Back in my day it was different  

Tom Valley

I was watching an old “Andy Griffith Show” and couldn’t help but reminisce. Barney walked through the door at Andy’s house and asked Andy, “Wanna go up to the filling station and get a bottle of pop?”

The memory of such a carefree time brought me back to my days as a youngster in Ogdensburg. We lived on Patterson Street. And kitty-corner from our place was the Seymour homestead: The home of childhood friends Paul and Joe Seymour, along with their wonderful parents, seven sisters and five brothers. One of Ogdensburg’s finest families, they still are. Right beside their house was Winter Park.

Winter Park was where St. Mary’s Academy, almost five blocks away, held their football and baseball games. It was a far cry from what we know today as a well-manicured, carefully defined high school athletic complex. For all intents and purposes, Winter Park was simply a field, an empty lot, about the size of a city block. And of note, the players walked to and fro for practice and games held there.

The aging ballpark had a semi-functional backstop in one corner, with some unkempt sand serving as an infield for the baseball diamond. In left field, running toward center field, was the designated football field. The only revealing factor that delineated it as a gridiron was a single goalpost. A crooked, bent goalpost like one you’d see in an apocalyptic movie as the very last vestige of a time before the earth was abandoned because giant fruit flies had overrun the planet and had literally turned every city into “The Big Apple,” gnawing the bejesus out of everyone and everything in its way. Frightening.

And, apparently, the bugs weren’t into football, or in the business of upkeep of such fields for historical purposes or for any other purpose and had, thus, let it go to hell. Their choice, I guess.

Where was I? Across the street from Winter Park were the Hollis and O’Neil family homes. (Two more great families.) Mr. O’Neil was a kindly gent who would, seemingly, always be sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch. His friendliness, born of gratitude from the experiences of life, manifested into a warm, friendly smile whenever I passed by. His son, Mike — good friends with my brother, Mike — was usually in the driveway practicing his deadly left-handed jump shot at a rickety old basketball rim attached to the family garage. (Of note, that routine paid dividends for “Lefty” and the high-school team in the following years.)

A half-block farther up the street was Lisa Boyer’s corner grocery store. (And for point of emphasis about the commonality of these stores, there was another one right across the street from hers called Amo’s.)

Mothers relied on these businesses as an additional pantry. If they discovered that their cupboard was bare and their half-made cake was shy a cup or two of flour, they could send one of their kids up the street to fetch whatever was needed to ensure the family dessert would be ready for suppertime. Fathers used them as a source for pipe tobacco, cigarettes and cheap cigars. And for us kids, these were oases for snacks, sweets, Bazooka gum and, of course, as Barney Fife mentioned, “a bottle of pop.” The corner stores were mainstays, bastions of the neighborhood with a little something for everyone.

With 15 to 20 cents in our torn dungarees, my friends and I could satisfy our cravings by jumping on our bikes and making a beeline to the corner store to buy some chocolate covered treats called Lady Fingers, some wax bottles with a thimble-full of sweet syrup inside, and a cold soft drink. We’d chug our Mission Orange beverage on the front steps and trade in the empty bottles for three more pieces of licorice as the crowning achievement of our dietary ignorance. Life was good.

That all changed in the decades that followed when the “filling stations” cleaned up their acts by eliminating their service areas, swept the floors and stocked their newly installed shelves with Wonder Bread, pickles, motor oil and cigarette rolling papers.

The writing was on the wall for the corner store when the writing on the walls at the gas stations was painted over, the walls were tiled and clean mirrors put up. The moniker “convenience store,” which was given to these hybrid amalgamations, was ironic in the sense that they weren’t as local (to most) as the corner stores and, for all intent and purposes, were less convenient. Whatever.

And for some reason, not hard to figure out, the ring of going to the convenience store for a bottle of pop just isn’t the same. Ah, the good old days.

That’s the way it looks from the Valley.

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