A few weeks ago, I was in my old West Philadelphia neighborhood attending the funeral of a fraternity member. I made it a point to drive down 43rd Street, where I lived during the 1940s through the 1960s. My old neighborhood, like many Philadelphia neighborhoods, is showing signs of gentrification.
New construction and renovations are going on everywhere. Residents are no longer primarily Black; white folk seem to be everywhere. I understand that on some days, Mill Creek Playground, which was once predominately Black, has more whites than Blacks. While I have mixed feelings with regard to gentrification, I must say that I was saddened when I drove by the corner of 43rd Street and Fairmount Avenue, where many of my childhood memories were created and nourished. It was at this corner, where the neighborhood drugstore was located, where I spent countless hours, back in the day.
What made my drive, by the corner of 43rd Street and Fairmount Avenue, so sad was what I did not see. The drugstore was gone; leveled to the ground. I was told by neighbors that the building partially collapsed due to structural issues and required the old drugstore to be demolished. This drugstore was the place, during the winter months where me and my friends would occasionally go inside to get warm. During the summer months, it was a convenient place to purchase bottled sodas to drink in an attempt to stay cool as we mingled outside. Outside we had big fun; the kind of clean fun that helped to shape our personalities and provide experiences that many have remembered and leaned on over the years. There must have been 10 of us in my group. Seldom were all of us on this corner at the same time.
Interestingly, unlike large groups of Black males gathering on street corners today, we were not regarded as a gang. We were simply the boys on the corner. I can recall telling my parents, when going out of the house that I was going down the street to hang out with the boys on the corner in front of the drugstore. I do not believe that my mother and father had concerns about problems or dangers associated with being on this street corner as mothers and fathers do today; young people were not going around shooting and stabbing others. Instead, I believe that my parents saw it as a place where I was safe and where I found fun in being with my friends. As young men, the drugstore street corner was the hub for the dissemination of information. It was here where we learned who in the group obtained a job. It was on the street corner where progress or the lack of progress in getting good grades was discussed. Plans for the weekend, whether it was going to the movies, a house party or a dance were all discussed. It was inevitable that one of your friends would show up wearing the most recent fashion trend.
Boy-girl relationships were big topics on the street corner in front of the drugstore. Just whom was dating whom; assessments of whether one was a good girl or a bad girl; did a female in which you had an interest have a tough big brother; and, whether or not a young lady was intelligent or just an “airhead” were questions for which answers could be obtained on my street corner in front of what most people call today the pharmacy. But back in the day, it was the drugstore.
Standing on the corner in front of the drugstore in my neighborhood provided our group with an opportunity to give most regular passersby a nickname. Very seldom were these individuals called by their given name. One really stands out and I cannot tell you where this person’s name came from but those of us from this street corner knew one of the regulars by “Can’t get ‘em.” I mentioned this is a previous column. My understanding is that he obtained this name because he could not get anything. He could not get a wife; a job; a permanent place to live; he just could not get anything. I can still visualize “Can’t get em” waiting as he did each month for the mail carrier for his disability check. While this check came regularly, one particular month the mail carrier showed up without his check. While it may have been funny back in the day, “Can’t get em” was so outraged until he attacked the mail carrier.
Then there is the image of “Skeets,” another of the neighborhood fixtures known only by this name. What we all knew, however, was that “Skeets” was the coolest person in the neighborhood. I have flashbacks when I am in my old neighborhood of being with several of my friends, not on the corner but huddling in the drug store as it was raining “cats and dogs.” I can hear one of my friends suddenly cry out as he peered through the window, “Hey man, here comes Skeets.” Back then, we all ran over to the window and there he was, slowly walking down the street, raincoat pulled up above his collar, wearing a “Jeff or big apple hat,” with his umbrella folded up on his arm. In all of that rain, my friend said what all of us were thinking, “Skeets sure is cool.”
While what happened on the street corner outside of the drugstore was memorable, what occurred inside also makes for unforgettable memories. If you are 50 years of age or older, you must recall those visits to your neighborhood drugstore to specifically purchase something from the soda fountain or for your parents to purchase something for you from the soda fountain while their prescription was being filled. Perhaps you recall when a family member had to purchase something, you would be taken along and receive a fountain-made treat.
A visit to the website, http://www.drugstoremuseum.com reveals the connection between the drug revolution of the 1850s, when people would visit their local drugstore for a remedy for various medical issues. As there were no laws governing the use of drugs and medication in beverages, ingredients such as caffeine and cocaine were regularly included in drinks. These drugs were eventually banned by congress. Fountain sodas were introduced in the late 1880s with the invention of carbon dioxide. By the early 1920s, just about every drugstore had a soda fountain which appears to have been created to fill the void left by the closing of bars resulting from Prohibition. Soda “jerks” had their own creations of popular drinks. But mine was a basic one: a cherry coke. Most fountain sodas have disappeared in the 1970s due to the mass production of canned soft drinks and similar drinks and therefore remain a memory, for many of us, from back in the day.
Many of you, like me, would go to your favorite drugstore, all by yourself and sit on the red covered, swivel stool, to order and enjoy the magic of fountain sodas, milkshakes, sundaes, root beer floats and other “goodies” made right before your eyes. I am certain that you will agree that these were special days. If you were not at the counter alone, you probably can still recall your favorite friends, sitting along with you, not for minutes, but for what seemed like hours, or in some case for as long as the drugstore manager would permit. Where else could you get hot fudge sauce, served in tiny glass mugs or whipped cream on your ice cream or cake? But not all memories of going into drugstores have fond memories. I was traumatized when I was ill, and my mother told me that she had to go to the drugstore. Why traumatized? Well I knew that she would be returning with castor oil or spirit of niter, medicines that would bring me to tears before the teaspoon with the medicine got into my mouth. For some of you young boys, there were the embarrassing moments of your mother sending you to the drugstore with a note to pick up a personal hygiene item with instructions to only give it to the lady that worked there. But, as the woman was not in the store at times, the note was given to the male employee who told you what he had purchased for his mother. Some boys came home embarrassed and in some cases in tears. Still, this was a memory to which some of you can relate when you were an impressionable little boy or little girl.
I have not stood on a corner in front of a drugstore for many years. Nor, have I had anything from a drugstore fountain for some time. But I still have memories of a drugstore ice cream soda, something I have not had in years. So, this summer, while I will not be standing on a drugstore corner as these days have passed me buy, I plan to locate a drugstore with a soda fountain somewhere and I will sit at the counter to enjoy a vanilla ice cream soda here in 2019; just as I did as a child, teenager and young adult, back in the day.