Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Nickel's Worth

The walk to the junior high school was more than a mile, and the cost to ride the public bus was ten cents for students. Linda still had to walk over two city blocks to get to the nearest bus stop, and she would transfer to a second bus on that route. It was almost half way to walk to the other bus line that didn’t involve transferring buses. On cold winter days, girls wore leggings, thick padded pants worn over tights that they took off and hung in their lockers when they arrived at school. The school rules at that time required the girls to wear dresses or skirts. The gym uniform for girls was white blouses with Peter Pan collars and navy blue shorts with your name embroidered on the inside.

On nice days, which were most days, and certainly on the way home each day, Linda would walk both ways with her girlfriend, Marcy, and save the ten cents each way, which was then theirs to spend. Sometimes Marcy, who played French horn, would stay after school for band practice, and then the walk would seem to take forever as Linda walked alone all the way home.

The year was 1962, and Woolworth’s Five and Dime still existed in neighborhoods all over the United States. On the major cross street near the junior high, a wide street with three lanes in each direction, there was a Woolworth’s where all the students would stop almost daily after school. At the soda fountain and lunch counter of the Woolworth’s, where they served Campbell’s cream of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, Linda would get a Coca Cola in a cone shaped paper cup standing inside a silvery cup holder for a nickel.

For another nickel Linda would buy a little white paper sack of salty tasting chocolate covered peanuts or the chocolate nonpareils that are still sold in movie theater candy counters. The chocolates in the candy counter’s glass cases sold for 39 cents a pound, and Linda would sometimes ask for “a nickel’s worth” and other times for “an eighth of a pound” or “two ounces” of candy from the female clerks. All the five and dime clerks were females, while most men Linda knew worked in factories, tool and die shops, and restaurants as cooks and waiters, or as salesmen.

On rare occasions Linda would save her bag of chocolates to eat later at night, in bed, where she would sit up with her textbooks to study, often with a 16-ounce glass bottle of Pepsi propped between her legs. Mom would sometimes find Linda asleep in that position in the middle of the night and have to put the candy, soda pop and books away and turn off the lights. Linda was the lucky one, being the only girl in the family besides Mom, because she got a bedroom all to herself, while her brothers Tim and Gus slept in bunk beds in the dining room with Mom’s brothers, Sam and Bill, and Mom and Dad had the second bedroom.

One of Linda’s favorite activities was to pretend that her bedroom was a library. She would make her brothers sign out books from her collection of hardcover books that she had received as birthday gifts from her aunts who lived in the big city. She had a collection of Andrew Lang’s “colored” fairy books, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels, and a big illustrated volume of the complete Shakespeare’s plays. Linda had not yet seen any of Shakespeare’s plays performed, but she had read every one of them from beginning to end. Gus and Tim seldom wanted to play library with Linda and didn’t have much interest in reading Shakespeare or fairy tales.

A special set of books that Linda never leant out was the five volume pig-skin bound foreign language dictionaries in miniature size that Aunt Meredith, who worked as a travel agent, brought back from Europe. Their thin pages were as fine as the pages in Linda’s red leather bound King James Bible with the gold leaf pages that her sponsors had given to her when she was confirmed at age twelve. The church that Linda attended with her mother and two brothers was a beautiful gothic church near downtown, standing next door to a huge brewery. Its stone building was similar in architecture to the public library down the street where Linda spent her after school hours and summers surrounded by books that brought the world closer to a girl everyone else called serious.

Why everyone thought Linda was serious is a story for another time.

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