Monday, September 20, 2010

Wish I Were There

When I look at the picture I begin to wonder. What would that life have been like? Who would I be and what would I care about had I been around then?
When people ask me about my parents, some are still surprised to learn that they've been gone for 30 years. I always tell them that they were married for almost 15 years before they had children; 13 to be exact. What I seldom say, unless they ask, is that my folks lived in a couple of smaller towns back east. In Port Jervis, NY, near the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania border, they owned and operated a small combination grocery store soda fountain. The Deer Park Store was their life. They lived and worked there in the 1930s and early 40s. Right in the big middle of the Great Depression.
They had stories. Many stories. I suppose I'm the keeper of them now. This little mom and pop (literally, huh?) operation was in a town that had lots of road traffic. Pre interstate, the main highway, in those days went right through Port Jervis and all who traveled that ribbon were potential customers.
I'd have helped with the penny candy or arranged the comic books and magazines. Maybe learned to butcher meat or break down cardboard boxes. My sister would have helped my mom at the soda fountain. Make sandwiches, milk shakes, ice cream sodas for her friends.
Sometimes I wonder if my affinity for pop culture items like the images on candy wrappers or tins comes from my roots. Would I have collected a few wrappers and items as keepsakes? There are only a few traces of the Deer Park store left. The photo seen here and a Coca Cola tray, ice pick, and bottle opener. They are all antiques now. I have two other items as well. One is a display card in nearly mint condition for NAVY razor blades. All still cellophane wrapped, they make a nice navy blue impression and look as attractive as they did 60 years ago. I also have the stories.
My dad liked to tell the one where the Boston Celtics professional basketball team travelled through Port Jervis. Actually it was a New York Celtic team because the Boston professional team did not originate until 1946. During a fuel stop for their bus, the NY Celtic team made their way to the Deer Park store where my mom made chocolate malts for them all. My dad said it was something to see these big guys sitting at the counter all in a row.
Another celebrity he recalled coming through was Father Devine. This colorful civil rights activist was part spiritual leader, part social justice crusader and part questionable opportunist. Some saw him as an incarnation of God, while others felt he was more an incarnation of a demigod. Like many Depression era reformers, the truth lies somewhere in between.
When I look at this picture of my parents store I try to imagine what the inside looked like. I picture my parents, in their 30s, working hard, talking to friends, neighbors and customers, wondering about the uncertainties of the future. WWII was a few years away. People were digging in, helping one another, thinking about a better future. Wish I were there.

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