As Mary got ready for work, I immediately dressed in a clean plaid short sleeve shirt, long pants, and my little white socks with my Ked sneakers.
I combed my Beatle haircut that Johnny the Barber had just cut and waited in the car.
Never ever, keep Mary waiting. Igniting her short fuse would only lead to yelling, a slap in the face or threats to just “leave me alone forever.”
Driving to work with Mary was the same every time. She had a 1954 green and white Chevrolet Bel Air, four doors. As she sat there driving and smoking her Pall Mall cigarette, her black plastic pocketbook and her newly starched and ironed red and white polka dot apron sat in a place of its own on the front seat beside me in between the two of us.
I sat silently in the front, with my legs dangling off the seat. I wasn’t more than 10 years old and I barely could see out the big passenger window.
I loved riding in the car. It got me out of the house, away from my brother and his friends. I was happy to be spending the day downtown. I was lonely, sure. But there was also a strange freedom that accompanied this. I was completely on my own. The choices of how to entertain myself were mine, with no one watching me or telling me what to do, who to talk to, and no one pushing me around.
Pulling into the parking lot on the side of the glass plate windows of the White Tower, she would immediately spew out an order to me of, “make sure you’re back here by the time I finish work at 7 and don’t make me wait. If you want lunch, get the money from Big Frank. He’s at the parking lot until 10.” With that exit line, no goodbye, no hug, no kiss, no anything, she was out the door and into her “White Tower Mode,” the happy mode, the pleasant mode, the dutiful working mother mode.
As usual I was off on my own again looking for something to do to pass the time. Wandering down College Street I would pass the familiar people and places of my childhood. The Stage Door Bar and Grille wasn’t open yet, and besides, it was no fun during the day. Not many customers packed the bar until at least 5 or so. The Roger Sherman Movie Theatre and the College Movie Theatre wouldn’t be open until 2 so that was out until later.
Turning the corner onto Chapel Street right on the Corner sat the Owl Tobacco Shop with it’s assortment of fresh imported cigars, cigarettes, and fresh pipe tobacco that was mixed by hand. My mother and step father’s habit of chain smoking even while we were eating, always made me cringe as I walked by even though the shop was clean and the guys who ran it were nice.
Further down on Chapel Street on the corner of Chapel and High Street stood the Waldorf Cafeteria. It boasted of 24 hour cafeteria style dining, but the shabby interiors showing through the dirty street windows where some of the downtown New Haven street people sleeping inside, smoking, or just finding a place to stay, made people think twice about going in. I would walk by and wave to the customers I knew.
Next to the Waldorf sat my two favorite 2 stores in New Haven, The Pen Shop and the St. Thomas Moore Gift Shop.
The Pen Shop was a small well lit store front with all the latest pens and mechanical pencils in the window. Not only did they sell pens. They actually fixed them. This was no Bic pen store. This was the best of the best. Schaeffer fountain pens, Esterbrook fountain pens, Parker Pens, Waterman Pens. Ken could fix anything from a broken nib to a clasp to the refill barrel itself. He was a magician.
Walking in the front door of the Pen Shop a bell would chime and I would be immediately greeted by Ken the Pen Man. Ken would have made a great father. He was handsome, tall, always wore a white shirt and tie and smoked a pipe. After Ken appeared, Dorothy his wife would come out from the back.
“Hi Sweetie Pie” Dorothy would say. How I loved those words, probably more than I loved the pens. Ken and Dorothy always bought coffee to go from the White Tower.
They were the perfect couple. She was tall with dark brown hair, always wore a shirt waist dress and was pretty. More than that, she liked me.
Ken would grab a stool from the back and place in right in front of the 2 large display cases. He would then turn and say, “Well, madam, what pen are you interested in today”? Each pen sat in its own little box nestled among a pillow. Some pens were even initialed in gold. I would pick out a pen from the vast array in the display case and Ken would gently remove the case, lift out the pen from its elastic clip and hand it to me as if it were a newborn baby. I would sit there for hours trying out the different pens, with their different points writing my name over and over.
I used to wish that Ken and Dorothy were my parents. They had no children.
Too bad. They would have been great.
The store front window of the St. Thomas More Gift shop displayed the religious articles of the season. In the summer the window was dressed in celebration of the August 15th , Holy Day of Obligation, The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is when the Blessed Virgin Mary ascended bodily into Heaven after her death.
The decorations were white and gold lace covering the bottom of a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin,, like the blanket surrounding a Christmas tree. Roses were placed all around the blanket in her honor. Angels hung from the ceiling surrounding Mary accompanying her on the way to heaven.
Opening the door would make a bell on top of the door jingle, like the bells rung at the Eucharist of the Mass.
Entering the gift shop was like walking into an old quiet church. The wooden floor creaked. The smell of the votive candles burning hung the air. Soft haunting Gregorian Chant music would be coming from a scratchy record player somewhere in the back.The shelves were lined with statues, crosses, holy cards, missals and rosary beads, all within reach to touch and hold.
A huge sign hung above the religious articles that said,
ALL RELIGIOUS ARTICLES HAVE NOT YET BEEN BLESSED
UPON PURCHASE PLEASE TAKE YOUR PURCHASE TO YOUR
PARISH PRIEST SO THAT THEY MAY BE BLESSED AND THEN
USED IN THE PROPER MANNER.
Everyone knew that if you didn’t have these things blessed by your priest they just wouldn’t work the same. His blessing was mandatory.
Off to the side of one of the shelves, near the cash register was a special podium.
On this podium sat the blessed of blessed articles, St. Ann’s Oil.
This tiny bottle of oil sat next to a drawing and a statue of St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Legend had it that if you had any ailment and you rubbed this liquid on it, you would immediately be healed. Testimonies on pieces of paper sat next to the drawing of St. Anne. Testimonies that verified how people had their eyesight restored when applying the oil on their eyelids, while others reported healing of paralysis when rubbing the oil on the affected limbs and people with severe arthritis reported pain subsiding when the oil was applied.
It was a tiny 2 or 3 ounce bottle that contained a thick yellow liquid. It was a magic liquid. I was familiar with it because this same bottle sat on my mother’s bureau next to her bobby pin box. I’m not sure how my mother came to own it, but it was a "hands off policy” at home. No touching the oil. Interesting. There were so many ailments in my family, but not of the physical kind. I even wondered as a kid if maybe, just maybe if I applied this oil to my head, would I be smarter? Or my face, prettier?
I’ll never know.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have swallowed the whole bottle.
Might have saved on some therapy bills.