Maxie’s Five and Dime
He was always ‘Mr. Max’ to me. And I was always ‘Kid’ to him. As my childhood years passed, I saw him less and less often. Looking back more than 60 years, while I cannot remember when it was I no longer saw him, I recall distinctly some of our times together. Truthfully, I never really knew this man, never knew where he lived, if he had a wife, or kids. Never knew anything about him outside of the Five and Dime … yet he made an impression on me, that’s for sure.
In the 1950’s, in the factory town of New Britain, Connecticut, as you approached the Belvedere Shopping Center, across the macadam-covered parking lot, you’d pass the concrete-based light pole, which concrete, while heavily scarred, had held up rather well despite having been under assault by countless car bumpers during its years as the center’s lone sentinel. On the far left, you’d see the Red and White Food Store with its familiar sign. On the far right, stood the Belvedere Drug store. Between those, were another three or four businesses. Adjacent to the Red and White was the narrowest of the storefronts. It was Maxie’s Five and Dime, with its red background, gold-lettered sign. Actually called Max’s 5¢ -10¢ – 25¢ – $1.00 & Up Store, it was a marvel. I’ll tell you about it, but first, I’ll you what little I knew about Maxie.
Max was a short, lean, New York/New Jersey Jewish guy who spoke with an accent that was slightly Jewish, a bit Mafia hoodish, somewhat growlish, and strongly Big Eastern Cityish, almost all his words being spoken with accompanying cigar smoke. It was always my feeling that Max was a Displaced Person, but not from Eastern Europe (as so many DP’s were in those days shortly after WWII), rather a refugee from the ‘big city.’ It was my guess that Max had had a rough life, but that, again, was just my feeling … I never really knew.
Not quite eight years old, I got involved in an ice-skating race with five friends at the nearby Stanley Quarter Park. Hitting a crack in the ice, I took a dive to the hard cold surface, and slid to a very last place stop. The wager we had made called for the loser to buy each of the others a Hershey bar and bring it to skating the following day. Since I had lost that bet by a wide margin, the following day saw me walking to Maxie’s Five and Dime before going to the skating pond. Entering the Five and Dime, I said “Hello Mr. Max.” I always called him Mr. Max … never did know his last name. “Hey Kid, how’s it goin’? What can I do you for?” said Maxie. Telling him I needed five Hershey bars, he raised his eyebrows. “What’s going on, Kid? You got a party?” I explained I had lost the race and now needed to make payoff. At the time, all standard candy bars were five cents. I handed Max a quarter, earned by shoveling snow from a neighbor’s long, long driveway. He looked at me, laughing, and snorted, “Yeah Kid, I understand, and I hope that yesterday was your worst-ever day at the races. Believe me, it can get pretty rough. Let me put these in a little bag.” And he did. I stuffed the paper bag into my jacket pocket, saying, “Thanks Mr. Max. See you later,” answered by “Yeah Kid, take care.” At Maxie’s, opening the door sounded the sleigh bells hanging from the door frame. Out I went, into the bright winter day, and headed for the skating pond, a ten-minute walk. And I’m not bragging … but I ‘got’ Maxie’s ‘bad day at the races’ reference.
The five winners of the race were already lacing up their skates when I arrived. There were a few remarks about how hungry they were and chocolate would sure hit the spot, etc. Pulling the bag from my jacket, I started giving out the Hershey bars, and there was one left over. Recounting quickly, I could see that Max had put six candy bars, rather than five, into the paper sack. Since the other five were all eating their chocolate, I joined them, knowing that I owed Max another nickle.
Two or three days later, walking past the Belvedere Center, I stopped in to see Maxie. The usual “Hello Mr. Max” … and the usual “Hey Kid, how’s it goin’?” “Mr. Max, the other day, when I bought the Hershey bars … you remember?” He grinned and nodded ‘yes’, saying “Sure, Kid, I remember” into a cloud of cigar smoke. I continued with … “well, you cheated yourself because there were six Hersheys in the sack instead of five, so I want to pay you the extra money and I handed him a nickle.” He gave it right back, saying “Forget it Kid, I didn’t want to think about those other guys with chocolate and you sitting there with bubkes … with nothing. Anyhow, thanks for bein’ so honest, but … C’mere Kid, got a question for you, let’s go outside.” He turned a key in the cash register and it disappeared into a pocket. Out in front of the store, he pointed toward the drug store and asked “How long do you think it would take for you to go from here to the drug store without breaking your butt on the snow or ice, and go inside the drug store to the soda fountain, and then run back here to my store, again without busting your ass? How long? Go ahead, Kid, take a guess.” So I thought for just a moment, imagined myself running up and back, and said “Mr. Max, I could do it in one minute, maybe a little less.” Maxie laughed and said “One minute? That’s a damn good time, Kid. OK. So … Kid, I wanna ask a favor. You got a couple minutes?” “Yessir, Mr. Max.” “Listen Kid, I gotta get outta the store at least once in a while. So … I wanna go to the soda fountain and have a quiet, peaceful cup of coffee. So … can you watch the store for me and if anybody comes in, you come and get me at the drugstore. Can you do that? Is that OK with you?” “Yessir, Mr. Max.” “So Kid, so I’m going right now and I won’t stay more than fifteen minutes, and don’t forget … you’re in charge! Got it, Kid?” “You bet, Mr. Max, I got it!” Trailing smoke, Maxie starting walking toward the drug store and didn’t look back. Hard to believe, but suddenly I was in charge of a store, by myself, and I wasn’t eight years old yet. Excited. Nervous. Proud. Scared … and … and nothing happened … nothing at all. Maxie returned, exactly ten minutes later, coming into the store and asking “Hey Kid, everything quiet?” I said “Yessir, Mr. Max, everything’s quiet.” Maxie said, “Good. It was such a lovely cup of coffee, Kid, everyone needs that from time to time.” I said something like, “I like coffee too. Sometimes I drink coffee with my father.” Maxie just laughed, grabbed my hand, pressed a dime into my palm, and said “Here Kid, thanks a lot. Anytime you’re nearby, you just stop in if you can, say hello, and check to see if I need another cup of coffee.” “OK, Mr. Max, I will. See you later.” “Adios, Kid, take it easy.” There you have an idea of Maxie, an unpolished little man, rough around the edges. He was like a character in a play and made me laugh with his occasional swearing, using ‘hell’, ‘damn’, ‘ass’, and not anything more seriously offensive than that.
Now let me tell you about Maxie’s store, the Five and Dime. Remember, I said it was a marvel. The space it occupied had dimensions similar to a single-lane bowling alley. Narrow, but very deep, with a high ceiling. There were most likely many thousands of stores across America similarly shaped, giving each merchant some street frontage (though narrow) and making up decent square footage or area with the length of the space.
The Five and Ten Cent stores, in those days, were also called Variety stores. The biggest of them were Woolworth’s and Kresge’s, both being nationwide. These variety stores sold a huge number of different and inexpensive items, many of which were priced at five or ten cents. Today’s closest equivalent is the ninety-nine cent or the dollar store. Max’s 5¢ -10¢ – 25¢ – $1.00 & Up Store would have made Kresge’s or Woolworth’s blink their eyes, if for no other reason, than for the absolutely astounding array of different items in the small space. Whatever it was … Maxie probably had it … somewhere in that store, he had it. But there were other reasons to blink. I’ll explain.
The dimensions of the store’s floorplan dictated that inventory be placed against both walls going far back into the depths of the building, but also did allow a center strip, perhaps five feet wide, also going deep into the space, where items were also shelved, stacked, and piled very nearly to the ceiling. Maxie would stand on the top platform of a six-foot ladder (I counted the steps of the ladder) to reach some items. Heavy items like cast iron fry pans, or sets of tire chains, were at low levels. Lighter goods, such as wicker baskets, kites, and ironing board covers were stacked as high as possible. To be brief, I’ll tell you Maxie had an incredible assortment of things for sale. Goods always leaned into open space, much like vegetation seeking sunlight. Aisles became quite narrow and Maxie would have to tell more portly people to stay up front while he disappeared into darker recesses of the store to find things they might want or need, and return to the front with those items. At more than a few places, way up high, paraphernalia from one stack leaned across and actually touched the stack across the aisle, forming a bridge, and giving the feeling of being either under a bridge or in a tall tunnel. This was a superbly confusing collection of stuff … confusing to me or anyone else in the world, but arranged and organized in a most efficient manner (according to Maxie). He knew where everything was stashed … office supplies, kitchen gadgets, mouse traps, flower seeds, party decorations, fabrics, and the list (type-written, single-spaced, small font) would be at least as long as three of your legs. “Hey Max, have you got a tube for a 24-inch bicycle tire?” He’d pause for just a moment, and “Of course I do, doesn’t everybody? Oh, that’s why you’re here … because you don’t … ha, ha, ha, ha. Let’s see, behind the laundry detergent is some motor oil and brake fluid, and behind that is a blue cardboard box with tubes for bicycles and wheelbarrows … 24inch … no problem. I’ll get one for you.” By now, you should be able to imagine this fantastic conglomeration of merchandise. That was the environment.
During my elementary school years, I’d stop to say hello to Mr. Max once or twice a week, sometimes he’d go for a cup of coffee, and sometimes we’d just talk or maybe do a few store chores … moving inventory (warm weather things moved closer to the front, winter things moved to the rear, then reversed as the seasons changed). Max taught me the words to use as I made change (I could easily handle the math part). After we practiced making change for a dollar, then for a two-dollar bill, then for a fiver, Max pretended to be a customer, walked outside, then came back in the entrance, walked around the store for a few minutes and chose five or six items (a washboard, a steam iron, a big bag of clothes pins, etc.) and as he moved toward the front of the store (with me at the cash register) asked “How much do I owe you, sir?” I added the costs of the items and said “Twelve dollars and thirty-five cents, please.” He said, “That much? Are you sure? Here, let me see” and he pulled an old envelope from his jacket pocket and scribbled a few numbers and said “Well, I guess you’re right.” and handed me a ten and a five-dollar bill. So I was supposed to make change. So I started by saying “Twelve sixty-five, twelve seventy-five, thirteen dollars, fourteen and fifteen dollars,” as I made the change.” Max said “You started at twelve sixty-five instead of twelve thirty-five. What’s the big deal?” I said, “You wrote the numbers on the envelope, what was the total?” He said “Twelve thirty-five, same as what you said.” So I asked “What did you write with? A ball-point pen, right?” He said “Right.” Then I asked, “Where is that pen? In your shirt pocket, and the pen cost thirty cents. That’s why I started with twelve sixty-five instead of thirty-five.” He had taken the pen from the display in front of the cash register … intentionally or not, I would never know … but I do know he had a heluva laugh over that and made quite a picture, with the cigar smoking and its cloud, with ashes falling on the floor, and the red-faced laughing. After that change-making episode he trusted me to wait on any customers who might come in while he was enjoying his coffee at the drug store. Maxie would give me the key to the cash register with instructions to never ever move more than twelve inches away from that cash register without locking it. One other thing … never make change for a twenty-dollar bill without coming to get him first. Imagine my being now eleven or twelve years old, in charge of a store (for brief periods, at least) and having the key to the cash register. To me, it was a profound trust and yet I would never have boasted about it or even mentioned it to any of my friends … nobody needed to know. I suppose it was a fine and convoluted honesty line I had drawn in my mind, because I had no hesitation about stealing apples, pears, cherries, or grapes, for example, from anybody’s yard if the fruit looked good, but I’d never take anything from a store without paying.
Max was a friend, but never a father figure to me, but he did meet my father. While it may have been a casual encounter for the two adults, it seemed momentous to me. My father and I had driven to the Belvedere Center, to the Drug Store, but had to park in front of Max’s. As we got out of the car, there was the familiar “Hey Kid, how’s it goin’?” “Hi Mr. Max, good to see you. Mr. Max, this is my dad,” and I did the introduction, though I mumbled something instead of Max’s last name. Maxie piped right up, “Mr. Rosano, you got a great kid here, a little wild, but he’s good with numbers, honest, and strong, and a hard worker, too, and he probably got it all from you. That means you gotta be a terrific guy … at least that’s what he says about you. So you got my congratulations.” They exchanged some small talk. As they shook hands again, I said “OK, see you later, Mr. Max” returned with a raspy “Yeah Kid, take it easy.” My father and I continued with our mission, and of course, I was most likely just beaming with pride or confidence or something. A special memory for me. That was probably the first time my father had ever heard that combination of words connected to his son, and spoken by an almost stranger.
About thirteen years old, I was probably in Jr. High school, and Max had gone to the drug store for his coffee with me tending the store. An older kid, whom I vaguely recognized but didn’t know, walked into Max’s. Before I could say the usual ‘Can I help you’, he brazenly helped himself to a Bit-O-Honey candy bar from the display near the register, turned around and walked out of the store. I was right on his heels saying “Hey, goddammit, you have to pay for that.” He turned around, looked at me, give me the finger, and started walking away again. Despite his size, I gave him a good shove, he tripped over the concrete car curb and went sprawling and got a good-sized red scrape on his cheek. Just as I was about to jump on him, I saw Maxie moving quickly toward us, saying “What in hell is going on here?” I had no idea of what might happen, but I said “Mr. Max, he was stealing a Bit-O-Honey and I pushed him, and he fell flat on his face, the dirty bastard.” Maxie had never heard me swear before. He went straight to the kid, who was trying to get up off the pavement, grabbed the kid’s ear and shouted “Are you some kinda stupid? You gotta be … try to steal from an Italian. They kill people, DumbAss. Don’t you know that?” Probably pumped up on adrenaline, I was so relieved at Maxie’s reaction that I started laughing. Maxie put his arm around my shoulder and he was laughing his gravelly best, too, all the while puffing on his cigar. He said, “C’mon Kid, let’s go inside. And let DumbAss have his candy.” Inside the store, Maxie said, “Hey Kid, it’s OK, you can wind down now.” He paused, looking closely at me. “On second thought, let’s go get a cup of coffee … together … we’ve never done that … and we can talk.” (He remembered that I liked coffee.) From somewhere behind the cash register, he took out a sign, and set it hanging in the window of the door to the shop. It said ‘Back in 10 minutes.’ I had never seen that sign before.
Aureleo Rosano May 2016