Looking back now, it probably only took about 20 minutes round trip from our apartment building to Pops general store but when you are a kid it seemed like an odorous, hour long journey. That was part of the adventure. Our apartment building was massive. It was low income housing but at that time we were all too young and naïve to realize we were poor. The building resembled a stone castle and living in such a place seemed like a grand adventure. There wasn’t much of a backyard to play in, just a large square of dirt with lots of litter strewn about. The front steps led directly out to a busy roadway with constant traffic driving by. As a child, your options as to where to go when you were headed out to play were pretty limited. Pops was by far the most exciting.
We would often go to the store in pairs or as a group, a ragtag group of union street misfits. Most of our parents were single and many of them worked odd hours so the children in the neighborhood looked out for one another and did a lot of things together. One of the most infamous was the daily trip to Pops. You knew you only had to scrounge up less than a quarter to score yourself a lollipop or a Popsicle. Sometimes you might get lucky and a neighbor would give you a $5 food stamp bill and ask you to pick something out for yourself and bring them back the change. Then you knew you could go all out and buy yourself one of those awesome ice cream sandwiches with the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry smooshed between two delicious wafers and still bring back 4 bucks for the adult in question.
I still vividly remember running past the rusted fence that gated off the flood chute leading to local waterways. There were rumors that a crazy homeless, guy lived down there and that if you tried to get past the gate he would kidnap you and drag you down to the river. It was common knowledge that all of the children we never saw again after they left the neighborhood ended up there. We used to dare on another to squeeze beneath the gate and to my knowledge my little brother still holds the record of being the only one of us to almost reach the level where the water met the concrete. I remember my feelings being at odds with themselves as I was both terrified I would never see him again and incredibly jealous that I wasn’t brave enough to make it as far as he did. These early childhood rivalries led to a future of back and forth friendly and intense sibling battles that I treasure more than almost anything in my life.
Pops was a tiny place. The floorboards were uneven and created an orchestra of pops and squeaks as you walked in. It was perpetually dark, the majority of light filtering in through dirty windows and any sunlight that happened to find its way in when the door was pushed open. There were probably only 5 shelves in the entire store. One shelf had a variety of canned and dried goods with a thick layer of dust on them probably long past their expiration date. Another held an odd assortment of every day possible necessities. Matches, fishing tackle, batteries, toilet paper. The rest of the building was crammed full of coolers filled with a variety of beer and the long counter on which the cash register sat. The same man was always manning the register and I’m pretty sure his name wasn’t pop. He didn’t seem to care much for children and wasn’t much of a talker. He had a perfectly round scar on his throat and the rumor was that he was shot in a fight and spent time in prison. We made that rumor up ourselves of course. He probably overheard us telling stories about him, hence his disdain for local misfits scrounging up change for candy. Some of us theorized that he was actually the crazy man that lived in the flood chutes which of course always led to heated debates. Why wouldn’t he just sleep behind the counter in the store? Who would give him a job? Did he own the store and if so he obviously wasn’t homeless. Maybe he was just friends with the homeless guy or perhaps he was his partner in crime, equally zealous to kidnapping and torturing children? Theories and logistical probabilities were thrown about as we ripped into our lollipops, hoping to find a picture of an Indian shooting a star so we could save it and someday get a free lollipop. I’m not sure if any of us actually turned the collection of wrappers in or even if you actually received a free lollipop for doing so but I absolutely remember the excitement I felt if I happened to unwrap the pop with the coveted picture.
Pops was a liquor store more than a general store but of course none of us knew any different. The fact that you had to actually walk past three bars just to get there never seemed like a big deal. Local drunkards would wave or scowl as we scurried past, depending on their current state of inebriation. Some of them knew us from the neighborhood or knew our parents and would give us money to grab them a pack of cigarettes. Perfectly acceptable to do back then. It was especially helpful when the grown up in question would give you the change from the smokes as a reward, further enabling the overall mission of collecting cash for candy. I can recall buying candy cigarettes with the change left over from the actual ones, thinking it was cool to pretend to smoke after buying the real thing. This may or may not have led to a future pack a day habit of smoking Kools as a teenager.
The days I remember most clearly about our venture to Pops involve competition in some way, usually involving my siblings. We used to race there and back, seeing who could run the fastest. There was the time we rode our bikes and I cried because my bike had a flat tire. My sister offered to ride me on her handlebars which ultimately resulted in more tears and a little blood mixed in for good measure when she swerved suddenly and I toppled to the ground. To this day I swear she actually ran me over after I fell off the handlebars. Even worse? I was so hurt we didn’t get the chance to eat our popsicles. They melted as my wounds were tended to. My brother was very vocal about this being inconvenient for him and insisted I was fine. I probably was. Pride takes longer to heal than flesh.
Pops is no longer standing unfortunately. It always gave the appearance that it was somehow sinking into the river, perched precariously on a corner lot of asphalt near a flood chute. As it turns out, it actually was slowly falling apart, the general direction being towards the river. The building was eventually razed to the ground, creating additional parking for the neighboring bar. I remember feeling a pang of loss when I read about it in the newspaper. I still live in the area and drive by where Pops used to stand, usually several times a day. About 5 years after it had been torn down I stopped at a local tag sale up the road from my house. Imagine my surprise when I discovered numerous Pops variety store t-shirts for sale at bargain price of $10 per shirt. I picked one up and held it in my hands, staring at the Pops logo in awe. Feeling like I had struck gold with finding this unbelievable relic from my past. Imagine my greater surprise when I handed my money to none other than the infamous, glowering, bullet hole ridden man of my childhood memories. Seeing a myth from your childhood out of context is slightly disconcerting, no matter how old you are. I wanted to ask him if he remembered the kids that used to come in to the store all the time so long ago. If he hated us as much as we always imagined he did. If the memory of Pops caused him to experience an aching sadness like it so often caused me when I remembered it. I looked excitedly at all of the other items scattered on blankets across the lawn, trying to obtain clues about the real life of the man from our childhood. I called my brother immediately. Not only to let him know who I just saw at a tag sale, but to ask him if he wanted me to pick him up a t-shirt.
I miss that store, if you can miss such a thing. More than that I miss those times. When hanging out with your siblings and friends was the best part of the day and looking for money to enjoy treats from the local variety store was the biggest problem any of us had.