by jack benny
A 1972 little kid. From his perspective.
Driving home I marvel at the new construction. The road has been widened. The traffic is intense. There are new streetlights, new buildings, and new people. I round a turn I hardly recognize with all the changes. Suddenly, I know exactly where I am. There it sits, abandoned. The parking lot is still gravel although now weeds are knee high throughout. There seems to be railroad ties dumped untidily next to its red and whitewashed sides. Faded, forlorn and forgotten, Packard’s Farmer’s Market still stands. Even when I was a kid in the 1970s Packard’s looked in disrepair. Its sides always seemed faded, the potholes immense. It was the character of the building itself. If it had been painted and paved, it wouldn’t have been Packard’s. This was a true farmers market.
Packard’s was only open Wednesdays and Fridays. My mother would pack me into the green Buick eventually to pull into the rutted gravel so she could “grocery shop”. The dust choking, the rocks crunching, we would walk past wooden and wire packing crates and peach baskets. The creaking wood door would open to reveal amazing things to a kid. Everything could be found at Packard’s, everything worthy of mention that is. My mother would begin with a butcher who had a white enamel and curved glass case containing anything one could make or take from an animal. Red and white calves ribs, pinwheels of meat, sausages and kielbasa, scrapple and tongues. A large man wearing an apron that had once been white stands and takes my mother’s order. His name began with a “P” and ended in “ski” like every other Polish name I had ever heard growing up. Pultulski, Pulanski, Pulaski. My mother would order from the large man who wrapped the meats in paper, taped them, and set them aside for later pick up. As fascinating as dismembered pigs were to a boy, I had bigger plans. Packard’s meant apples and hardware, odd lot glassware, birdcages and baskets, pickles and penny candy.
Quarter clutched in hand, I would run from the slaughtered livestock and tear down the length of the building, bank left past the pickle barrels to eventually end where the candy stall was located. Not just any candy, penny candy.
True penny candy, except for rare instances is never wrapped. It is laid out in bins, poured into lidless glass, tangled in trays. Penny candy is not displayed, it’s dumped at kid height. It is not chocolates or candy bars. Those are proper candies and live in the adult echelons of the confectionary world. This candy needed no glass to display, no lids to cover it, for it was too sweet for flies. Simplicity and color are the watchwords for these delights. White ribbons of paper with dots of blue, changing to green, then yellow are piled in one corner. Perfectly round aptly named jawbreakers that changed color as they got smaller during their sucking. Pink and yellow flying saucers had the added benefit of tiny BBs that rattled about inside, melted in your mouth like a communion wafer. Root beer barrels that looked like brown glass and were just as hard. Mary Janes and dumdums were the exception to the wrapping rule. Mary Janes were like eating peanut butter that had turned into obsidian and DumDums were to be avoided unless one could find the “mystery flavor” marked on the wrapper as a question mark. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I found out that these were transitional suckers at the factory while they changed from one chemically induced flavor to another. If they were running raspberry, but now needed orange, why clean everything out? Rather than waste it, and rightly figuring kids don’t know anyway, label them as a question mark! Who knows what it tastes like? These were combination-flavored balls on a stick. You might get an orange root beer sucker, or perhaps a gooseberry lime. You never knew. Ingenious 1970’s recycling combined with marketing equals demand. There is a lot to be said for buying something then finding out what it is…even today. A little mystery is as important in the sucker as it is in the I-pad world.
Next to the penny candy was an iron peanut roaster. This was a silver and red, pre-industrial revolution machine. It would bang and whirl, worn reddish orange lead based, paint chipped wheels spinning and after some gut wrenching wheezing, its belts would puff ambrosia into the air. The smell of hot peanuts spitting out is too much temptation to any mortal, especially a kid with half a Swedish fish stuck between the molars. Thats asking too mutch. After paying and having the treasures safely enclosed in a small paper bag printed with stripes and smiling dancing peanuts, it was off to the other side of the isle.
Here a small stall held a white wire revolving display packed with jokes, gags, and “items sure to amuse your friends”. My brother and I would peruse the largess of sea monkeys, marked cards and scantily clad women screeching in fright from rubber mice. We would argue over weather or not the fly trapped in the plastic ice cube would really fool our sister, or if the bloody soap would actually work as pictured on the cellophane wrapper. Gum spiked with jalapeno looked promising with the tag line “guaranteed to spice up any party!” and rubber ants of course were always useful. But I had my eye on “snappy gum.” This little gem was a mousetrap camouflaged nicely as a package of gum, set to wreak havoc on your unsuspecting friends when they were offered a stick. My last precious dime was laid on the counter. What could I say? I was hooked by the vision of surprise on my friends face at my next dinner party. With wisdom that comes from age, my brother would stick to the tried and true fake doggie doo.
Behind us are three giant pickle barrels, standing as tall as I with plastic hinged lids and tongs. Little seeds floated around the abyss of pickle juice. We always talked about the woman who picked out her pickles for the week and found someone had sampled one and slid it back into the brine. I always thought of taking a bite of one and replacing it, but didn’t have the nerve. The man who owned the pickles rarely moved from his stool and wore a green apron and a scowl.
Everything else is anti-climax. Past umbrellas, retread tires, rugs, keys, a custom foam cushion dealer, I wander in the general direction of my mother. By now she is busy picking out vegetables and fruit from a bustling stall. “Should we get oranges or apples?” she asks me when I finally arrive.
My answer is a shrug of shoulders. Ten oranges fill the bag, each stamped “Sunkist”. With the shopping done, everything ends up in a wax –coated cardboard box to be put in the trunk. My mother once again negotiates the potholes to get to the road home.
Only now the interior of the Buick is filled with the exciting stories of the people, the pickles, and pigsfeet of Packard’s.