July 8, 2017
My first job was as a clerk in a corner drugstore. Most of the people with whom I worked are gone now, and the drugstore was demolished more than 35 years ago. It was locally owned and operated. It was one of a kind. Not a trace of it remains. There is no historic plaque reading: “On this corner stood the only drugstore in downtown St. Louis that was open all day, all night, every day of the year for 62 years.”
It was in some ways a relic from a time when Americans had some understanding of proportion, form, and function. It had one purpose: To offer prescription medicine and sundries. It catered to ordinary, unpretentious people, most of them working class, some of them poor, most of them middle age or older.
There was a steady stream of customers and prescriptions, but the soda fountain/lunch counter kept the store afloat. The floor was white ceramic tile. The store had glass display cases with marble foundations. Pharmacists filled prescriptions on the catwalk-balcony.
It was not a fun house. We did not sell toys, tires, or beach balls. The only sound was that of conversations at the lunch counter or sales counter and the bell on the cash registers. It was never annoying. You could hear yourself think. Try that today in the midst of the noise absurdly called “music” that large chain drugstores love to inflict on their customers. Mercifully, it was long before the cell phone was invented. We had one pay telephone for customers. On one wall were dozens of shelves and small wooden cabinet drawers. Candy, cigars, and cigarettes were always in demand. We sold Fatima cigarettes, Velvet tobacco in tins, and Bull Durham tobacco in the pouch. We had “Prince Albert in the can”, and thoughtful people would phone in to say we should let him out.
To borrow a line spoken by Margaret Sullavan to James Stewart in “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), I was an “insignificant little clerk”.
When I worked in the basement, my only companions were the mice. One day a pharmacist and I were standing down there talking. One of our mice was unaccounted for and we were concerned.
I delivered prescription medicine to elderly residents who lived in tall apartment buildings nearby. There were no locked doors in my path, I needed no push-button security code, and I never had to justify my presence. All I had to do was walk through the entry door and to the elevator. And Americans today think they are “free”. Self-deluded fools. There is no better guarantee of arrogance than ignorance of the past.
The midnight shift was quiet and uneventful. We sold and served no liquor. There were no security guards at the drugstore because none were needed. There were no spy cameras in the store and no bars on its door or windows. I never saw more than one police officer in the store, and he came in every evening to talk with the pharmacist or the cashier. Downtown St. Louis had not yet been made into a romping ground for thieves and bank robbers, as it would be in later decades and is today. It was the tail end of the years when downtown was still a center of retail and wholesale. Within two blocks’ radius from the drugstore were several hotels, railroad offices, a Western Union office, a paint store, an office supply store, a map shop, a photo studio, a liquor store, barbershops, taverns, a pool room, a watch repair shop, a pizza restaurant, and numerous typographers and print shops. A chili parlor had been there since 1905. One of the pharmacists lived at a hotel a block away.
Three blocks away was a store that sold rifles, shotguns, and new and used handguns. It had been there since 1906. It is of course long gone, because today it would be Outrageously Incorrect in a city as Liberal as St. Louis. (Which now has a woman mayor and woman police chief. Which means two things: Bigger and more costly do-gooder government, and no letup in the descent into cultural rot.) The simple truth—that the crime rate downtown was lower throughout all the years when that store was there than it became in the years when it was no longer there—is of course incomprehensible to “Liberals” and Feminists.
All of that is now long gone, both the landscape and the culture. Six entire blocks were demolished, including all those buildings and four old high-rise office buildings known as “Real Estate Row”, about which architect Robert Powers wrote: “The destruction of this streetscape is one of the greatest tragedies in St. Louis’s architectural history.” [At his website “Built St. Louis”]
In those years there were four other drugstores downtown. Today there are none. There were two department stores then. Today there are none. There were four movie theaters then. Today there are none.
One evening a man walked in to have a prescription filled. I did not recognize him on sight, but I recognized the name on the prescription form he handed me. It was a name out of my boyhood. Curt Ray was a veteran radio-TV announcer whose voice was familiar to St. Louisans throughout the 1940s-‘50s. In 1953 he was heard on a radio program broadcast from the Music Hall of a department store a block north of the drugstore. On school-days in 1958-’59, I watched him and his wife on their early morning TV program before I left home to walk to school. Their program was said to be “for people on the move”. That described me perfectly: My mother made sure I was on the move to my parochial school classes. I never expected to meet Mr. Ray twelve years later in a drugstore. His wife was the first woman to appear on St. Louis television in 1947, and she grew up in the neighborhood where I was then living. Both of them are now gone.
On Saturday afternoons the baseball crowds drifted in after a game ended at the ballpark a few blocks away. That ballpark opened in 1966 with great fanfare, but forty years later it was demolished because it was said to have become “old”. Did you consider yourself old at age 40?
On some nights after my work-shift ended, I walked four blocks to a little park near the riverfront and sat there on a bench at midnight to enjoy the peaceful ambience of a summer night for half an hour or so before I boarded a bus to take me home. That was possible then. It would be highly inadvisable today.
I was only dimly aware of the history that surrounded me. Across the street was an old courthouse, and two blocks away was an old cathedral. Both had been there since the 1840s. Charles Dickens stayed at a hotel that had stood one block away. Lewis and Clark prepared their expedition from the waterfront a few blocks away from my park bench. Across the street on another corner was the old Cotton Belt Railroad Building; it would be demolished a few years later. Originally it had been the Planters Hotel. In 1897 its manager and guests stood on its roof to watch mysterious lights in the night sky that some of them speculated were attached to a new invention called an “airship”. In fact, the lights were nothing more than stars and planets that appeared strange to people who had never looked at the sky before or whose imagination had been inflamed by sensational newspaper stories. The nonexistent airship helped to sell newspapers.
At the drugstore I worked with a pharmacist who had been there since 1932. Every day he wore a white shirt and tie. He wore serious hats, the kind my father and grandfather wore, the kind men wear in movies from the 1930s-‘40s. He projected typical masculine authority and gravitas. He was in his mid-sixties, but I never thought of him as an old man. He was as sharp as a tack in conversation and could move with lightning speed. More than once I saw him take two steps at a time when walking up the stairs to the balcony. He and I worked together for two years. He never talked down to me.
Every now and then we enjoyed a good laugh when some customer mistakenly assumed I was his son. Had I been wise instead of young, I would have taken that as a compliment, because he was a good man. One evening around midnight, he and I stood talking across the street from the drugstore as he waited for the bus that would take him home. It was an ordinary conversation after an ordinary workday. But there he was, nearing retirement age and yet receptive to conversation with a young man who knew very little about very little. Of course I made the mistake of taking him for granted. It was a pleasure to work with him.
I worked with an older woman cashier who always wore dresses, never pants, used powder and lipstick and rouge (to borrow that song title from the 1945 motion picture “The Dolly Sisters”), and smoked cigarettes throughout her work-shift. She had zero tolerance for nonsense. She had no reluctance to employ a series of carefully chosen hells and damns when dealing with impertinent customers or people who impressed her as nitwits. Mary was no softie or feminist; she was hard and principled, and proud of it. She played fair, although she knew many others didn’t and wouldn’t. She gave me the impression she would have seconded Mark Twain’s remark about “the damned human race”. It was a pleasure to work with her.
They were from the same generation, and both of them personified a work ethic that, like the drugstore, is now long gone. I regret not having gone back years later to talk with them.
On some Saturdays, Mary would call the pizza restaurant two blocks away and place an order for her, her granddaughter, and me, and I would walk there to pick it up. But apparently we were not very bright: We always ordered some variety of their pasta, never the pizza.
Every weekday in late afternoon, the newspaperman would come in with several copies of the evening paper because he knew the pharmacist would purchase one, and I usually did, too. It was a daily ritual. A newspaper then may have cost 15 cents. I never knew the newspaperman’s name, but he was there at his newspaper stand outside the store every week, month after month. He was a hunchback and always wore a cap.
Certain moments live on in memory. One day in the autumn of 1970, a cashier and I were talking during a lull in activity. She had a small radio tuned at low volume to a St. Louis radio station, and the record being played at that moment was Ray Price’s “For the Good Times”. It would become one of my father’s favorite songs. It expressed his attitude toward life concisely: Remember the good times and be thankful for them. We stopped talking to enjoy the soothing sound of that lovely, melancholy ballad. At one point, Pauline said how pretty she thought it was. She was right. I agreed. It was a rare moment of splendid serenity in an otherwise busy drugstore.
Modern life in cities is of course absurd. The tempo of life is preposterous, as are the kind and number of distractions.
The ordinary days of my job at that drugstore lay forgotten for decades afterward under multiple layers of concern with other jobs, other people, other things, conversations, entertainment, and endless diversions on the modern merry-go-round of mindlessness.
The connections one may establish in the workaday world are certainly not the most important in one’s life. But they are connections.
Earlier I mentioned the classic 1940 movie “The Shop Around the Corner”. It impressed me favorably when I first saw it by chance on late night television in 1967 or ’68. Each time I watched it again in later years, it sparkled more.
There is a scene in that movie where the shop’s manager (Mr. Stewart’s character) is fired and three other employees say goodbye to him reluctantly. The comparison is not exact: The shop in the movie is not a drugstore; I was not a manager but a worker bee; and I was not fired but left my job by choice. Aside from those details, what the scene depicts is an ending: A small group of people who had worked together for a common purpose was now diminished by one. Of course life is a series of such endings.
The same had been true at that drugstore: The pharmacist, the cashier, and the kitchen manager were most kind in bidding me farewell when I left their company, a simple act to which I had never given any thought; an act I was now impelled to remember by that scene in that movie. It is depicted perfectly, with restraint and understatement. Americans knew how to make movies in the 1930s-‘40s, and the importance of understatement was part of that knowledge.
I left my job at the drugstore when I entered college. When I walked out that corner door for the last time, it did not occur to me that I would never see that building again or talk with those people again. Why remember them now? Because they were decent people, and I learned in later years that such people are not the dominant group on this planet. Because they understood what is meant by responsibility and fair play. Because they treated me better than I had any right to expect. Because life is short and the days dwindle down.
— Comments —
Stephen Ippolito writes:
A very beautiful piece, Alan.
Important truths beautifully related.
Dean Ericson writes:
The thing about Alan’s writing is, once I read one sentence I have to read the next. And then the one after that, and so on until the end of the essay is reached and I find myself hungry for more. That’s good writing. He has an eye for interesting details and a mind that sees the bigger picture. He writes with economy, clarity, and color. The unpretentious, workman’s style is another good point. Oh, and did I say he’s a good writer? He’s a good writer. Thanks Alan, and thanks to The Thinking Housewife for hosting him.
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