Do you ever think back to a moment in your childhood to realize that you did something truly mean. I hate to admit that every now and then, I participated in street urchin, gang mentality activities that hurt innocent victims. In my tiny NJ neighborhood, the people most targeted by our adolescent cruelty, were Annie and Tony—the owners of a candy store a few blocks from our house.
Annie and Tony were Polish immigrants with thick, spitting accents who opened their eclectic store at daybreak and hustled until 9:00PM. I never liked it when I was sent to the store for cold cuts or bread because nothing was organized and sinister cats tiptoed across the display counters throughout the day. It was difficult to pick up a loaf of bread without the Wonder name appearing a bit furry from cat hair.
Annie and Tony, too, were unattractive because they seemed interchangeable. Maybe their bodies just looked the same because the two of them wore matching denim bib overalls daily. They also had similar white hair that was tinged with yellow on the ends. It didn’t glow like blonde hair, but looked dingy like white sweat socks that needed bleach. It was dulled by the fact that to save on utilities costs or to keep the place cool, they rarely had lights on in the store. From the outside, then, when they and the cats moved about on the inside, the big store windows turned them into ominous shadows working the meat slicer or pushing a straw broom. This sent even more hair and dust into the air to settle on top of the Bit O’ Honey, Tootsie Rolls, or Sugar Daddy candy boxes. Still, we went to Tony’s because no matter how poor we were, we always had enough to purchase three pretzel rods for two cents or a few long red licorice whips. Looking back, I can’t believe that, after braiding these sweet, red strings or swinging them around to hit my brother, I still ate them.
Each day after school, three or four boys pulled open Tony’s store door, making the cow bells strapped on by a faded brown leather belt, startle the owners inside. “Annie, do you want to suck my Sugar Daddy?” One pimple faced boy taunted.
Tony puffed up like a blow fish and put his fists in the air shouting, “What you strange boys want? Git from my store!” But the more he yelled, the more the boys laughed. By the time Tony hurriedly cleared his products from a center portion of the counter on hinges, the boys grabbed a case of RC Cola, a bag of hot dog rolls, or any other item displayed near the front door.
One crisp fall night, I was sitting on our concrete stoop, when my brother and his two friends ran to the porch. “Did you see that?” My brother Billy said, struggling to catch his breath. “I nailed Tony in the head with a Ding Dong.”
The three boys chuckled. My brother’s friend, Joey, reached inside his blue Yankee's wind breaker and said, “Yeah, well look what I took.” His hand was filled with colorful jaw breakers, Sweet Tarts and other penny candies. “Here, have some.” Joe turned to me. “Why don’t you come with us next time?” My heart leaped because Joe recently began kissing me every time I completed a pass when we played touch football. I was steady quarterback and started throwing the best spirals in the seventh grade, even though I was a girl.
Just around 6:00 O’clock the next evening, the four of us headed to the store. We all wore blue ski masks and our blue school windbreakers. Our pockets were filled with eggs. We used sewing needles to put holes in the top and the bottom of the eggs. Then we blew out the insides and filled them with Ajax and topped them with Scotch tape. Joe went up to the store window first and whispered to Billy, “Annie is sitting in her chair at the counter. I don’t see Tony.” “Perfect,” my brother replied. With that, Joe pulled open the glass door and the four of us pelted Annie with the eggs. White and green speckled Ajax covered her shocked face and she started rubbing her eyes and screaming. Just then, Tony came out of what seemed like a secret hallway swinging a baseball bat.
As he struggled to connect with one, another boy ran behind him and kicked him in his seat. “Leave him alone!” I screamed. “Stop it! Don’t hurt him!” I didn’t realize, at first, that I was talking to the boys--not to Tony. I ran home terrified.
A few weeks later, I was forced to return to Tony’s candy store for my great grandmother's quarter pound of ham bologna. I never knew if she wanted me to ask for ham or bologna. When I asked for clarification, she spewed curses at me in Polish and added, “Stupid girl, get ham bologna.”
When, I entered the scene of my previous crime, I guess Annie didn’t recognize me in my plaid Catholic school uniform. My blond hair was angelic compared to my navy ski mask. She stood from her badly scratched maple rocking chair and said, “Come, here, Sweetheart, is this not beautiful? Listen." She pointed to her ear, then squinted, creating deep wrinkles on each side of her face. She lifted her head proudly and read slowly and clearly from her Readers Digest. “Be careful of the words you say. Keep them soft and sweet. You’ll never know from day to day, which words you’ll have to eat.”
She pushed a crumpled Kleenex across her shriveled face and asked, “What can I give you today?”
Nervously, I stuttered and said, “My great grandmother wants ham bologna, but I don’t even know what that is…”
Annie mistook my shame for innocence and said, “I take good care of you, honey. Don’t worry. Grandma be happy. You are a good girl!”
It was on this day, in Tony's candy store, that it clicked for me that words have power. As Annie handed me the small, brown, package of meat, I smiled and said, "Thank you, Annie. Have a good day." In that moment, when our eyes met, I put my mean days behind me.