May 15, 2022
By Arthur H. Gunther III
Once upon a time – this seems a fairy tale of sorts – a 14-year-old youngster with a huge quarter in his pocket – more money than he touched in an average year – found himself in a sudden heavy June downpour on a village street, under the awning of a storefront A&P.
Now – and I told you this is a bit of a fairy tale – storefront supermarkets are today’s memories, as are a lot of village downtowns. And a quarter isn’t much to most kids now. But this story is circa 1957, and plums cost about 14 cents per pound. A quarter brought you perhaps five luscious red ones, so sweetly juicy that you were beyond even candy heaven when you bit into them. Good ‘N’ Plenty or a Mars bar might rush Grandma’s admonition into your head – “You’re going to get cavities” – but she was always telling you to eat fruit.
The awning under which the 14-year-old huddled with other walkers in the downpour made the dim incandescent bulbs in the A&P shine more directly inside and tempt a youngster to look within. The quarter that had been a pocket buddy for a week now, made shiny by much fingering, caused an ever bigger bulb to go off in the youngster’s head. He went into the market, saw the plums, read the sign, “14 cents per pound,” and picked up a few, moving over to the weighing scale his dad used when they went to the market.
The scale didn’t seem difficult, though the young man had never used one, nor had he ever bought plums, nor had he ever purchased anything in a supermarket.
A day-dreamer in the eighth and other grades, he nevertheless had absorbed enough basic knowledge and arithmetic to know how many ounces were in a pound and that at 14 cents per pound, he could get nearly two pounds of plums for his 25 cents.
He weighed the fruit, determined how much he could buy and took it to a sales clerk in a brown paper bag – no plastic ones yet. The woman at the hand-operated register put the plums on her own scale and used that calculation plus the figures she had in her head for the daily produce charges to arrive at the total cost, after hitting a succession of keys. No tax, and that is no fairy tale.
The cost was 23 cents, and the young fellow took his bag of plums, feeling awfully grown up in the process. The summer rain was kept away by the awning long enough to stand in front of the storefront A&P and devour the fruit in rapid order. The boy then continued his journey home, now with two pennies in his pocket, soon to be made as shiny as was the quarter. The money would eventually buy one Bachman straight pretzel.
More than fruit was digested that day in a long-ago time, in what seems like a fairy tale but which was not.
The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier one.