The Sweet Shop
Memories of candy and childhood
Not every day was sunny and bright, even in Rockaway, by the sea. Grey clouds could rain steamy tears, rolling in like ocean waves in the sky, descending on my vacation.
On days like that, to distract myself, I’d accompany my mother to the center of town on her weekly shopping excursions. It wasn’t really much of a town, even at its center. A Rexall Drug Store was flanked by a bank, an A&P, and a theater whose art deco front had seen better days. A combination beauty salon/barber shop rounded out the cluster of stores.
None of these stores were anything special. The only one that captivated me and every other kid in the neighborhood stood halfway between the beach and town, perched majestically in the center of its own little tree-lined slice of paradise. Part candy store, part ice cream parlor, this relic of a bygone era was my reward for helping my mom carry grocery bags to our shopping cart and not fussing as she ruminated among the fruits and vegetables.
And what a reward it was! What wonders greeted my hungry eyes, in colored array before me. There were big glass jars with little metal shovels, lined up like soldiers on the marble-topped counter just out of my reach. Each jar filled to the brim with its own special treat to tantalize and seduce me: red licorice laces and black licorice pipes, assorted saltwater toffees, multicolored peppermint sticks, foil-wrapped chocolate kisses, strawberry rolls, and spearmint leaves, and so many different kinds of nuts, some topped with chocolate and caramel – each treat more tempting than the one before, all beckoning me from their perches.
What an excruciating, delicious dilemma for an 8-year-old with a sweet tooth!
As if that wasn’t painful enough, there was the ice cream display. How many flavors and colors there were, a virtual rainbow before me. But this time I only zoomed in on one.
Remembering how delicious those green nuts in the bright red shells tasted when my dad brought them home in a white paper bag, I could hardly contain my excitement. “Mom! They’ve got ice cream made with pistachio nuts – and the nuts are still inside!”
My mother looked up from her shopping list. “I thought we were sharing an ice cream soda. Isn’t chocolate your favorite flavor?”
“But Mom, we can get chocolate any time. Pistachio is special,” I said, emphasizing the word.
“All right,” she relented, staring up at the choices posted on the wall behind Mr. Cummins, the owner. “She’ll have a one-scoop pistachio ice cream cone, and I’ll have a raspberry-lime rickey.”
I was so engrossed in my sweet treat, I didn’t realize at the time that my mom had given up her ice cream soda to have the extra money it took to buy my cone. Any drink made with ice cream cost twice as much as plain seltzer water with flavoring.
As my mom sat sipping her sweet flavored drink and I munched happily on my cone beside her, a stack of gold-topped tins caught my eye, and I slid off my stool, drawn to it.
“Don’t wander too far,” my mother called as she handed Mr. Cummins some money.
Love, treats, and smiles
“I’m right over here,” I answered, entranced as I stared at the gold tins before me. Each one was wrapped up in snow-white paper with a black seal and fancy gold writing. I struggled, trying to pronounce their strange name, and Mr. Cummins heard me.
“Hopjes!” he called out with a smile, and pointed with pride to his treasure. “Genuine coffee candies,” he crowed, “imported all the way from Switzerland.”
My mom looked up from her shopping list, taking her place beside me, and said, “I don’t know. We still have a few other things to buy.”
Mr. Cummins didn’t miss a beat, and opening the tin that was on his desk, offered each of us a free sample.
“Me too?” I asked, with a rush of delight. For that magical potion served hot in a cup was strictly for grownups at my house.
“If it’s okay with your mom,” he said, and she nodded, after reading the ingredients.
Then he plopped a cube in our outstretched hands, each wrapped up in the same white paper and gold letters as the tins that stood on the counter. Unwrapping the little cubes, we soon discovered a shiny foil inner wrap as well, revealing the sweet scent of coffee.
“That’s the flavor seal,” Mr. Cummins smiled. “Those Swiss are very meticulous, and it makes their products special.”
When I popped the little brown cube in my mouth, I smiled in silent agreement. The candies were small, but the flavor was big. I savored that rich, sweet coffee taste that grownups took for granted.
“How much for a tin?” my mother asked, her pencil pointed in mid-air.
“Three dollars and fifty centers,” came Mr. Cummins’ reply, as my mother looked up, her jaw dropping.
“Three dollars and fifty centers for candy?” she asked.
“There’s 30 hand-wrapped in every tin, and imported sweets run a bit higher. My customers tell me they’re worth every penny,” he added, seeing my mom’s hesitation.
“I won’t have a fudgesicle tonight,” I offered, trying my best to appease her.
“No, you won’t,” she agreed, counting out the right change and handing it to Mr. Cummins. “I’ve spent half of our treat money for the week and it isn’t even Thursday. And you, young lady, spent all of your change, so I think we’d best be going.”
“We could always give up something else,” I offered, “like liver.”
“Very funny,” she said, steering me toward the door, as Mr. Cummins chuckled.
At the entrance stood the gumball machine, reminding me of my last penny. Down the slot I watched it drop, and out of the chute came a gumball – blue as the Rockaway sky at night, followed close at hand by a little pink ballerina. Contented, I popped the gumball into my mouth and smiled as I opened the white goody bag, assessing all of my riches: two strawberry rolls, a black licorice pipe, and three foil-covered chocolate kisses.
Then into the misty twilight we went, the sweet taste of chocolate on my breath, my tongue a ripe shade of purple. The pink ballerina, alone in my red vinyl change purse, merrily bounced up and down with each step we took.
“As a Brooklyn born baby boomer, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s (a time many considered the golden age of television, movies, and shows), I was lucky enough to have parents that cultivated in me a love of the arts,” says Michele Minott. “I had a good ear and spent many happy hours belting out popular songs using our bathroom as a soundstage. An introvert by nature, singing and writing gave me the comfort, clarity, and sense of empowerment I didn’t always find in life. I even got to have the last word!”
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