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The sweet taste (and sounds) of success

My parents were from NYC, so we always went there four times a year or so, to do city things. Among them, we visited museums (which has stuck with me), rode the subway (which has NOT stuck with me), and generally took in city sights, sounds and smells (whether or not I wanted to).

But no matter how good a time I had in the city, I always felt bad for city kids. Yeah, sure, they had access to all sorts of amazing things, but so did I. And no matter what they had access to, they did NOT have access to nature like we did.

My cousin Francine remembers me asking why all the snow was black. The answer’s obvious, and I think I could’ve figured it out then all by my lonesome, but the issue was not how it got that way, but that it WAS that way. Black snow? Who could imagine such a thing? Not me. We had real snow, beautiful white snow, snow up the waz, figuratively and literally. But those poor sods were stuck with snow that looked downright carcinogenic.

As for summer in the city? Fergit it. Between the heat, the humidity, and the car and bus exhausts, rather than something being something natural and trouble-free, breathing became an act of rugged self-discipline. And so on, with the rest of that mess.

But summer in Saranac Lake? Paradise, I tell ya, pure paradise.

Not only did we have all the wonders of the Adirondacks right outside our doorstep, but we had access to them. Adventure lay mere yards away. We could swim in all the lakes, hike and explore in the woods, and ride our bikes on all the back roads.

But as much as I liked doing all those things, I had at least as much fun and adventure wandering the streets of My Home Town.

Free-range children

Of course, back then the town was very different from now. The population was almost twice as big, there were still a lot of former TB patients with moolah around, and every store was booming. Furthermore, almost everywhere you see a parking lot now was a building. So with all that going on, any time I went downtown, I was sure to have a great time.

And keep in mind, the fear and paranoia that seems to be the new American pastime didn’t exist then. We kids wandered all over hell’s half-acre by ourselves, the only condition being we had to be home for dinner. There were no cellphones, so we had no real way of checking in anyway. But besides that, my parents didn’t need to worry about me getting in trouble because if I did, you can bet that some concerned citizen would’ve called them post haste to report my rascality. I never really misbehaved anyway, not because of my fine moral character, but for a much more pragmatic reason: I knew I couldn’t get away with it.

Chats ‘n’ snacks

So what adventures did I have? Well, compared to stuff city kids could do, it was small potatoes at best. But it was A-OK with me.

Since the businesses were booming, the sidewalks were full of people. So there was always someone to talk to. And when I say someone, I don’t mean only kids. Of course I knew a lot of adults, and many of them liked to shmooze as much as me, so pleasant conversation was the order of the day. Looking back, I realize my conversational skills were hardly adult, or even interesting, but it was a given that adults visited with kids. Ultimately, I (and I’m sure my peers) learned a whole lot from those conversations, not the least among them how to be polite.

But ultimately, my visits to town always had a sinister motive: I was there to score my drug of choice — sugar.

People knew sugar wasn’t real food and wasn’t particularly good for you. But they also didn’t think of it as the New Age Nutritional Mafia does now — that it’s the cause of a panoply of ills like ADD, ADHD, murderous rages, gooch eyes, inverted nipples and God knows what else. Instead, it was a treat, as long as you kept it under control, which I did. Of course the only reason for that was I never had enough money to stuff my gaping maw fully. But given my serious cash flow problem, I gotta admit I still did a damn good job of scarfin’ the stuff.

Then again, it was easy since there were all kinds of stores that had huge selections of penny candies, so for even one mere nickel I could get my fix and fill.

My favorite sucrose den was Boynton’s (on Broadway, whose latest incarnation was the pickle palace). It was a little hole in the wall, chock full of the best things life has to offer — candy, tobacco and men’s magazines. Among the penny candies were licorice sticks, atomic fireballs, Tootsie Rolls (Tootsie Pops were 2 cents), those little drops of sugar and weird food coloring on paper belts, Fleer Double Bubble, gumballs and others I can no longer remember.

That was my fare when I was a wee poppet, but later, around when I was 12, I figured out ways to make more money and so I could indulge in the high-end stuff. Forget a few penny candies; I upped the ante, in both quality and quantity.

Goin’ uptown while bein’ downtown

A few doors over from Boynton’s, in what is now the Left Bank Cafe, was Deissler’s bakery. I’m sure anyone who remembers those halcyon days started drooling as soon as they read Deissler’s. The place was jam-packed with goodies of all sorts, in cases from floor to ceiling. There of course were breads, but who cared about them. Then there were cookies and cakes of all varieties, meringues and pies galore, rolls and other stuffs I can’t remember. The reason I can’t remember them is they were either outside my area of interest of my budget. But what was within both were doughnuts and eclairs.

Doughnuts came in a few varieties. There were the standard sinkers, either plain or with glazes and icings of one sort or another. Then were were jelly doughnuts, which had a thin crust, a very light but chewy interior, and a filling of either strawberry or raspberry jam. The regular doughnuts were a nickel; the jelly doughnuts were a dime. And while they were both delicious, if I had the gelt, I went for the Big Kahuna of a little sugar freak — eclairs.

Eclairs were either vanilla or chocolate-filled, with a strip of chocolate frosting on the top. They cost a lordly 15 cents, but were worth every penny of it. And if I was really flush — that is, if I had a quarter on me — I took my eclair next door to Boynton’s and indulged in a sucrose-a-holic’s Dream-Come-True.

In the back of Boynton’s was one of those old soda machines — the ones that didn’t keep the soda cold by electricity, but by having them submerged in water cooled by ice blocks. The sodas were a dime, so for a mere two bits I got to nibble on the eclair and then wash it down with an ice-cold soda. Don’t tell me I didn’t have the makings of a gourmet, even then.

My soda of choice was always root beer till sometime around 1960, when a new ambrosia came to town. It was Royal Crown Cola. Royal Crown was a Southern drink, invented in Georgia, and combined with Moon Pies, it was a staple of Dixie’s cuisine. I didn’t know any of that, nor did I really care. Plus, while the taste was good enough, it didn’t compare with root beer.

So if I didn’t like it as much as root beer, why did I drink it? For two reasons. One was sheer economics: All the other drinks came in 12-ounce bottles, Royal Crown was the first one in a 16-ounce bottle. I was pretty much a mathematic idiot, and still am, but even then I could figure an extra 33% of soda for the same thin dime was the bargain of the century.

The other reason was with a third more soda, I could do at least a third more belching. And while I’ve never read it anywhere, I thought RC was more carbonated than other sodas, so not only could I belch more, but I could belch louder, too. If you don’t understand that, read on.

It’s a simple fact of life, one that all males understand but almost no females do. And even though I’ll now explain it, I know it’ll still fall on deaf distaff ears.

Nonetheless, here it is in a nutshell: Belching is to adolescent boys what knives and flashlights are to men.

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