Mon, May 11, 2009 at 10:46 PM
An Eerie Erie Store Story
In the winter of 1971, I lived in Erie, Pennsylvania where I shared a basement apartment off East 38th Street with a constantly-changing assortment of factory workers, freaks, musicians and professional couch surfers. I had just been laid off and I spent my days looking for work. Jobs were nearly impossible to find. I had no car and didn't even know anyone with a phone. My routine consisted of getting up around 6:00 AM, buying a newspaper, and walking downtown to Dominicks or The Boston Store to read the Times-News classifieds and use the pay phone to call any ad that looked promising.
This particular morning, I chose my East 12th street office at Dominicks. It was warm; the waitresses were friendly and the coffee refills kept coming without complaint or comment. As usual, there was nothing at all in the paper except for the typical straight commission fire alarm sales come-ons that I had already learned to avoid. I decided to walk up Cherry Street to 26th and apply at some of the foundries and small factories along the way. It was bitter cold and the wind found my face even if I turned my back to it.
One shop took my application and said to check back in a couple of months when they might be hiring. Another told me not to bother applying at all. There were no openings and none contemplated. I continued my trudge up the hill, smoking my last Marlboro as I walked. On my right, around Brown Avenue (which everyone called “Brown's Avenue” for some reason) there was a field of dried grass gone to seed and in the center of the field was a small store. It was the commercial version of the typical Erie working class house: small, wooden framed and covered with those grim gray asphalt shingles. A few wooden steps led up to the roofed doorway, over which hung a faded metal Drink Coca-Cola sign. I climbed them and entered with the intention of buying another pack of Boros.
Inside, it was nothing remarkable at all, just a few aisles of canned goods, bread, cereal, etc. There was a small open area near the counter with two kitchen chairs facing a big wooden wire spool turned on end for a table. We had one like it back at the apartment that we referred to jokingly as “early hippie.” The guy behind the counter was tall and lean, around sixty, with snow white hair and the kind of look people often described as “youthful.” He wore one of those off-the-shelf Dickies work uniforms that came in several work-related colors. This one was steel gray. I handed him some change and bought my cigarettes. When I turned to leave, I spotted one thing that was a little unusual: a big red metal Coca-Cola cooler. I was not a big soda (or pop) fan, but even then, Coke in glass returnable bottles was becoming a rarity and I was starting to miss it. Canned or plastic-bottled Coke never tasted as good. I opened the cooler, expecting to find cans, but it was filled with shaved ice and those awesome little six-ounce glass bottles of Coke. I fished another dime out of my pocket, opened one, and sat down at the early hippie wire spool table to enjoy it.
“You looking for work?” the guy asked me with a smile. In retrospect, he looked and acted a lot like Leslie Nielson.
“Yeah. I am. And there's not much to be found.” I replied.
“Well, I expect things to pick up around March or April so don't give up. It'll get better.” he said.
I thanked him, finished my Coke and got up to leave.
“You finished that Coke awful fast.” he said. “Grab another to take with you. On the house.”
Feeling about 200% better about Erie, the world and life itself, I fished another Coke out of the cooler, thanked him and left. In the short time since I entered the store, the temperature outside had soared into the balmy twenties and the wind had calmed considerably.
I finished the Coke before I reached the sidewalk and chucked the empty into the tall weeds. It was about that time that I put everything together and got an overwhelming sense of “That did NOT just happen!” Except for that field, that part of town was packed solid with closely-spaced houses and businesses. We had lots of corner stores in Erie, but they were on corners, beside sidewalks which ran along streets. This store was literally in the middle of a field, and stranger still it had no driveway or parking lot. And the store clerk didn't seem much like a store clerk. I got the impression from his age and demeanor that he owned the place but there was still something off about him, like he was playing a part. He seemed like just too nice a guy to exist. Sitting there and drinking that Coke, I experienced a sense of peace and well-being that was entirely out of character for me and for the times. What I probably thought of then as “good vibes,” but good vibes didn't begin to describe what I felt. The whole thing was just plain wrong. Wrong in a very serene and joyous sense, but wrong nonetheless and I knew it. I resisted the urge to turn back and pick up the bottle or even look over my shoulder at the store I knew damn well would not be there. Instead, I focused on Cherry Street, now just a few feet away, and didn't even look down at the weeds I was wading through to get there.
As I walked up Cherry Street, I took out my pack of Marlboros and examined it. It was an ordinary Marlboro hardpack, with an ordinary green Pa. tax stamp on the bottom. None of the cigarettes in it got me high, emitted a genie, or for that matter were any better or worse for me than any cigarette I had smoked before. But I saved the empty pack, for a year or so at least, before losing it or inadvertently throwing it out.
I left Erie a few months later (Things never really did get better there.) and it was over twenty years before I would mention the incident to anyone. In the late Seventies, I got married and moved back there. My wife and I lived there for six years, and I never told her about the store. We had been living in Erie for two or three years before I actually parked my car along 12th Street one Saturday while she was at work and retraced my steps of that long ago winter morning. There was no store and no field. Cherry Street, near Brown Avenue was mostly residential and the houses had been there since at least the Twenties.