Chapter 1: The Candy Store

For the better part of the first eighteen years of my life, my life revolved around a series of two small candy stores in Queens, New York. It was there that I learned about the value of hard work and the importance of family, and the fundamentals of business, including the Darwinian nature of the American enterprise. It was there that I learned and read about and discussed the major events of my epoch, including the race to space, the civil rights struggle, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the highs and lows of the then seemingly perpetual world champion New York Yankees with the hard working couple from the neighborhood who ran the stores and their customers, young and old. It was there that I confronted the face of intolerance in the form of a visiting self-appointed committee of censors from a local Catholic Church.

It’s also where I learned how to make a decent—no, a great—egg cream. Don’t know what an egg cream is? I’ll tell you about it a little later in this chapter.

To be sure, in a way, you could say that those two Queens, New York candy stores were, collectively, my first classroom.

Before I proceed any further perhaps I had better elaborate on what I actually mean by a candy store, i.e., a New York—or should I say, a New Yawk—candy store, because unless you grew up in mid-century New York City, you will have no idea of what I mean.

Like such by gone accoutrements of New York life as the Manhattan elevated and The New York Herald Tribune (more about which below), the New York candy store of the kind I grew up in, and the casual, unhurried, mutually caring way of life it represented, and of which it was a fulcrum, is largely gone with the wind—or should I say, gone with the Internet.

And what a shame that is. Because for a time, a very special time, from the Depression, when my parents grew up, until the 1970s, when I went off to college and began my bifurcated career as an athletic coach and special education teacher, every New York neighborhood had one.


ESSENTIALLY, the term candy store is something of a misnomer. Of course, the old-style New York candy store dispensed all manner of hard and soft candy and gum and milk shakes and, of course, egg creams (wait, wait) in all of their delectable and mouthwatering varieties. In this sense, they resembled the old fashioned, rural ice cream fountains of the 19th and early 20th century.

But that was only the start—the first scoop, so to speak.

In addition to being a candy store and ice cream fountain, the typical New York candy store was also a tobacconist dispensing all manner of tobacco products, including cigars, pipe tobacco, for the close to half of the population, who chose to partake of those products in those pre-Surgeon’s General’s warning, smoke-enfurled days.

Additionally, the neighborhood candy store also doubled also functioned as a stationer, and was crammed with notebooks, notepads, pens and pencils, erasers (can’t forget erasers!) for the back to school crowd, as well as Hallmark greetings card for all occasions and denominations.

It also was a toy and sporting goods store, albeit of the most rudimentary kind, selling Pensy Pinkies, the brand name of the most bounceable form of rubber balls, Spaldings, and other kinds, and thick stickball bats for the neighborhood kids who played that quintessential sport, stickball, as well as Revell’s model sets for the young, vicarious, naval warfare crowd.

It also was a newsagent, where everyday locals could get their copies of The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The New York Post, The New York World Telegram, The New York Herald Tribune, The Long Island Daily Press—or, as often used to be the case, one of several—of the cornucopia of newspapers published in New York in the pre-Internet era, and which, at least up until the 1960s, were the primary means for New Yorkers to get their daily news fix, as well as magazines and, in some particularly well-stocked cases, paperback books, mostly of the thriller kind.

Finally, and above and beyond that, the candy store often also served as a kind of community center, where the residents of the neighborhood—usually the same block and the next one—for more likely than not, there was another similar store two or three blocks over, could talk, gossip, and commiserate, or all three. Purchase was not required, but civil behavior was. Perhaps the closest analogy would be the small town general store—except, of course that the candy store was located in New York City.

Except, of course that when you were inside, you felt like you were in a small town. Such was the wonder, and the grandeur, of the old-time New York candy store.

Serving as resident bartenders-cum-psychiatrists-cum-priest, and serving as head proctors of this classroom in life were the hard-working, heart-of-gold couple who owned the established, also known as Mom and Pop. Oftentimes, one or more of the couple’s kids would be helping out with the chores, pulling sodas, discussing the comparative merits of this or that candy with the younger clientele, and supplying ready smiles when their parents were too weary from their dawn-to-dusk duties.

I should know, because in my case, the long suffering Mom and Pop behind the counter of the two Queens candy stores, one in Jamaica, the other in Flushing I grew up in (so to speak), were my mother and father, Midge and Harry Braverman, and the kid with the New York Yankee cap and ready smile who was helping them out, and learning about the peculiarities of candy store economics and life in general was me.

It was those stores, both known as “Harry and Midge’s,” after my father and mother, that served as both the backdrop and setting for my childhood and teenage years. Unfortunately, in the late 1960s, the store was also the setting for considerable heartbreak and even tragedy. But for the decade and a half up until then it was quite simply the most wonderful place in the world.


HARD WORKING, heart of gold.

That pretty much describes my parents, Harry and Midge Braverman.

Let’s begin with my mother. Unfortunately I don’t have very much information about my mother’s or my mother’s family background. I know that my mother’s family, which was Jewish, emigrated from Latvia, in then imperial Russia, around the turn of the century and settled in Chicago, as did many Russian-Jewish immigrants in the first great wave of Russian-Jewish immigration. I know that she had two sisters and two brothers. I know that her mother died when she was a teenager in the 1930s, and that she experienced severe emotional difficulties, including a brief hospitalization, because of that traumatic event. Nevertheless she seems to have emerged from those early difficulties with her upbeat personality intact. I also know that she was extremely bright.

The biography for Midge in her yearbook from the class of 1932 of Marshall High School—which is also about the only reliable source of information I have about her early years—sort of says it all:

“An all around girl? That’s Midge. Her radiant personality, vivid charm and abounding cheerfulness….

Evidently she also had real leadership qualities, witness the fact that her classmates elected her senior class vice president. For the record, she was also secretary of the student council, president of the Girl Reserves—whatever that was—vice president of the “M” club (beats me!), and president of something called the G.A.A. She also played tennis—well enough to become the women’s junior tennis champion of Chicago. Or so I have been told.

Apparently my mother’s first ambition was to be a teach gym, although she seems to have had literary dreams.

“…When Midge tires of teaching gym, she will become a journalist.”

Unfortunately, for one reason or another, Midge was never able to actualize any of these early abilities or ambitions after graduating from Marshall in 1932. She did manage salutatorian of her class.

I have very little information about what she did after graduating from high school, whether she stayed at home or helped support her family with part-time jobs or both.

I do know that she moved to Los Angeles at the beginning of World War II and took on a job with one of the auxiliary services, perhaps before moving to California in 1944 and meeting my father.

However all the difficulties and frustrations she experienced before I knew her—or at least before I knew her well–do not seem to have affected her basic, upbeat personality.

…Radiant personality…vivid charm….abounding cheerfulness….

Or, as my brother Roger put it simply, “Devoted, cheerful, caring…That was Mom.”

That pretty well describes the smiling, effervescent woman that the customers of both of my parents’ candy stores saw, and the one that kept them coming back for the better part of two decades.

That’s also pretty much the woman that I knew and saw when I was growing up in the 1950s my parents’ first house, right behind their first store on 164th Street and 84th Avenue, in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood just south of Grand Central Parkway. What they didn’t see, and I only saw later, after the failure of our second store in Flushing—was that there was a small, hair-line crack behind that radiant smile, and one that would ultimately split wide open.

Growing up in Jamaica, I had heard vague references to the aforementioned psychological problems. Also, in 1960, when I was nine, my mother went away on a mysterious “vacation” for several months. What I didn’t know, and what my father and brother kept from me, was that she was undergoing treatment for a nervous breakdown.

Certainly I knew that something was wrong; however, my mother returned to the store soon enough, with her redoubtable smile intact. Life went on. Besides, there was too much to do, both at the store, as well as at my neighborhood school, P.S. 131, where I was a steady if not stellar learner; and too much fun to be had playing stickball in the schoolyard, or hardball at the near-by field of Jamaica High School under the watchful eye of the man who became my second father, so to speak, Joe Austin, more about whom below, for me to worry about it too much. Anyway, how much can an eight year old boy know about psychology? As far as I knew, my mother was fine.

Moreover, the Yankees were winning, as they always seemed to be in the late 1950s and early 1960s and despite her seemingly never ending duties at the store, she somehow found the time—and the money—to take me to Yankee Stadium to watch the Bronx Bombers play in the World Series on four separate occasions while my father stayed behind to tend the store.


MY FATHER, Harry, probably penned the truest words about himself in an adult education course he took when he was in his late 50s in an effort to remedy some of the holes in his spotty earlier education.

“Persistence is a good character to have,” he wrote in response to the unknown essay theme, in his broken but sincere writing style.

“If one is knocked down, one must get up and try again,” he declared. “First knowing you are right and keeping on trying [sic],” he continued, in upbeat mode, “is a quality that will give you a reward in the end.”

As I saw at first hand for the first fifteen years of my life, persistence was certainly a quality my father had in spades. He also most certainly got knocked down—twice—as I also saw all too closely when first, then the other of his candy stores failed.

Whether Harry Braverman got his just reward in life is debatable, particularly in the light of those two unfortunate and traumatic events—as well as the additional tsoris he experienced on account of my mother’s delicate disposition and various hospitalizations. Indeed, if anything, one would argue the opposite.

Still, it is a measure of his inner resilience and redoubtable optimism—two of his other great qualities—that he wrote the above words after those two business knockdowns, as well as my mother’s final traumatic breakdown.

Yes, persistent Harry Braverman was, and resilient, too. Indeed if I learned anything from working side by side with him in both of his sweet-smelling stores, it was the importance of persistence and hard work and, in the words of the immortal Bobby Jones, the great golfer, to play the ball—or should I say, the Pensy-Pinkie?—where it lies.

Or, as Roger succinctly puts it, “My father was tireless.” Mind, our father was not perfect. He was possessed of a considerable temper, and although he kept it in check, when he lost it, one had best stand back, as my brother learned very much to his regret one time when a well-intentioned, if somewhat poorly thought out “gift”— he made one day in the 1950s, after he had just started working at the store.

“Basically I had a brainstorm that backfired—badly,” Roger recalls. “I thought if I put a few coins away from the change dish,” i.e., the small dish by the register that our parents kept so they could make ready change, “I would somehow be rewarded later. The idea was to surprise my Dad with some extra funds when he least expected it and make him happy.
So for several weeks, when my father, who was our chancellor of the exchequer, looking, Roger would quietly “transfer” some nickels and dimes, maybe even a few quarters here and there, into his little “layaway fund,” not thinking Harry would notice.

Well, Roger was wrong. For one, our father mostly definitely noticed the missing coins. He also guessed—correctly—that someone was taking those coins, specifically an unfortunate older boy, whose name is now lost in the annals of candy store history.

So, when he found out that his own son was the pilferer, he lost it. Or, as Roger put it, “he walloped me.”

As I was two or three at this time—it is well to recall that there was a seven year difference between us–I don’t recall this particular incident, although knowing what Harry Braverman was like, I have no reason to doubt it.

Harry Braverman was certainly no angel. But he was a very good man indeed.


UNFORTUNATELY, the file of reliable biographical data I have for my father is about as slim as the one I have for my mother. Matters are not helped by the fact that my father wasn’t particularly the reminiscent type and didn’t talk about the past very much. There are a few photos of the old days, i.e., before I came into the world; however, they aren’t particularly helpful.

I do know, of course, that my father originally hailed from Canada. He was born in Montreal in 1914, the youngest of a family that also included two daughters and two sons. Like hundreds of thousands of other Russian Jews—including the parents of his future wife—his father left Russia as a result of the pogroms and anti-Semitism that swept the tsarist dominions at the end of the 19th century, except that he headed for north of the border, drawn, no doubt, by the Canadian government’s and the Canadian Pacific Railway’s highly publicized efforts to develop Canada after Confederation. I have one old studio photograph of the six Bravermans, taken around 1917 or 1918 that shows Harry at age three or four wearing knickers, along with the rest of his family, including his rather severe looking father and mother, in the manner of the time.

The Bravermans look fairly content there. However, they couldn’t have been too content because sometime after that photo was shot Harry’s father decided to up sticks and move to the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Harry grew up and went to school. Following his graduation from high school in 1928, Harry, who apparently had ambitions to become an engineer or something of that nature, attended Pratt Institute. However, as was the case with so many aspiring professionals in the Depression, he dropped out and worked at a series of jobs, including one at a Brooklyn candy store. It was apparently that position that gave him the notion of one day owning and operating a similar emporium of his own.

Came World War II and Harry enlisted in the United States Army. However, perhaps because of his age—he was already in his early 30s—he did not serve overseas, but was instead sent to an Army Air Force base near Lake Mojave in the California desert, where he worked in the Quartermaster Corps. For one reason or another, perhaps because his stateside service contrasted with that of his friends and classmates who did serve overseas and saw combat, Harry didn’t talk about his Army time very much. I do recall him complaining about the intense discipline of Army life, as well as the hardship of working in the intense heat of the desert. However, he seems to have done ok there, rising to the rank of corporal, before being discharged at the end of the war in 1945.

Indeed, the major significance of the war for my father is that it brought him together with my mother, Midge, who was then working in the auxiliary services in Los Angeles. How they met I don’t know. All I know is that they hit it off fairly quickly, because my brother Roger was born there in 1944.

Evidently Harry’s service in the Quartermaster Corps also whetted his desire to open a candy store of his own in New York. After a few years of fairly low end jobs and a lot of scrimping and saving he did just that in 1950, opening their first store in the then up and coming (and still very pleasant) neighborhood of Jamaica Estates, just south of Grand Central Parkway, and moving into a two bedroom apartment just over the store.

Apparently the store was a modest success, such that three years and a lot of scrimping and saving later, my father was able to purchase his own semi-attached house several blocks away. The Bravermans had bought their own slice of the American Dream.

Or so they thought.


IF THERE is a harder way of supporting a family of four than owning and operating one’s own candy store, I am not aware of it.

Harry and Midge’s was very much a full-time operation. From 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., seven days a week, week after week, for the better part of two decades, my father toiled behind the counter of his candy store to put food on the table, clothing on our backs and a roof over our heads, all the while dealing with the insane economics of making a go of his quixotic little enterprise.

How he managed to do this was always a source of amazement to me. I had difficulty fathoming how my father could earn enough money to stay afloat, as well as pay the mortgage when the profit margin on most of his items was generally pennies. Nevertheless somehow he managed to do it.

One of the reasons, if not the main reason, was that Harry and Midge’s was very much a full-time, family operation, with one or both of them on the premises at all times, and either me or my brother Roger helping out.

We four Bravermans were all in it together. This was never more apparent than on Sundays, when the four of us would get up before dawn and marshal our collective forces for the herculean task of assembling the Sunday newspapers, as Roger tellingly relates:

“Our day started at 5 a.m. every Sunday. The routine was always the same. Rise and shine, pick up the bundles, set up each section on the [store] stools and fold them together to make the complete ‘Sunday Daily News,’ ‘Sunday [New York] Mirror,’ ‘Sunday Tribune,’ and the real King Kong of the group, the ‘Sunday New York Times.’

“We needed to finish by a certain time—7 a.m.,” Roger remembers. “And we did. You see, my father had his own system. He wrote down the names of the people because they ordered them in advance. And it worked.”

As one might expect, we were completely spent after such this weekly exercise on these “fun Sundays” as Roger calls them, during which we would compile something on the order of seven or eight hundred papers, including over five hundred “Sunday Times.”

No, those Sundays weren’t much “fun.” But they were satisfying in their own way. When we finally closed the store around 2 p.m., we had felt we had accomplished something. And occasionally there was time for collective R & R. During the summers our parents would take us—schlep is probably a better word—to Jones Beach. That was fun.

Of course, what I remember most about those sorties was sleeping.


To be sure, seeing the family at work and being an active part of that process, helped inculcate me with my parents’ intense work ethic. By the time I was ten, I was a candy store pro. There was no really no aspect of the candy store business I could not handle. Sometimes, depending on the day’s traffic and my father’s whims, I would work the front of the store, helping to sell merchandise and operate the cash register, or working the soda fountain, pulling sodas and making egg creams, which I especially delighted in doing, while acquiring something of a reputation for my fountain prowess.

Other times Dad would send me to the back of the shop, where I would assemble the weekly magazine return, carefully recording the weekly sales of each of the myriad magazines we stocked for our publications supplier, the Hamilton News. I suppose you could call it child labor—I was, after all, only ten—but I didn’t mind it, because I knew I was making a contribution to my family’s welfare and upkeep, and how many of my peers could say that?

In the meantime, I had also inadvertently received the dubious benefit of something like an AP class in sex education, thanks to the piles of pornographic material which my father deemed too risqué to stock in the front and which I occasionally found myself rifling through out of morbid curiosity. (Needless to say, my father was none the wiser.)

Somewhere in there I even managed to get a real education at my local elementary school, P.S. 131. One of the city’s better elementary schools, 131 was housed in an imposing Collegiate Gothic building five blocks away. Every day after class during the school year I would run home and do my classwork—perhaps after stopping in the school’s expansive schoolyard for a quick game of stickball with one of my discounted Pensy Pinkies, before sidling off to the store to attend to my variegated duties there.

Over the weekend and during the summer, I had more time to play stickball or baseball, as well as watch my favorite team, the Yankees, who were then pretty much clobbering everyone in sight. So it wasn’t as if I was tethered to the store. Nevertheless, come every Sunday morning, at 4:30 a.m., there I would be, helping Mom and Dad and Roger to stack and shovel those mounds of New York Times’s and Daily News’s.


Speaking of Roger, I should also mention something about my brother at this point. It has been said that if your sibling is more than five years older or younger than you, it is difficult to form a close friendship with him, and I suppose with the seven year difference between us that was true of Roger and I. We were not close, but we were close enough, and we spent enough time together for me to admire him and for him to be a powerful role model for me, as well, particularly in the athletic sphere.

My brother, it so happens, was athletically gifted. He was ambidextrous and a legitimate switch hitter in baseball. Though, like me, he only stood five foot six, he was incredibly strong. As a runner, he also had lightning speed. He also had surprising power from the right side of the plate for someone of his stature. From the left side, he hit for a better average

He was also was an excellent role model, as a group leader. At the baseball field—when he had time to play—he would often leave his team and work with my age group.

Inevitably my classmates, particularly those with sweet teeth—in other words, everyone—would envy my proximity to all that ice cream and Jujyfruits and Milky Ways and the like, and the hefty amounts of these my jealous classmates presumed I was scarfing down every day at the store.

Hence their surprise when I informed that I rarely if ever sampled the wares, not because I didn’t want to—believe me I did—but because I didn’t wish to sink our modest enterprise by consuming the tiny profit margin on those delectable items (although I confess that I acquired a hankering for ice cream that has stayed with me until this day). As a little boy there might be no meaningful way for me to increase business, but I would be damned if I was going to consume what little we were able to clear.

Of course, I didn’t mind grabbing an occasional egg cream for myself. Oh yes, I almost forgot to tell you about how to make an egg cream. Simple. Take a tall glass of club soda, pour in a tablespoon or two of milk, add a squirt of chocolate squirt, and you’re there. The difference between a mediocre egg cream and a great tasting one is in the amount of milk used. I tended to use a little more milk than most of my “competitors” at other less customer-friendly establishments did. Of course, that made them a little more expensive for us to make, but the tradeoff in customer loyalty made it worthwhile. Unquestionably, our egg creams—or should I say, my egg creams—were one of Harry and Midge’s biggest draws.

Why is it called an egg cream? Beats me. However, as the thousands of “my” satisfied customers still out there can attest, I had a special flair for them, and they went down real smooth. And if the customer wanted an extra squirt of chocolate squirt, why not? As I also learned, the customer is always right.

And so it went. I may not have had the easiest life of my classmates at 131, but we really couldn’t really complain. In their own way, my parents had achieved the American Dream, or at least a modest version of the same. All in all, life seemed pretty fair, at least for a while.

UNFORTUNATELY, we Bravermans were also about to receive two very hard back to back lessons in the other side of the American Dream, and the changing nature of the American enterprise—including our bellwether business, the newspaper business.

The first lesson came in the form of two large, competing chain stores, a Woolworth’s and an A & P supermarket, which arrived in our neighborhood in rapid succession in 1961, the same year I turned ten, and which immediately began vacuuming up our sizable cigarette business by underselling the then popular packs of unfiltered Camels and Lucky Strikes with which a goodly number of customers used to enfurl themselves (remember, these were still the pre-Surgeon’s General’s warning days).

Almost overnight, it seemed, our cigarette business was gone. I didn’t understand. One night my father laid it out for me. He explained that our two new unwelcome commercial neighbors were selling cigarettes as “loss leaders,” meaning that they were losing money for each pack of heavily discounted cigarettes they sold, but that they didn’t mind doing so, because these same customers—i.e., our customers—would purchase additional items.

And so, as we could sadly see, they were. People, it seemed, were more interested in convenience than loyalty. Instead of going round to the various Mom and Pop stores—including our Mom and Pop store—to collect what they or their kids needed in the course of a leisurely Saturday afternoon, now they could get everything they needed at once at these “super” stores (which, of course, in retrospect, compared to the even bigger stores that have replaced that original Woolworth and A & P, don’t seem very super at all).

It didn’t seem fair.

It wasn’t.

Suddenly, it seemed, the customers who used to come for cigarettes and newspapers and maybe a Pensy-Pinkie for Little Bobbie or a doll for Little Sue—and maybe one of my patented milk-laden egg creams while they were at it—only came by for newspapers. My mother kept up her brave smile, while my father stoically continued with his chores; however, even a little kid like me could see that we were in trouble.

Our old faithful NCR cash register just wasn’t ringing up as many sales as it used to.

And then one day in fall of 1961 it stopped ringing altogether and we were out of business and my father pulled down the steel shutters over Harry and Midge’s one last time.

It didn’t seem fair. It also certainly took a lot of the fun out of that year’s World Series (which, of course, the Yankees won). How could I root for my heroes, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, when my father was out on the street looking for a job?

HOWEVER the American dream wasn’t over for the Bravermans, just as yet, thanks to the help of my mother’s sister, Mae, and her husband, Ben Polikoff. A successful businessman and entrepreneur, Ben had had the foresight to enter the plastics business after the war, garnering such clients as Lever Brothers and General Motors, and becoming a millionaire in the process.

Apparently he also thought my father was a good risk; doubtless he and Mae were also moved by my family’s plight. In any event, not long ago after our first store went under, Ben and Mae decided to lend Mom and Dad the money to get back into the candy store business and open a new place he had found several miles away in Flushing.

And so, one joyous day in the fall of 1962, my father pried open the shutters of our new place and we were back in business. Unfortunately the Yankees didn’t win the American League championship that year, but as far as I was concerned we had won the World Series. Harry and Midge’s Candy Store had received a second lease on life.

In no time at all, our doughty little crew was back up to speed, the neighborhood kids were filing in to buy their Jujyfruits and Pensy-Pinkies, while their parents stopped by to buy their newspapers and cigarettes. Once again, all was well with the world. While my father and my brother and I supplied the elbow grease behind the new operation, Midge provided the ready smile and personal touch for which she was known, along with some new creative and effective marketing ideas.

One of these was a model building contest aimed at the store’s sizable, model-minded, contingent, adjudged by herself, which quickly drew dozens of eager entrants. All entrants were immediately rewarded by having their work displayed in the store window; in a smart, and ecumenical touch entrants did not have to purchase their model building kits at our store. After a few weeks, Mom would take a hard look at all of those entries, which numbered up to several dozen, and declare the two or three “winners” (I am not sure how many won the ultimate accolade). Mom would call the lucky boys to come down to the store to collect their prize: a free milk shake or ice cream soda. And if they wanted to bring their parents along when they collected, all the better. The winners’ work would then be returned to the window for an indefinite period, so they could bring their admiring (and envious) friends around to further show off their masterpieces, and maybe grab an egg cream afterwards. And so it went.

Unquestionably, Mom had a flair for the candy store business. Example: her method for dealing with the age old “browsing” conundrum. Like other candy stores, Harry and Midge’s had a large number of customers who were fond of perusing the magazines on offer without any intention of buying them. That was ok, as long as there were only one kid flipping through Mad or Model Building Monthly or whatever, but if there were more it would, understandably, tend to get on the proprietors’—i.e., my parents’—nerves.

However whereas another, less child-friendly owner might react by loudly reprimanding or shooing the offending readers away, Mom would simply come over, while the rest of us looked on with knowing smiles, and ask one of the browsers in a voice just loud enough for the other malingerers to hear, “May I see your library card?” That usually did the trick.

And so it went. Thanks to Dad’s steady hand at the helm, Mom’s customer relations skills and the hard work of all of us, Harry and Midge’s soon got up to cruising speed. In fact, the Flushing store did even better than its predecessor, at least at first. Slowly but surely the shop began to pay for itself.

NOW that I was older, I worked even more hours than I had in Jamaica. To recompense me for my efforts, I was given a $10 a week allowance, a considerable sum in that day and age. Meanwhile my brother and athletic role model, Roger, went off to Queens College. In the event, Roger proved more adept at wielding a baseball bat than a pen, as he himself admits. “My batting average was higher than my grade average,” he admits. My own performance had not been much better. Nevertheless it was still good enough to earn me entry in the school’s 3 year Special Progress Program, a social studies enhanced rich curriculum at Van Wyck Junior High School, near Sutphin Boulevard.

Two other significant events for me occurred during this period.

One was my bar mitzvah, at the Jamaica Jewish Center. Although neither of my parents were particularly religious, like most suburban Jewish parents of that time, they were sufficiently devout—or perhaps conformist is the proper word—to consider it important enough for me to go through this quintessential Jewish rite, as well as study up for it. As well as pay for it. How they managed to do this within constraints of their ever-tight budget I don’t know, but they did.

Nevertheless, if they respected their Jewish heritage, that respect was somewhat diminished by the nearby Temple’s decision to charge them for admissions to services on the High Holy Days, as was mine.

And so, one day in spring, 1963 while my parents and assorted invited friends and relatives looked on, I read my allotted passage from the Torah, and became a man.

In the meantime, my essential respect for Church had been reinforced by the visits of its emissaries from the local Catholic Church who came to inspect Harry and Midge’s magazine and book racks for what they considered objectionable material, a situation which also allowed me to witness my mother’s “protestant” side.

Of course, Midge was aware of the weight that the Church carried in the Flushing community, which was somewhat more “mixed” than our own Jamaica town. She did not care. Midge strongly, and rightly, believed that these unsolicited spot inspections by these furrowed brow harpies constituted a violation both of our civil freedoms, as well as those of our customers, and she had no qualms about either expressing that belief or acting upon it.

Harry, of course, agreed with her; however this was one situation he decided he would rather handle by himself, having already experienced my mother’s willfulness and fraught temper in private. Thus, whenever these flying squads of censors announced their intention of conducting another spot check by rapping on our door, Braverman senior wisely decided that it was a good time for his wife to join me in the back room and help me with the magazine returns. Suddenly, I had to pack up those Playboys and Penthouses and the like without opening them and turning them vertical.

Of course, I was glad for the company. Nevertheless, all in all this was not a situation calculated to enhance my reverence for organized religion in general.*

THE OTHER noteworthy event of 1963 for me, like my peers, was the assassination of John Kennedy in November, 1963, while I was in seventh grade. Just as everyone of a certain age can remember where he or she was when Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, so those of us who were children or older can remember where we were, and particularly how we experienced the traumatic loss of our beloved president.

In my case, I experienced the news in two parts. First, around three p.m., while we were in class, came the halting, and not especially clear announcement over the school public address system from our audibly shocked principal, that the President—for those were the days when the President was the President, and not simply “Kennedy” or “Obama”—had been “shot and wounded while en route to Dallas,” leaving the impression that the popular chief executive, who, though only in office for but a thousand days was the only president we had been cognizant of, had only been injured (Eisenhower? Who was he? Wasn’t he a general?).

Which, of course, was traumatic in and of itself. Didn’t everyone love the president? The idea that there was someone out there who didn’t love and revere JFK, no less wished to do him harm, was difficult if not impossible to process. This was followed by a second, staticky announcement from the principal about an hour later that President Kennedy had indeed died from his wounds, and dismissing us for the day. I recall walking home in a benumbed state….

Meanwhile, at the store, we carried on as best we could through our tears dispensing the special edition of the World Telegrams with the black borders confirming the epochal event, and consoling our (mostly) grieving customers. Needless to say, we never sold as many newspapers. We would have been happier not to have sold one.

AND SO it went. 1963 became 1964.

Life went on. Meanwhile the second incarnation of Harry and Midge’s Candy Store continued to do well, or reasonably well. My parents even allowed me to do a little freelancing in the form of helping the parents of my friend Jimmy Gonedes with their lucrative street-cart, food business on Columbus Day 1964. Working for the Gonedes, a savvy second generation Greek-American family who had carved out their own slice of the American dream, was a veritable army of street peddlers of varying ages—and, as I was to learn, ethics—who, after setting up shop at the their assigned locations (most of which, I learned later, were purchased with the aid of under the table payments to greasy-palmed city officials) spent the day dispensing ice cream, hot dogs, soda, juice, pretzels, chestnuts and the like, and making a tidy profit for themselves, as well as the Gonedeses in the process.

That day, Columbus Day 1964, I became another one of the Gonedeses’ foot soldiers. Having heard of the possible lucre to be gained from manning one of the Gondedes’ mobile food gizmos, I reported for vending duty at dawn at the food cart assembly point along the parade route on upper Fifth Avenue, where, I proudly took charge of my goodie-laden cart from the beaming Jimmy Gonedes himself.

After receiving his battle orders from Jimmy—which essentially entailed selling as much as I could as fast as I could—my thirteen-year-old self enthusiastically wheeled my five hundred pound plus food cart-cum-gold mine to my assigned spot several blocks, past the crowds of onlookers who comprised my future clientele, feeling very much like a mid-19th California prospector.

Or rather, began to wheel it into place. What I hadn’t counted on—and what my buddy had failed to tell me—was that that stretch of Fifth Avenue was made from cobblestone, not asphalt, and that one had to pull the bulging, top heavy cart very slowly over the uneven surface lest it begin to rock and topple over spilling its contents onto the street, and the hapless operator along with it.

Which is exactly what happened next. Once that cart started rocking there was nothing I could do to right it; my diminutive body mass made the tragic denouement all the more inevitable. One moment there I was, waving to the early bird spectators, as I pulled the cart with one arm, visions of instant wealth dancing in my head; the next, I was tearfully collecting my spilled wares, while a crowd of parade-goers looked on with a combination of sympathy and morbid curiosity (mostly the latter) at the culinary catastrophe that had taken place before their eyes.

Worse of all, I thought to myself, as I gathered the soiled—and presumably spoiled—pretzels and the like, what would I say to Jimmy and his family? Here they had taken a chance on me and I had let them down, while losing a countless amount of merchandise.

Sure enough, after a few minutes, Jimmy came rushing up to the scene of the accident. However instead of administering a tongue-lashing, as his tearful associate expected, the canny Greek instead took a quick look around, righted the cart and began collecting the salvageable merchandise, including the myriad pretzels scattered around the street and cleaning—or should one say wiping—them as best as he could.

“What are you going to do with those pretzels?” I recall asking innocently, as Jimmy wiped one of the dirtied pretzels against his leg.

“Sell ‘em,” he answered, without missing a beat.

And so he did. Or rather, so he proceeded to do, albeit with considerable qualms, once we had wheeled the cart to a “safe” new location down the avenue from my original location.

As luck, or the furies had it, the first customer for one of my tidied-up pretzels was a beneficently smiling, and hungry Catholic nun. Had I mortgaged my chance of an afterlife for a few lousy bucks, I wondered as the sister ambled off, contentedly munching away, none the wiser for her treat’s dubious resurrection and my role in what I felt certain would be her imminent death from food poisoning.

However, for sheer absurdity, few things rivaled that of my improbable collaboration with my friend Jimmy on a project for the 1965 Van Wyck Science Fair. As at many if not most other American schools these, the early to mid-1960s, the years when the U.S., was engaged in a space race with the Soviet Union, Science was the holy grail at Van Wyck. With that all students were encouraged, if not required, to create—or perhaps conjure up is a better way of putting it—a project with which to enter the Fair. Especially if they had one Mr. Constant, a middle-aged man whose balding pate reminded many of his admirers (and detractors) of Yul Brynner, as a teacher.

Not being especially science-minded, Jimmy and I, who had decided to partner up for the Fair, were stumped, until my ever-helpful mother, Midge, came along with a bright idea.

But perhaps we should let Jesse himself tell this one:

“Mom suggested to us that we consider an ant farm for our entry. Why I am not sure. I guess she liked ants! Who knows?

“Our attitude was ‘why not?’ We didn’t have any better ideas. Upon further investigation we discovered that could actually send away for an ant farm. This, we decided, was for us. Nothing to it. Jimmy and I were known for our mutually procrastinatory habits, especially regarding school work, and the ant farm was no exception. Sure enough, the ant farm arrived. And, true to form, we put it aside. The ants would have to shift for themselves until we decided what we wanted to do with them.

“Finally, with about ten days to go until our mutual debut as science mavens, Jimmy and I started talking about some of the experiments we could possibly perform with our idling society of anthropods. The next day, I went to Jimmy’s house in order to continue our deliberations. However when Jimmy came to the door, instead of his usual self-assured presence, he was pale and flustered. Obviously something untoward had occurred.

“It had. ‘Steven,’ he blurted out, referring to his younger brother, ‘flushed the ant farm down the toilet.’ Of course I thought that Jimmy, a big kidder, was kidding. ‘Yeah, right,’ I replied.

“But Jimmy wasn’t kidding. To prove it, he then pulled out what was left of our ant farm. Poor ants, I thought. Poor us! What to do? Jimmy, however, had a solution. Jimmy always had a solution: he would call up and order another a replacement. Ok…”

“Time passed. Finally, with two days remaining until the day of judgment, while I was at Jimmy’s the second ant farm arrived. Instantly my inventive friend went to the hall closet from which he fetched a wire coat hangar. As I looked on with a combination of interest and amusement, Jimmy bent the hangar, fashioning a long hook with it, which he then applied to the fresh ant colony. Before my amazed eyes, my collaborator constructed a labyrinth of subterranean passageways for our new guests. Voila!

“But that was the only start. Over the next few hours, using a smidgeon of information taken from our trusty Encyclopedia Britannica and a lot of chutzpah, Jimmy composed a series of charts detailing the supposed movements and activities of our little friends. The most ingenious sham, however, involved a battery of theoretical—make that very theoretical—experiments which we had supposedly performed with the aid of our cooperative, and fortunately mute subjects. One of the more wishful—make that very wishful—which we illustrated with a toy maze from my parents’ candy store, involved positing a typical ant’s ability to locate food in said maze. This kind of thing. All nonsense, of course.”

Finally the day of reckoning arrived. We budding insect researchers were ready for our presentation—or, more accurately, our act. Fortunately, as we know from the above, Jimmy was a good actor. I gladly let my co-conspirator take the lead when it came time for us to explain our impressive faux-project to our dazzled teen age peers, and somewhat more skeptical teacher. While I struggled to keep a straight face, the talented thespian-cum-inventor explained, with the aid of his fictive charts, how this ant had behaved when separated from his cohorts, and so forth.

The presentation was a success. Not only were our fellow students fooled; so was our gullible teacher. Several days later Jimmy and I were duly informed that the dynamic icythyological duo would have the honor of representing Van Wyck Junior High School at the Queens Borough Science Fair, to be held the following week at Forest Hills High School!

“Alas, our notoriety proved short-lived. Once again, I let Jimmy take the lead, while I nervously eyed one of the other winning entries, an apparently wholly authentic miniature nuclear device purportedly demonstrating the peaceful—or at least we presumed they were peaceful—uses of nuclear energy. Clearly we were out of our depth.”

“But you wouldn’t have known it from the way Jimmy carried on. Taking the other impressive entries in stride, he went into his by now polished pseudo-academic spiel for the benefit of the assembled judges. Personally, I would have been happy just to get out of there with an honorable mention, but Jimmy wanted glory. He was going for the gold, and nothing would stop him.”

When one judge asked us about our subjects’ ability to hear, Jimmy took the bit in hand and ran with it, going into an elaborate song and dance involving antennae and sound waves, while the brave Van Wyck team’s little friends scurried around on the other side of the glass, blissfully demonstrating whatever they supposed to be demonstrating for the curious judges.

Alas, it didn’t work. Imagination and chutzpah can only get one so far in the realm of science, even high school science. Shortly after our memorable performance at Forest Hills, Jimmy and I were informed that, sadly, they and their little fleet-limbed friends would not be going on to the next round, the citywide science fair.

However, their efforts would not be completely for naught: That quarter I received the highest grade for science I had ever received.

UNFORTUNATELY, my days pulling egg creams were not long to be, and neither was the second incarnation of my parents’ candy store. Inevitably, the same inability to compete with discount and chain store competition which brought down our Jamaica store would have the same effect on our Flushing outlet.

However the event that accelerated the process and sealed our fate was the month long New York City newspaper strike in September, 1965. We, as well as the reading public, had already gotten a preview of what a newspaper strike was like and the impact such an event could have both on our business and the newspaper business in the fall of 1962, when Thomas Murphy, the power-hungry head of the Newspaper Guild, this being the heyday for the municipal trade unions, called a sudden strike at The New York Times, forcing that paper to close, leading the city’s other major newspapers to shut their doors in sympathy and locking out 17,000 newspaper workers in the process.

For three long months, the city and our readers did without newspapers, and so did we—barely. Fortunately, although the affected papers lost both a considerable amount of advertising revenue and readership as a result of that action, leading both the Times and the Herald Tribune to afterwards increase their price per copy (from a nickel to a dime), all of the struck papers survived in fairly good shape, as did we, as our newsprint-famished customers rushed to the store to buy their favorite morning and afternoon papers in quantity. The Kennedy assassination and the subsequent upsurge of publicist in currents events accelerated the recovery process, one of the perverse aftereffects of that tragic event.

There was no such similar recovery process following the shorter, more devastating 1965 action. In what resembled a Darwinian purge, all but three publications vanished from the city’s daily journalistic landscape, the morning Times and News, and the afternoon Post, leaving New York’s reading public with that many fewer options. Gone, now, were The Herald Tribune, The World Telegram, The Long Island Daily Star, and The Long Island Daily Press.

Gone, too, was a sizable chunk of Harry and Midge’s Candy Store business. The consequent loss of customer traffic and sales volume signaled the beginning of the end of our resuscitated store. Those customers of ours who had previously bought the Tribune and the Times in the morning sadly did not now buy two copies of the Times. Perhaps even more damaging was the concomitant lack of business that had been an extension of the additional sales to those same newspaper readers.

Now, in addition to doing without a second paper, some customers also did without that extra pack of cigarettes, which, perversely, had also been part of our lifeblood; after all, the Surgeon General had issued his warning about the deleterious effects of tobacco by then. Bottom line: our customers simply weren’t buying anymore. Meanwhile, too, a number of those larger discount stores and supermarkets which had helped snuff out our Jamaica store had invaded our new turf and were casting noxious fumes in our direction, as well.

The bottom line: our customers, young and old, simply weren’t buying anymore. Seeing this gave me an awful sense of déjà vu. After all, I had seen this happen once before. Now, being somewhat older, the process impacted me all the more. My mother kept up her brave smile, while my father kept stoically plugging away, however, as I could see, when I returned to the store in the afternoon after classes at Van Wyck to take up my shift on our sinking ship, we had taken a torpedo beneath the water line. It was only a matter of time before we sank.

FIRST my father’s health sank.

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