One of the many aspects of being a neighborhood business that provided joy or misery was knowing your neighboring business owners.  Of the ones that started before I opened only one remains.  Most are long since gone and either moved to other locations or into the land of ideas that just wouldn't sprout.  It is interesting to me that I cannot recall any bad neighbors or problems with other businesses.  It seems to me that in any group there is at least one problem business in an area and I am now wondering if maybe it was mine.  There is an old joke about how 1 in every 5 people are nuts (or whatever derogatory adjective you choose) and if you can’t pick out the crazy one of your 4 friends, then Bingo! We have a winner. Oh, well. That is for others to decide though with the many events that have transpired over the years I would be willing to state that crazy wasn't MY adjective.

                One particular neighbor had a long history on our block.  When I moved in he owned a smoke shop and had started the pizza shop on the block that his brother now ran.  They were both fairly well known fixtures on the block and I have eaten quite a bit of pizza and smoked many cigars from their shops.  The pizza shop is still there, however, Joe, the brother that owned the smoke shop has since moved back into the pizza business in one of the suburbs.  It was at the smoke shop that I met Steve. 

                Steve was working for Joe,and can best be described as an old biker.  He not only looked the part but would often approach work riding his Harley down the sidewalk past my store as a “Good morning.” He did so slowly, but it would certainly give my customers a worrisome thought as he passed by.  For some reason I didn't seem to mind his antics and eventually became immune to most of his attempts to shock and surprise.  This is probably because I considered him a friend and knew he could be counted on if you needed something.  It didn't matter what it was - he was almost always game - the crazier the better.  Steve had a full head of graying hair he kept at varying lengths from “hippie” long to “skinhead” bald.  I especially liked it when he grew his hair a bit longer and it started to have the “Grecian Formula” gray/brown color.  This was a basis of ribbing and Steve always took it well.  In addition to the hair on top of his head he was growing a beard. Growing might be the wrong term here.  He had a ZZ Top beard which was scraggly and down to his navel.  It also had that narrowing in the middle towards the end.  I never found out if he trimmed it that way or just let it go. 

                 Joe was a large man and I mean large in all areas. He was tall with huge splay toed feet (opposite of pigeon toed -I had to look it up too). He carried a large belly, but wasn't fat anywhere else on his body. He was unusually pale for a man of Italian decent and sported a large and opinionated personality when he chose to expose it.  There was something about him that reminded me of a live cartoon character.  I say none of this with any derision and condescension.
                The third component of this tale was a little toy from my childhood. In the early days of the store I brought in a “Magic 8 Ball” and left it on a side counter with all the daily newspapers.  I thought it might be a fun time consumer as people waited for their lunch. What I did not know is the true power and magic of that little plastic piece of 1970’s history.  At first I was just glad to see people pick it up and use it as it was intended.  This probably was not a surprise to most people but it was for me.  Not only were customers coming in and using it regularly as part of their breakfast or lunch ritual, but for those that saw it for the first time there truly was magic.

You could almost feel the breeze from their time travel.  The customers were immediately taken back to some time in their life that didn't require deadlines or bosses or mortgages or a spouse. It was fast. The minute their eyes would lay upon the "Magic 8 Ball" not only would a smile land on their face, but a little sparkle shone in their eyes. This would usually be followed by some oft repeated comment about having one as a child or how long it has been since they had seen one or some other cliche. This is an instance where a cliche can be forgiven. 

      After that first time it became a daily practice similar to reading the daily “horrorscope” for some. It wouldn't impact your decision making for the day, but something you might indulge in for fun and conversation.  For others it was even a social experiment, testing the possible validity of these strange claims of the dark science.  

      I’m sure it may sound as if I am over dramatizing this small experience in someone’s daily life, but let me tell you how I viewed this little powerful device.  One thing I noticed about the magic of that prop was the power it had on the overall experience. Before people had even tasted the food, they were transported back to a place with some positive memory of childhood and family like a Norman Rockwell image. The food had to be pretty bad to fuck that up.  At the very least you have hitched a ride on the roads of the past and can now be sure those Pavlovian pups would have a better lunch experience. This can be as powerful as physical dependency - legal and otherwise (I have always been amazed at how bar owners believe in their prowess as business people when they have the advantage of addiction).

      The 8 ball was part of the culture of the place for many years. It was so well used that answers to life’s great questions sought through that dark blue circular hue had become blurred and often required assistance from those around you to read. The fading responses of the tired sage were often just another line of foreshadowing in the story of the life of o’Bagelo’s.   And just when I thought it had seen its last days of prophesying, some selfless customer brought us fresh life in the form of a "new in box" soothsayer. It was left in the box next to it's aging relative, but you could still access its powers by slightly turning the ball inside the box.  Most often it was merely enjoyed for the memories it brought rushing back.

      At the time of the incident I am about to describe, Joe and Steve had moved into a storefront much closer to mine and had added a new twist.  The place became a pawn shop, cigar store and gun shop.  There was a large sign on the building with a minimalistic descriptor that drew great attention to the place. “Cigars and Guns.”  It was one of those vertical signs that ran the length of at least a story and a half of the 4 story building.  The boys were always "carrying" and it was usually visible when you walked in the store.  The building used to house a strip club and the entire facade was brick with only one small window about 5 feet off the ground.  The window had been about 2 feet long and a foot high. It was tinted and the only thing you could see was the wire in the window letting you know it wasn't going to be easy getting through. The entrance was off to one side and had two doors that were perpendicular to each other with a gap to protect from the weather.  It also prevented customers from having any idea what they might be walking into if they were daring enough to enter.  Although you may be on a busy street in the city, once you walked in no one would know if you didn't walk out. All this added to the mystique and fear of the place. 

       One afternoon while at the bank I got a call from "bearded Steve" (as we called him). He wanted to know if I still had my magic 8 ball at the store. I mentioned that I was out and as far I knew we did. He informed me that a kid had just come into his store on a bicycle trying to sell him a magic 8 ball in a box and it looked very familiar.  I immediately told him how coincidental it was that there was a kid with a bicycle about that age in my store moments ago when I left.  We all consider ourselves good Samaritans, so we thought we should look into this a bit further. I hung up and called the store and asked the staff if our 8 ball was missing.  I called bearded Steve to inform him about this additional coincidence and he asked me what I would like him to do about this correlation.  I said we should get the police involved in lieu of some of the other ideas being thrown around.   He reluctantly agreed and said he would hold him until I got back. I knew better than to ask how and I am certain it was against his will.

       Steve walked the young man and the 8 ball back to my store when I returned. The police came and the young man took a calculated risk and admitted the immoral act hoping it would help to be honest.  The unfortunate aspect of his repentance came into play quickly. He was on parole for theft and this violated that status. So he was cuffed and escorted out by the officers. The outcome of this minor event is that this kid was back in jail for unsuccessfully trying to steal a used 1970’s toy with a value of about $7.95.  Now that is powerful magic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

What did you think of this recipe or story?