with Brian when he came into the drugstore with books in one arm, and a girl on the other. I’ll give you the real low-down sometime about how book-worthy, book-worshipping Brian really was. Let me just relate to you this tidbit for now. One day, one school vacation day, Brian purposefully knocked the books out of my hands that I had borrowed when I was coming out of the Thomas Crane Public Library branch over on Atlantic Avenue (before it moved to Norfolk Downs) and yelled at me, “bookworm.” Like I didn’t know that already. But enough about that because this is about Brian's rise, not mine. Somehow Brian and Lucy, Doc’s granddaughter came together, and without going into all the details that like I said I don’t really know anyway, they hit it off. And see, this is where Brian’s luck really held out, from that point on not only did Brian get to hang his loafer-ed shoe on Doc’s brick wall but he was officially, no questions asked, the king of that corner boy night. That’s how I heard the story and that seems about right because nobody ever challenged him on it, not that I heard.
Now like I mentioned before, Doc’s was a magnet for his juke box-filled soda fountain and that drew a big crowd at times, especially after school when any red-blooded kid, boy or girl, needed to unwind from the pressure-cooker of high school, especially we freshmen who not only had to put up with the carping teachers, but any upper classman who decided, he or she, to prank a frosh. That’s my big connection with Doc’s, that after school minute freshman year, but, and here I am getting my recollections second-hand, Doc’s was also a coming-of-age place for more than music, soft ice cream, and milk shakes. This is also the place where a whole generation of neighborhood boys, and through them, the girls as well had their first taste of alcohol.
How you say? Well, Brian, remember Brian, now no longer with Lucy (she went off to a private finishing school and drifted from the scene) but was still Doc’s boy, Doc’s savior boy, and somehow conned old Doc into giving him his first bottle of booze. Not straight up, after all Brian was underage but Bri said it was, wink, wink, for his grandmother. Now let me explain, in those days in the old neighborhood, and maybe all over, a druggist could, as medicine, sell small bottles of hard liquor out of his shop legally. The standard for getting the prescription wasn’t too high apparently, and it was a neighborhood drugstore and so you could (and this I know from personal experience) tell Doc it was for dear old grandma, and there you have it. Known grandma tee-totalers and their grandkids would be out of the loop on this one but every self-respecting grandma had a “script” with Doc. Now Doc knew, had to know, about this con, no question, because he always had a chuckle on him when this came up. And he had his own Doc standards- no one under sixteen (and he was sharp on that) and no girls. So many a night the corner boys around Doc’s were probably more liquored up that Red and his boys ever were. Nice, right?