Friday, November 25, 2011

`In the Throes of Self-Discovery'

A passage in John Cheever’s journals read on the morning of Thanksgiving Day, though ostensibly having nothing to do with the holiday, pushed to the surface an early Thanksgiving memory. Cheever is writing in 1955:

“The child is vomiting. Into town on a Sunday night to get an antidote. For this corner drugstore, a Sunday night is its finest hour. All its prosperous competitors have shut. It is the only lighted store on the street. The jumble of displays in the window—a picture of Pythagoras, Venus in a truss, douche bags and perfumes—is continued in the store itself. It is like a pharmaceutical curiosity shop, a fun house, a storeroom for cardboard women anointing themselves with suntan lotion, cardboard forests advertising pine-scented soap, bookshelves and bins filled with card-table covers and plastic water pistols, and a little like a household, too, for the druggist’s wife is at the soda fountain, a neat, anxious-looking woman with photographs of her three sons in uniform arranged on the shelf at her back.”

One Thanksgiving not many years after the events recorded above I overindulged in shrimp cocktail (an exotic appetizer in our family), pickles, olives and dinner rolls even before the entrée was on the table, and proceeded to vomit on the floor in the bathroom and, eventually, into the toilet. We were out of Pepto-Bismol. For some reason my father took me with him to Avallone’s Pharmacy. I was woozy and sweaty but remember that the familiar drugstore, our home away from home for comic books and candy bars, cheered me more than the dose of pink stuff. The Thanksgiving Days of childhood were surrogate Sundays, days of dolor and dullness, and the sanctuary of the drugstore came as relief that exceeded the merely medicinal.

Cheever sketches an unmistakably American scene, one that mingles medicine and consumer bounty, hospital and home. Karl Shapiro begins his “Drug Store” (1942) with this line: “It baffles the foreigner like an idiom.” After bookstores, good drugstores were my favorite. They promised not only pleasure (polar air conditioning in summer) but a delicious discomfort in the face of adult mysteries (tubing and unguents, half-torsoed mannequins in trusses). The pharmacist at Avallone’s, in bow tie and pale blue lab coat, was Chuck. His business and the world that sustained it is long extinct. When he leaves the drugstore, Cheever observes a group of “hoods” swaggering down the street, “stinking of marijuana and baying like she-wolves at the new moon.” He writes:

“The only relationship we seem to have with them is scorn or bewilderment, but they belong somewhere on the dark prairies of a country that is in the throes of self-discovery.”


Chuck Kelly said...

Our town's drug store was quite a place too. Its soda fountain was a buzzing social center for locals. Its shelves & display counters were a cornucopia of wonders, some in open display - others hidden.

An example of the latter: When I was 12-years old I made the Little League All-Star team. My father said, "I'll have to go to the drug store to get you a jock strap."

"What's a jock strap?"

"It's what you wear under your uninform instead of underwear."


Lincoln Hunter said...

"...surrogate Sundays, days of dolor and dullness..."
Oh, yes, that's good.
Remember the 'blue laws'? They enhanced the quality of sanctuary in the drug store too.
Nice post.

Fran M. said...

I remember that the drugstore near us in Chicago in the fifties had wonderful, serious paperbacks with Edward Gorey covers. Try finding that today in CVS or other mega stores.