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 occasion