As a kid in the early sixties, I was fascinated with places that seemed exotic (still am!), and alternate entrances to local businesses were high on that list. Because my mother, who usually accompanied us on downtown shopping excursions, always used the front entrance, I had the impression that these other doors were not for public use, and it took me a little while to work up the nerve to check them out.
Manhattan Food Store (later Gristedes) was a community fixture, and we saw all the neighbors there at one time or another. The butcher section of the store seemed to be out of a much earlier era – the floors were wood, covered with sawdust, and there were several chairs where you could sit while your order was being seen to. While we waited, the meat cutter would always hand me a thin slice of bologna, which I folded in quarters and took little bites out of, so that unfolded, it became a bologna snowflake (sounds disgusting now!).
Manhattan’s back door, because it opened onto a small parking lot, seemed to be the most accessible, and it was the one I tried first. For some reason, the little flight of stairs down to the parking lot made it seem more interesting than the front, “walk-up” entrance, which was on the same level as the sidewalk.
The next challenge I set for myself was the Meadowbrook Bank. It was an imposing, old-fashioned structure with a hushed, church-like atmosphere, and the rear of the high-ceilinged main room was set apart by a polished wooden balustrade. I don’t remember a back entrance, but the area behind that railing, where you could spy the stairway down to the safe, appeared to be off-limits – at least my mom never went back there. One day I opened the gate and walked through to take a drink from the water fountain beckoning by the stairs. Because I was so proud of myself, it was like my first taste of champagne!
The most formidable test was the rear entrance to the local Five and Ten, known as Smiles. I loved that store, with its endless variety of small toys corralled within glass dividers atop the heavy wood counters. Most were within my budget, provided I’d saved part of my twenty-five-cent allowance, although I frequently strolled slowly down the aisle gazing into the bins, wishing I could have one of everything. For a dime, I could become the proud owner of one member of a menagerie of tiny, blown-glass animals, sold in matchboxes with a small picture identifying the Lilliputian beast within. On another day, I might buy a little plastic, hinged box containing a couple of ultra-miniature tools with moving parts (I still have some of these!). One of the most fascinating items was a toothpaste-sized box containing a zinc tube of blue goo and a small plastic straw. You put a little dab of the goo on the end of the straw and blew gently through it to create a bubble. After waiting an interval that made the acquisition of this marvel even more imperative, I finally purchased the intoxicating package, only to be disappointed when I realized that I had no idea what to do with the bubbles once they’d been formed. Without ever hearing the Latin phrase, I’d discovered the meaning of Caveat Emptor – “Buyer Beware.”
The reason Smiles posed such a challenge to me was that the salespeople, or floorwalkers, as my mom called them, were not friendly types, especially to children. They followed on our heels all over the store like predators, probably waiting for us to swipe some easily pocketed item. Because of these sourpusses, the local kids often expressed the opinion that Smiles was misnamed – “It should have been called Frowns!”
The approach to Smiles back door passed through a small, dark anteroom that was both stockroom and break area for the employees. The first time I ducked through, it was most likely on the run (no wonder they were leery of us!), because I was afraid one of those imposing adults would try to stop me. A few more forays out the back, and I was ready for the ultimate test – entering the store through this door from the back alleyway!
As I grew older, the excitement afforded by this “clandestine” activity eventually faded (along with the allure of all of the toys). But for the relatively short time that it was my habit, I always felt daring and smug when I opened the rear door and paraded brazenly through, under the glowering stares of the suspicious proprietors. Few things since have given me as much satisfaction!