A Mommy Blog About Raising Men, Not Boys.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Penny Candy and Dirty Old Men

When I was growing up there was a gas station less than a block from my grandma's house called Smitty's. Their gas pumps had long since stopped working, one was sideways on its concrete island. The canopy was still in place, for a while, until a tornado blew it away one spring. The bays were closed up and full of varied junk. The best part about Smitty's was - they had penny candy.

They had real penny candy, pieces of candy that cost one cent. Various kinds of candy, candy that was not meant to be sold individually. They also had ice cream bars for twenty five cents. It was exactly the sort place a budget conscious elementary school kid would value.

It was also crowded. The shelves were full of cans of oil (so long ago oil did in fact come in cans), and other auto related items, some of which appeared not to have moved in my life time. Behind the counter sat Smitty, and beside the counter sat varied old men in rocking chairs or on stools. Jay and Silent Bob perhaps, if they were ancient, grizzled and grease stained.

Another important fact about Smitty's, in fact THE most important fact, was that it was forbidden. VERBOTEN. We were NONE of us allowed to go there. It stood at the halfway point between the elementary school and my destination. Hundreds of children walked right past it daily, none daring to go in with the crossing guard so close and attentive. Why was it forbidden?

Dirty old men.

That was the answer that we were always given. "It's full of Dirty Old Men. You aren't to ever go there."

But during the 70s when children were sent outside and expected to stay outside and candy cost a penny, the idea of dirty old men wasn't fearsome at all. Why did WE care if they were grease stained? Our small neighborhood cabal of children worked it all out. Our mothers thought these men would hug us and get our clothes dirty, so we decided to go in small groups and NEVER let them hug us. Problem solved.

Getting TO Smitty's was the logistical problem. It was nearly in SIGHT of my grandmother's house. We couldn't just walk down the street no way, we'd be caught. What we had to do was run a gauntlet of backyards, all the way across and then back toward the school and them come toward Smitty's from the opposite direction. There was a small chance of being spotted even then, as there was a small window of street crossing where we could be seen from the front porches. However the lure of penny candy and twenty five cent ice cream is strong, and we vowed to run and they'd never see us.

To be fair, and possibly clear the reputation of the proprietor and customers of Smitty's they were never anything but nice to us. They never tried to hug us or do any untoward thing. We'd come in, stay clustered together, pick out our scraps of candy or maybe do a big splurge and get ice cream. Then we had to get it back to a safe place to eat it. The only truly safe place was Sheryl's house because both of her parents worked, so we would run the gauntlet in reverse (really fast if we had ice cream) and rush into her family room to consume our hoard of sweets while listening to some Barry Manilow Live.

You might think that living in a Mayberry Like Utopia we didn't really have anything to worry about in terms of perverts and child molesters. Maybe our parents were so wrong when they gave us that unheeded warning. Except that no, they weren't wrong to worry even in the 70s. A man pulled into a driveway in front of us once, and called us over to ask directions. He wasn't wearing pants - and was jerking off. We didn't know what he was doing, we were 7. We just knew he was naked and he wasn't supposed to be. Another time walking home from school, that short half block to my grandmas, a man followed us and opened the door of his car, calling us to come get inside. Child abduction, child molestation, flashing, these things were a thing - even in the 70s.

Because my grandpa had been the mayor I spent days/weeks after both incidents being followed at a distance when I went to and from school by a black and white police car. I'd given statements, I'd described the men. I never saw them again.

As a testament to childhood immortality and stupidity, those events never scared us off from going to Smitty's. There are times now that I wonder if those men saw us there, or if the men at Smitty's were unfairly maligned. Even in the 70s we should've had a better idea what the dangers really were.

To borrow a phrase from my favorite show, the night may be dark and full of terrors but the day has is own kind, we just didn't know it then.