Steve O’Connor, author of “Smokestack Lightning”, learned much about life while working as a clerk at the Davis Square Drug Store back in the 1970s:
When my son approached the age at which he began to become convinced that he needed his own car, I put some vexing questions to him. Where will you get the money to buy it, insure it, put gas in it? These questions may have been vexing to me, but they were not to him. He looked at me as if I’d just asked him how he planned to open a box of cereal. “Dad, chill. I’ll be sixteen. I’m going to get a job. The money will be rollin’ in.”
Oh, the optimism of youth! He’d never heard the words “payroll deduction,” or considered how many years he’d have to work bagging groceries to buy even a Honda Civic, or how many Dunkin Donuts coffees he’d have to hand out to pay one month’s driver’s insurance as an accident-prone teenager. The kids’ cash never really does “roll in,” but yours keeps rolling out.
All of this made me remember one of my own first attempts to make a few sheckles. I was a senior in high school, way back when the smooth guitar work of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts on the Allman Brothers “Blue Sky” just put me in a great mood every time it came on the radio, which was often. I believe the minimum wage was $2.65 an hour when I started at The Davis Square Drug Store. I sure didn’t get rich, but what an education it was. The first night that I stood as a clerk behind a counter, a guy slouched up and whispered, as if it were a secret message from the FBI, “Gimme a pack of safeties.”
“Pack a’ safties.”
“You mean safety pins?”
“No! You know!”
I looked around the store, glanced under the counter, and finally had to admit, “I don’t know.”
The boss noticed the customer’s consternation, and came out from behind the prescription counter with the ever-present cigar butt clamped in his teeth. He opened a drawer behind the counter, pulled out a little box, quickly shoved the shameful item in a paper bag and slid it across the counter. The whole operation was worthy of Ilya Kuryakan and Naploeon Solo in The Man from UNCLE. Later, the boss showed me “the drawer,” and its illicit contents, as if he were initiating me into some the secrets of some ancient pharmacist brotherhood.
The boss and I never hit it off. He always gave me this look, the kind of look that Simon Cowel gives those off-key warblers. I guess I was a lousy clerk, but I liked the job because we had a parade of interesting customers. One night a fellow stumbled in, I guessed from the Savoy Lounge across the street. To say that he was drunk would be like saying that Charles Manson was mischievous. I have been drunk once or twice, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to get so drunk that I began to speak in tongues. You know that stage when the English language becomes what Shakespeare might have called “sound and fury, signifying nothing.” The poor soul stood swaying in front of the counter, mumbling something that might have been George Wahington’s Farewell to His Troops for all I knew. Finally, he leaned over the counter and raised a tremulous hand toward the cigarettes. I had to hold up about ten packs before he nodded at the Lucky Strikes, and threw a crumpled dollar on the counter, retreating into the night before I could give him his change. Yes, there used to be change when you handed someone a dollar for a pack of cigarettes.
The following night, the same scene was reenacted, and the third night, once again. And each night, his beard was a deeper shadow, his coat a little more twisted and wrinkled, and his hair a little wilder. I felt bad for the guy. We began to have conversations, which went something like this:
“You should go home…”
“Ehgh sdf dadfjrgrer.”
“Go home! You’re going to get sick!”
After that, I didn’t see him for a day or two, and then one night a fellow walked in clean shaven, wearing a crisp well ironed shirt, hair neatly combed back. He strode up and down the aisles for a minute, and then up to the counter, on which he placed a can of shoe polish. The tops of his shoes were scuffed up, probably from being dragged to the exit of the Savoy. “And a pack of Lucky Strikes,” he said. I could hardly believe my eyes; it was the drunken wanderer of the night, transformed.
“Hey, how you doin?” I said. “You look great.”
“Excuse me?” he asked.
“You look great. I can’t believe the change. You’ve been in here a few times this week, and frankly, you were a mess.”
“Oh, was I in here?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t understand anything you said, though.”
“I was on a bender,” he said matter of factly.
“A bender, eh?”
“Yeah, I was on a bender for, I don’t know four or five days, but I have to get back to work.” He picked up his shoe polish and butts and marched off into Davis Square, as different from his previous self as Dr. Jekyl from the infamous Mr. Hyde.
I thought that maybe someday I’d try going on a bender, but I never had the fortitude. There’s just something insurmountable about getting up with a hangover and pouring a big glass of Wild Turkey.
It was pure Lowell in that drug store. There was the eight-year-old Puerto Rican boy who used to come in with his mother and act as interpreter. I always admired that sort of maturity in someone so young. Then there was a loud but amiable brunette; in case she’s still alive I’ll just call her Edie. Rumor had it that if a guy was willing to buy her a few drinks at the Savoy, she would not be overly fastidious about questions of morality. No, I never tried to investigate the rumor. I was too young to even buy myself a drink. One night Edie came by the drugstore to pick up a contraceptive device. As soon as she had it, she got into the phone booth located in the back of the store. We heard some knocking about and the booth began to rock a bit. The other clerk looked at me and said, “She ain’t usin’ the phone in there.” A minute later Edie emerged, handed me the empty bag and package and said, “Could you throw that away, honey?” And off she went, smacking her gum, and throwing us kisses, ready for action.
The drug store is long gone. The Savoy is gone, but the denizens of Davis Square in the early 70’s are still very much with me.