In my younger years, I attended a high-school which was not far away from a small drugstore that nobody from the school ever went to called ‘The Pennyway.” This battered and obscure place featured an old-fashioned grill and soda counter. The store was musty and cluttered and staffed by three elderly women who looked as though they might have been carrying oxygen tanks under their floral uniforms. The women had probably worked in the drugstore for the entire lives and, though all three of the women were wrinkled and gray, they still wore bright ribbons in their hair, splashes of rouge and glossy lipstick. The called everyone “Honey” and they smiled at even the grumpiest of the old men who saddled up to slurp soup and argue over their tabs.
In the back of the store a little old white-haired man shaped like a question mark sifted pill after pill into prescription bottles. He never smiled but had a manner about him which suggested he found the whole world rather amusing. There was a rack of candy bars next to the checkout and a glass-case of cigars and pipe-tobacco. When you walked into the place, the first thing you smelled was fresh coffee, no matter what time of day — and steam — and then you smelled the grill and whatever had been lately cooked on it: a hamburger, a grilled cheese, a grilled ham and cheese, or eggs and a slab of bacon. As you approached the luncheon counter, you smelled and saw ice-cream in huge vats just below the counter, cherries, whipped cream, sprinkles and whatnot contributed their alluring scents — which expertly combined with the smells of the candy-counter, pure, dark, heavy smells of chocolate so indelible that paper wrappers couldn’t hold it all in.
I always thought there was something very strange about the combination of prescription drugs and prescription drug signs in store that smelled of ice-cream and candy — and the contrast of the stores usual patrons, all of whom seemed to be in their late eighties or early nineties, with the strong carnival smell of chocolate, candy-sprinkles, fried potatoes and the like was somehow comforting as though a “second childhood” awaited all of these kind, elderly people right along with their mounds of vitamins and drugs.
My best friend at the time and myself, for whatever reason, took to eating at the lunch counter nearly every day during one school year. I always ordered a grilled cheese sandwich with fries and a chocolate milk-shake; sometimes two chocolate milk-shakes. Eating at the lunch counter made me very happy; I think I liked eating there better than anywhere else in the world. One day, my best friend and I ate a huge lunch and topped off our desert-sundaes with a candy-bar form the candy-rack. We left the place in a satisfied stupor and were halfway down the road before my friend remarked that he’d been eating at the lunch-counter for free for several days now due tot he fact that the ladies working the counter never noticed whether or not he paid. He seemed terrifically satisfied with this small theft of his and I noticed that he told the story to a number of other kids.
Word soon spread around school about the free-lunch capacities of the “Pennyway.” On one afternoon, my friend and I went in and I saw a group of guys known as troublemakers whooping it up and ordering a feast for kings, which I assumed they didn’t intend to pay for. After ordering my usual grilled cheese and fries with a chocolate milk-shake I sat back enjoying the delicious odor of my food being cooked-to-order and by one of the sweetest ladies I’d ever met. When the food came, I devoured it with relish and then, after another trip to the candy-counter, and that tasty desert duly eaten, I started to head over to the cashier to pay my bill.
My friend caught me by the arm. “What are you, stupid? You don’t have to pay here!”
He looked at me like I was a complete idiot and I felt a weird sort of shadow come over the old drugstore, At that split-second I actually imagined myself old and maybe a bit infirm or a bit forgetful and I thought “What I’d want is a cool place like this to grow old in and a place that seems almost lost in time. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people like my friend and I stole from people who mean them only friendship.”
But I walked out behind my friend without paying my bill. A few years later, the place shut down. I was haunted by the possibly irrational fear that hoards of hungry high-schoolers had driven the place into bankruptcy by copping free lunches and candy-bars. The saddest part of the whole story is that my lunch there would’ve cost maybe three or four dollars, candy-bar included — it was that kind of place. And for that three lousy, worthless, meaningless dollars, I now carry a memory, I’d pay a thousand times over to be rid of — and a guilt that even time seems reluctant to erase.