Waiting for the Last Nickel

The first place I learned about when we moved to Clinton was the pizzeria on the corner. Who could miss that lovely smell? But it wasn’t long before we needed a gallon of milk or my mom needed some cigarettes. The nearest place for quick grocery stops was a little store named Gard’s.

And it wasn’t small by the standards of the day. It was a real neighborhood grocery with a meat department and all. Not a supermarket, just a normal one. My favorite part was the candy counter and the mini golf at first. But later I would discover the comic books and the magazines.

Over the years, it was definitely the magazine stand that kept my attention the longest. I graduated from comic books to Mad magazine and then on to car magazines. Sure it was great when the newest issue of Spiderman or Fantastic Four came in, but when I was about 12, I was a true car guy.

Mr. Gard was a funny fellow. He was short, stooped, and smiling most of the time, but he was serious about his business. He didn’t miss a chance to help customers or say a kind word, but he never missed a trick, either.

I can still remember Mr. Gard asking if I would buy a magazine or just read the whole newsstand. He wasn’t unkind, just protective of his turf and his bottom line.

I remember my mother stopping there on the way home. She would some times be a little late, but she knew that if Mr. Gard was in the store that evening she could count on getting in, even if the closing hour was close or just gone by. She used to say that Mr. Gard would keep the store open until the last nickel rolled down the street. She wasn’t far off.

By the time I was 11, I made the trip up Route One to his store any time of day. I had a friend from school who would visit a stay over in the summer. We’d “sleep” in my tent in the yard and be up at the crack of dawn wandering around.

I don’t remember what time the store opened, probably 8, but my buddy Lance and I were eager to get in for snacks. And if we could find Mr. Gard, we would ask to play mini golf. Now, I know the mini golf didn’t open until about 11, but Mr. Gard was happy to take our money and open it up for us by 9am.

The mini golf was a standard round of tricks and traps, not unlike any of the half dozen on the shoreline, but the final hole was a clown’s face with the nose set up as a bonus. If you got the ball in the nose, it was a hole in one and the ball went right inside the little shack and earned you a free game.

Our early morning games often ended with one of us getting the free game, which meant that we would immediately play another round. We became highly competitive with our scores. And Mr. Gard just smiled and collected our money.

I don’t know how many kids had this special arrangement, but I used to buy cigarettes for my mother. Initially, I had a note, but after a while they just knew her brand, Benson & Hedges Menthol, and I could buy a pack anytime. Obviously, what ten-year-old would buy that brand for themselves?

What I looked forward to on my cigarette errands was being able to spend some excess cash on the candy that was so conveniently set right on the counter. Squirrels, Bit-o-honey, Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls; and all about two or three for a nickel.

The store was also handy for grabbing bags of chips to go with pizza or a loaf of French bread for making garlic bread to go with spaghetti. I made a lot of runs to Gard’s, usually on my bike. And not always at convenient times for me. I hated being called in from playing outdoors or sent out during a good TV show.

One time I was watching the much-anticipated second movie from the Planet of the Apes series. My mother was pregnant and had a craving for a 3 Musketeers bar. She sent me to the store, and I left right when a commercial started so I would miss the least amount possible.

I raced to the store and got the candy bar in record time. Leaving the store, I headed across the parking lot. Looking up and down Route One I saw nothing coming and headed across. I had missed seeing a car, though, and sped right out in front of it. The movement and the screeching tires clued me in. I don’t know how, but a dove off of my bike just before it got hit.

I rolled across the pavement, scraping one elbow and my forehead slightly, and losing one sneaker. My bike got tossed through the air and landed by a big tree in front of Grove Gardens across the road. Oddly, there was a cop sitting in his car eating a sandwich in front of Gard’s. His car was facing out, and he watched the whole thing, unable to do anything about it.

I think most of the patrons and the workers in Gard’s emptied to the parking lot to see the dead kid. The fact that I was alive and walking around was a miraculous relief to everyone, but to me it just meant that I was in big trouble. I knew I had looked both ways, but there would be no way to tell my mother that.

The nice police officer took me and my bike home after getting some information from the poor lady in the car. My mother says that the cop was white as a sheet and told the story shakily. I looked fine, but the wreck mangled my bike. It required about $45 of intervention by Ralph at Ed’s Enterprises to get it back in shape.

Yes, I was in trouble. My mother soundly scolded me for neglecting to look before crossing the highway. My mother also felt guilty for sending me on a silly errand for a candy bar, but it was still entirely my fault. Until the same thing happened to her several months later.

She was leaving Gard’s in her car headed for home. As she crossed the lot, she looked left and then right. All was clear, so she started pull out. But as she looked left again, there was a truck that she hadn’t seen previously. She learned there was a telephone pole in the line of sight left that could hide a car if you looked quickly. It could even hide a truck. Mom had to admit that I had probably looked both ways.

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