ANYONE who has ever experienced a first-degree, big-league, card-carrying, bone-shattering toothache in a major molar at three A.M. in the quiet solitude of night has stood at the very gates of hell itself. There are no words in the language that can adequately describe the ebbing and swelling, ebbing and swelling, then the rising to even greater heights, then again deceptively receding, only to turn again to the attack; the nagging, dragging, thudding, screaking ache of a tooth that has faced more than its share in a hard, rough-and-tumble lifetime of Juju Babies, root beer barrels, jawbreakers, and countless other addictive confections devoured during the innocent days of childhood. Like all sinners, orgiasts of all stripes, we look back with tearful, bleary-eyed nostalgia upon the very thing that reduced us to shuddering, denture-ridden, cavity-wracked hulks. Everywhere, daily, dentists - cackling fiendishly - reap the harvests sown years ago in penny-candy stores across the land.
I remember well the pusher who sent me down that long rocky road that led finally to S765 worth of silver alloy and various plastic compounds which I now carry in my skull as a mute reminder of past, fleeting pleasures.
One afternoon recently, while staring bleakly out of a dentist's waiting-room window, having wearied of ancient National Geographies and Currier & Ives prints, attempting to blot out of my consciousness the muffled moans and yelps of pain that were mingling with the ;Muzak, my tortured mind - perhaps out of some deep-hidden well of submerged masochism - plucked from my vast file of sinister life experiences and dredged to the surface: Old Man Pulaski and the Infamous Jawbreaker Blackmail. While waiting my turn on The Rack, I began to piece together the whole sordid tale.
Pulaski, a blue-jowled, gimleteyed native of the Midwest, operated a mercantile establishment that was the Indiana steel town's version of the candy store. Nobody ever called ii by that name. It was just "Pulaski's." On the side of his red-brick, two-story store there was an enormous Bull Durham sign that showed this great dark-red, arrogant, fully equipped bull looking out into the middle distance toward Chicago, with the suggestive inscription "Her Hero."
It was under this sign that Old Man Pulaski dispensed Juju Babies, licorice pipes, Mary Janes and jawbreakers, not to mention Navy Cut Chewing Tobacco, Mule Twist, Apple Plug, Eight Hour Day Rough Cut, Mail Pouch, Copenhagen Snuff and summer sausage, sliced thin.
Penny candy is just about the very first purchase that any kid actually makes himself - that very first buy which launches all of us on a lifelong career as consumers, leading finally w God knows where. Kids take to buying the way fleas take to beagle hounds. It comes naturally. You don't have to learn; somehow you know.
It doesn't take long for penny-candy buyers to begin that great weeding-out process of the slobs versus the antislobs. It is here that it starts. A discriminating penny-candy connoisseur knew what he was after, while the rest merely settled for anything that was big, lumpy, sticky and sweet. The juju Baby connoisseur today buys Porsches and fine wines, while his slack-jawed erstwhile friend continues to dig large, lumpy, sticky-sweet automobiles and syrupy beer that comes in pop-top six-packs. I pride myself, perhaps overly so, on having developed an exceedingly discriminating palate for the various vintages and chateaux of penny candy.
The genuine American penny-candy store bears no relationship to the present chichi ladies'-magazine reproductions that are popping up in Greenwich \Tillage, the hipper sections of San Francisco and Old Town in Chicago. They were invariably dark, their musty windows filled with dog-eared cardboard placards advertising Old Dutch Cleanser, Kayo the Magic Chocolate Drink, Campbell's Pork & Beans, and the Hessville P. T. A. Penny Supper.
The candy itself was displayed in a high, oak-framed case with a curved glass front and sliding glass doors well out of reach of the sneakier purchasers. In the case were rows of grimy glass jars and metal trays containing The Stuff.
Penny candy was bought in lots for between two arid four cents, and in extreme emergencies for one penny, but that was rare. Pulaski, bending high over the case, would peer down at us, looking unconcerned and bored while we made our decisions. Until finally:
"Fer Chrissake, I haven't got all day! D'ya want a licorice pipe or not?"
And the battle was on. Glaring down at the huddled band of well-heeled investors, many of whom were in advanced stages of the sour ball shakes, Pulaski played his cards coolly and well. He knew that he held the trump as the only neighborhood supplier of licorice whips and wax false teeth. He was the Man, the Connection. It was a seller's market.
The wax false teeth, by the way, played a part in a great second-grade drama, when suddenly and without warning wax false teeth became a maniacal fad that swept over Harding School like a tidal wave. I remember one historic afternoon when every last male member of my second-grade class showed up with a large set of wax false dentures clamped in his jaw to face Miss Shields and arithmetic. Little did we realize at die time that the wax false teeth were a foreshadowing of the real thing to come for many in that benighted academy pf lower learning.
I should say at the outset that the wax dentures were larger than life, true pink gum color - gums suffering from a rare case of advanced pyorrhea. The teeth themselves were large, horsy and obscene, and a nine-year-old kid coming out of the gloom of half twilight grinning from ear to ear with a set of Pulaski's finest gleaming like nightmare fangs undoubtedly sent many a Friday-night pedestrian directly to the Salvation Army to take the pledge. We did not, however, frighten Miss Shields.
Surveying us, Miss Shields stood for a long moment beside her desk and then silently readied out her claw, palm upward, and said simply:
"Give them to me."
And One by one she defanged us, stashing e choppers in her lower-lefthand drawer along with (67 rubber daggers, 922 official Duncan competition yo-yos, 36 bird whistles, a round dozen Throw-UR-Voice ventriloquist gadgets purchased by mail from Johnson Smith, 2 wax mice on a string, a lethal arsenal of water pistols, cap guns and carbide cannons - and 17 small, well-thumbed, smudgy volumes of pocket-size comic books picturing the clandestine adventures of Maggie and Jiggs. Miss Shields had seen a lot, and wax false teeth were just another wave in an endless sea of surrealistic nuttiness that she had fought all of her life.
Another wax specialty that had a certain illicit air about it was a small wax bottle Idled with a colored, sickeningly sweet syrup, usually green or red in color, and a sure-fire appetite killer. These bottles had a vaguely illegal quality to them, since they had the unmistakable hint of jug hitting, and there was plenty of that on Saturday nights in our neighborhood. The bottles were not shaped in the form of milk containers: the kids were practicing to be grownups even then.
The wax itself was invariably chewed after the bottle had been droned or the false teeth had lost their Charm, and had a distinctive, vaguely fragrant taste which even now I detect from time to time in coffee containers at ball games. An old wax eater never forgets.
Just before suppertime, Pulaski's would be packed with a jostling throng of customers. Guys from the open hearth wearing tin hats, buying next week's supply of weed: Old Virginia Licorice Twist, Honest Plug Tobacco, Dago Cigars and Peach Blossom Chewing- Snuff. Short Fat ladies haggling over soup meat. And kids making the big choice.
At this point, perhaps, I should describe the kaleidoscopic variety of penny candy that has become a classic substratum of Americana. No other country I know of has anything remotely like it.
JuJu Babies were exactly what they sound like - small, rubbery, symbolic fertility figures of different colors black red, yellow molded in the form of an archetypal infant. Sexless, the Juju Baby represented all postnatal mankind, to be devoured by man himself or, rather, boy. The Juju Baby had ta habit of getting stuck ill the back teeth, told I re member a transparent yellow One that remained jammed immovably between two molars for the better part of dare( years. This was perhaps my first step in furthering the cause of dentistry.
There was also the root beer barrel, beloved of kids of slightly more advanced and subtle tastes. A small, compact item molded in the form of a tiny barrel, sprinkled over with sugar grains and tasting roughly like a fine blend 01 stale root beer and gritty cake icing. The root beer barrel had the extra advantage of being cheap. Since few kids bought them, they were roughly five to seven for a cent. Demand, never quality, always controls price.
For more frivolous eating, particularly for girl types, there was a tin pie plate about the size of a half dollar filled with a semisolid gloppy paste, usually pink, yellow or brown in color, that Las dredged up with a tiny tin spoon. Many a tongue was split from end to end with the razor like edge of this lethal instrument. The taste of these pies is not easy to define, since it had none other than a kind of electric, incisor-tingling, unidentifiable sweetness. There were no other flavors, despite the different colors.
Occasionally Pulaski would import a rarer item for his regular customers, exactly like the pie-tin-and-spoon combination except that the paste was in the shape of a tiny, tasteless but somehow subtly appetizing fried egg. I frankly admit I was a sucker for these fried eggs and had (Nell developed a technique for eating them that I still follow today with the real article. Using my spoon to scoop out the brilliant orange "yolk," I would attack the white by quadrants and finally, after licking the pan, would throw it at the back of Zudock's head.
Licorice came in many forms and several distinct textures. There were, of course, the traditional smooth, shiny whips, red and black, which I hated. The only time I ever was cursed with these was when Aunt Clara, who to this day believes I am a nut on licorice, would bring a bag of them home to me. The licorice pipe, made of a more crumbly, bitter licorice, was more my style. A curving stern and upswept bowl of the classical calabash shape made the licorice barely palatable. Many an evening on my paper route, licorice pipe clamped in my square jaw, root beer barrel tucked next to the second-to-the-last molar on the right, jawbreaker to the left, my tongue jet black, I sucked dextrose energy into the marrow of my bones while rotting the roots of my second teeth beyond repair as I delivered the Chicago Herald-Examiner.
There were other, lesser penny candies: those strips of white paper dotted with geometric rows of nasty little yellow, white, blue and red pellets of sugar, fit only for cretins and two-year-olds; those banana-oil-flavored, peanut-shaped obscenities so beloved of elderly ladies and girls with pimples; the jelly orange slices and other such sissified confections.
There were a few minor works that hear mention. The spearmint leaves, for instance, too subtle for tell-year-olds, are all acquired taste, like Roquefort cheese, which must be grown into, The flat, coconut-flavored watermelon slices - blood-red, green-rinded, black-seeded, sprinkled evenly with sugar and flyspecks. Oh yes, and the candy ice-cream cones with cloyingly sweet pink-and-whale-marshmallow "ice cream" covered with sugar. The tiny red cinnamon hearts that Old Alan Pulaski sold by the scoopful Irons a minute wooden barrel - tongue-searing, ineradicable for days, and arrogantly unpleasant.
But it is the jawbreaker, when all is said and clone, that represents the absolute pinnacle of the world of penny candy, lost and gone, hut lingering on in countless root canals. The jawbreaker requires :Ind actually deserves an entire treatise - which, of course, space does not permit here. But I will do my best to describe it briefly: The virgin, or unsucked, jawbreaker in its natural state was roughly a full inch in diameter as hard and unyielding as obsidian. There were two basic jawbreakers which actually were divergent types of the same majestic, classic bicuspid buster. They were simply known as "red" and "black," the red being coated on the outside with a brilliant, flaming, gleaming, smooth candy enamel of pure carmine; and the black, stark, austere, yet somehow dignified in its glistening, pristine ebony shell, which has not yet been improved upon as a study in sheer geometric and aesthetic unity. Here was and is truly a masterwork in the penny-candy genre of creativity. Structurally, both jawbreakers were identical, but both represented opposing sides of the nature of man and his universe. Yin and yang. The red-jawbreaker man rarely touched the black, anti the black-jawbreaker adherent knew what he wanted and would accept nothing else.
The jawbreaker was never chewed, but sucked over long periods of time - sometimes a couple of months, with breaks for meals allowed to soak in the salival juices, the lining of the mouth puckering and retreating as the succulent elixirs of layer upon layer of jawbreaker established a whole range of attitudes of gustatorial appreciation. The jawbreaker revealed its endless subtleties layer by layer, holding back, suggesting, stating, until finally, the inner core, the pit, the mother lode was finally reached.
Each layer of a jawbreaker was slightly and subtly different in coloration from the one that preceded it. After the initial black or red coating had been sucked away, the breaker would emerge dead white; and then a few moments later it would change imperceptibly to a dull, mottled brown with overtones of green, followed by a rich brick-red vein. Next, perhaps, a mocking, impudent onion-yellow. Then white again! And then a somber, morose purplish-gray, and so on down, layer after layer, color after color, until finally, at about the size of a tiny French pea, it would crumble and reward the aficionado with a minute seed which crunched satisfyingly - and then disappeared. The jawbreaker, a fitting parable of life itself, infinitely varied, sweet, and always receding until. Finally, only the seed is left; and then - crunch!
The black jawbreaker unquestionably was one of the major influences in the formative years, the cellophane-wrapper days of my budding youth. It was a black jawbreaker that taught me the lesson of man's inhurnanity to man. The black jawbreaker got ahold of me the way hashish gets a strangle hold on a Lebanese rug merchant in a Middle Eastern den of vice and degradation. Day after day, with every last cent I could scrape up, it was nothing but black jawbreakers. I became an evangelist, converting others - Schwartz, Flick, Benner - until one day the inevitable finally happened.
The store was full of steelworkers and kids. Pulaski's screen door was banging continually. The flies were zooming in great formations around the light bulbs and clinging like tiny clusters of raisins to the spirals of flypaper that hung from the ceiling.
Old Man Pulaski was back of the hand-operated lunch-meat slicer, and a short, angry lady was leaning over the Toledo scale, fixing him with a beady eye. Pulaski was alone in the store that day, and die tide was coming in. For at least 45 minutes he battled the salami buyers and the guys who wanted work gloves. The flies hummed; the heat came in shimmering waves through the screen door.
At least eight of us milled around the glass case, jawbreaker fever hot on our brows. Pulaski ignored us as long as he could, until finally he sashayed over behind the case and opened negotiations.
"All right, what do you want? Quick!"
Bruner led off: "Gimme some root beer barrels."
"How many do you want!"
"Four - and one Mary Jane."
Pulaski rushed back to the meat counter, filled a container with a pound of sauerkraut, weighed it up, shoved it across the counter to Mrs. Rutkowski, said, "I'll be right back," and hurled himself back into battle with us.
"Root beer barrels are six for a penny. Mary Janes are two for a penny. D'ya want Mary Janes or root beer barrels?"
"Gimme four barrels and one Mary Jane."
Nine tin-mill workers came shambling in, hollering for beer. Mrs. Rutkowski, in broken English, said something about pickled pigs' feet.
Pulaski retreated and started handing out bottles of beer and Polish pickles. Bruner hollered out:
"I only want four barrels."
Pulaski, for the 63rd time that day, weighed his left thumb, the heaviest in northern Indiana, along with a couple of pork chops. Everything was on credit, anyway, so it really didn't make much difference. The Depression was like that.
The place was getting crowded. The flies hummed on and the screen door banged. Mrs. Rutkowski angrily yelled something that could have been Lithuanian, and Pulaski darted back to the candy counter. Looking right at me and completely ignoring Bruner, he said:
"Awright, what do you want?"
He knew what I wanted very well, and before I could even open my mouth, he rocked me with this thunderclap:
"No more black jawbreakers unless ya take one red one for every black."
They were two for a penny. I hated red jawbreakers.
"I'm getting' stuck with too many red jawbreakers," said Pulaski.
This was the first time that the laws of economics and human chicanery had impinged on our tumbleweed, wind-blown lives. For a second we said nothing, stunned. Then:
"I said, no jawbreakers unless you buy red and black." There wasn't a red-jaw breaker man in the crowd.
"Make up your mind. D'ya want 'em or not?"
We looked in through the curving glass case at that beautiful tray of magnificent jawbreakers, almost all red, the few remaining blacks spotted here and there like diamonds in a bank of South African clay. Flick said: "Red jawbreakers!''
Schwartz said: "I'd rather cat a rotten Tootsie Roll!"
1 thought it over. For as long as I could remember, jawbreakers had been two for a penny - black jawbreakers. Now, in effect, the price had doubled. I thought about it. Finally Pulaski's lace loomed over the counter, scowling down at all of us. 1 don't think he ever saw an individual kid. We were always just that jostling little knot of grubby little hands holding up hot, sweaty pennies.
"Awright, you guys. I don't have any more time to mess around. You want the black jawbreakers or not?"
The only other jawbreaker salesman in town was a good 12 blocks away. 1 was the first to sell nut:
"Gimme a penny's worth of jawbreakers."
Pulaski readied into the case, carefully taking one red jawbreaker and one black jawbreaker, and handed them over to me, picking up my penny from the glass top of the case. One after the other we gave in, until finally there was only Bruner.
"Awright, what do you want?" "Four root beer barrels and a Mary Jane."
"Fer Chrissake, awright!"
Pulaski grabbed a handful of root beer barrels and a Mary Jane and shoved them into Bruner's sticky hand. Mrs. Rutkowski was asking for spareribs, or something, in Croatian. More steelworkers surged through the door. The screen door slammed. Pulaski clanked shut the sliding panels of his candy counter, turned his back on us and scuttled back behind the meat counter.
It was the first jawbreaker blackmail caper. To get the gold you must also take the dross. The jawbreaker remained true to its spirit, a pure distillation of life itself: give and take, good and evil.
Out on the street I stuck my black beauty far back on the right side, right where my wisdom teeth would eventually impact. The red monster 1 shoved into the pocket of my Levi's. I'll give it to my kid brother, I figured. The great jawbreaker pushed out my cheek until the proper tension was reached, and the first soul-satisfying taste of that dark, rich, ebony masterpiece began to sink into my veins.
. . .
I stood at the dentist's window, looking out over the traffic-jammed metropolitan street, the burning coals of my aching tooth subsiding somewhat in the tepid bath of nostalgia. Only a steady, dull, thumping. Subterranean pulse remained, down in the tangled depths of my root canals. I was still paying Pulaski. But it had been worth the price. ||
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