I don’t think the clerk at Tubbys corner grocery really hated me. He just didn’t realize the extent of his power.
When I walked in and handed him the note, listing what my mom sent me to buy, he saw an opportunity to solidify his reputation as a cool guy at the soda counter and nothing else. Caution. Pity. Mercy. All went out the window.
He wanted only to impress his peers who sat for hours at Tubbys’ counter, reading comic books, eating chips, drinking Coke and ridiculing anyone who happened to walk in.
Ahhh, the chance to win stand-up comedy points. Forget the 10-year-old boy you would scar for life.
The clerk knew easy prey when he saw it. He noted how I quickly handed him the note and moved to the milk cooler to pretend to be studying expiration dates. He knew I did not totally understand what was on the note or why my mom had told me to just hand it to him rather than read it aloud.
He grabbed the cardboard box from a shelf in one of the less traveled aisles with tolietries , made sure he got everyone’s attention, held the box high above his head and shouted in my direction:
“What are the Isemans having with these for dinner tonight? Tomato sauce?”
In retrospect, it wasn’t even very clever, though all the other teenagers in the store laughed hysterically once they looked carefully at the box. The lettering said Modess, if I recall correctly, though it could have been Kotex.
It didn’t matter once the boys at the counter realized I was buying sanitary napkins, you know, those things that girls put DOWN THERE! during that BAD TIME OF THE MONTH!
I stayed silent, blushing beet red of course, but hoping for a nice old lady to walk in to at least get them to lower the level of ridicule.
No dice. I had to take it. At least the evil, grinning, remorseless clerk put the box in a brown paper bag so I didn’t have to try to hide the pads in my shirt.
You see, the girls in the family, my older sisters, were too, well, indisposed to walk the two blocks to the allegedly friendly corner store to hand over the note. Or, maybe Mom figured the clerks would empathize with a boy charged with such a chore.
She was wrong.
It was tough growing up with no big brother, only older sisters. And I had three.
Of course, there were great benefits, like learning to play games more deviously than boys, to tell stories with flair, to act out those same stories in little plays in the basement, sometimes with dress-ups. (Shh! Don’t tell the jerks at Tubbys.)
But those perks do not stand out in my memory as strongly as the drawbacks. It’s kinda like how smiles fade more quickly than black-and-blue marks.
Yes, having big sisters got me assaulted. Why? They were good-looking but they didn’t want to go out with any of the neighborhood boys.
Complicating matters, two of them — Carla and Mary — decided to flaunt their good looks and sexuality. And this was the ’60s, when women all over the country were burning bras and recognizing “These are Our Bodies, Ourselves.” Forget chauvinism and male control.
“So, your sisters too good to go out with me, huh?” one of the Tubbys goons decided to ask with his giant left hand already around my throat. I really didn’t understand this interrogation tactic, asking questions while also choking out any possible response. But hey, he wasn’t that bright.
Usually, the abuse was only verbal or fleetingly physical. It would often include detailed descriptions of all the things these boys would do with my sisters if they had the chance.
The end would come with a punch in the bicep or that infamous backhand, two-finger slap at the testicles, which happened so often when I was a kid that we had a name for it, “crocking.” As in, “He crocked me!” or “I just got crocked, leave me alone.”
Not sure if that was a colloquialism, confined to our Pittsburgh environs, or a more widely used term. One thing was for sure where I lived and roamed back then, no matter what you called it, every boy under age 16 had to be ready for that surprise groin slap.
It was widespread. As was the universal blocking move — jumping backward with your butt jutting out while chopping downward with one or both arms. Today, the defensive maneuver might be mistaken for a very stiff or bad attempt at twerking.
Back then, I wondered what some alien race would think, looking down on a typical street corner in the Steel City, rubbing their translucent chins, perplexed at why these adolescent male earthlings seemed so fascinated with smacking each other in the crotch.
Sometimes, when my sisters’ would-be suitors were smaller and did not already have me by the throat or were too fat to catch me, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
“Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
“Ask her yourself. Why she won’t go out with you. Whasamatter, Casanova? Scared?”
Of course, that usually only brought more retaliation, even if was later when the fat guy had me cornered, but it still felt good to at least occasionally rub in what these tough-talkin’ guys knew to be true: They turned to Jello when my sisters actually walked by or happened to exchange a few words with them.
These guys knew they had no chance; they saw the older, groovier, cooler guys hanging with Carla and Mary. They saw the hair, their clothes, their style, how they had embraced the ’60s while our neighborhood still debated which of the Beatles were ruining the band by doing drugs.
In 1969, I had to prepare for a move from our neighborhood Catholic grade school to the public high school 2 miles away that Carla and Mary already attended. I would be in 9th grade.
C’mon Mom, pleeasssse! We know the school. Let us dress up David. C’mon, just one outfit, one set of new clothes.
Despite my pleasant memories of our basement dress-up fun, when I was much younger, I should have known this was a very bad idea.
The shirt they found for me, chocolate brown, had a special, fancy name, a “body shirt.” It might have even been ribbed. I know for sure that its collars were as big and pointy as the arrows on interstate “yield” signs. I think my sisters actually expected me to leave the shirt buttons open down past my nipples. The pants, tight bell-bottoms of course, were a checkered pattern, with squares the color of brown mustard and the dividing lines drawn in ketchup tones.
My sisters assured me they had seen girls talking about how cute I was.
All I saw were stares. All I heard was laughter and whispered questions about my gender.
On the positive side, I did not get beat up for my outfit. Maybe they actually thought I was a girl. Or, they were simply so shocked they forgot about the opportunity for physical assault until I was gone. Or, the boys at this school in this part of town really, really liked my sisters and thought they still had a chance.
Problem was, I still had to walk home past Tubbys.
Writer’s note: Editing changes made 3/29 based on writer’s guild advice.