The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
with unreality . . .
–from “The pennycandystore beyond the El,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
When I spend time around small children these days, as I just have, and I see them obsessed with sweets, I think, “Tsk. They shouldn’t be eating that stuff.”
And then I remember when I was that age, when the happiest occasion in my life was to go to the penny candy store and stock up on treats that were garishly colored, unremitting, unrepentant sugar. Pure crap.
Our penny candy store was not beyond the El. We grew up on that farm I am always talking about and the nearest store, about 8 miles away, was a small, old-fashioned corner store run by the Delormes.
This kind of store was the more honest, more interesting version of today’s convenience stores. It was small and carried everyday items. It had a wooden floor that buckled and heaved as the temperatures changed and it had twine, for wrapping your parcels, in a dispenser hanging from the ceiling.
But I’m surprised I even remember those details because when I went to Delormes’ store, I only had eyes for the candy.
The candy was behind the counter but kids were allowed to go back there to feast their eyes on an array of pure bliss, and to make their momentous choices.
The choices weren’t easy. Delormes had it all.
Those little dots of hard frosting on paper that you peeled off, sometimes getting a shred of paper on your tongue with the candy.
Those paper straws full of powdered candy that you poured into your mouth to mix with your saliva and create a sludge that was hard to swallow. I wonder how many kids got vestiges of that powder into their lungs.
Those candy necklaces, little disks of colored candy strung on an elastic cord, that you could wear around your neck or your wrist. I know from experience that, if you wore it around our neck, you could stretch it up to reach your mouth in order to munch away. The string got sticky and wet and then got tangled up in your hair and made it sticky and wet. Incredibly unhygienic.
The store had red and black licorice sticks, of course, unwrapped so you could buy a few and not use all your pennies on a full packet. They had Bonomo taffy and red hot dollars and atomic fire balls and peppermint patties. And Mary Janes, although I would never choose those!
My sister and I loved the Mallo Cups, which cost 5 cents but were worth it.. A Mallo Cup, for the uninitiated, is a perfect cup of milk chocolate, studded with toasted coconut and filled inside with marshmallow crème. And, AND, in the Mallo Cup package, you always got a little cardboard coupon. When you collected enough cardboard coupons, you could send them in and redeem them for more Mallo Cups! Free! For two nerdy little farm girls, getting a package in the mail with free Mallo Cups was about as thrilling as life got.
A trip to Delormes meant you left with a small brown paper sack, stuffed with goodies. If you were really lucky, your grandmother or mother would buy you a Fudgsicle to eat right away so you could save your candy for later.
You would sit with your sister, just you two in the parlor on the blue Oriental rug, and review and your compare your purchases. You might trade or split some candy to share. You would always try to make your last longer than hers, so you could gloat.
Ferlinghetti says that the penny candy store is where he first fell in love with unreality.
The whole concept of penny candy certainly feels unreal now. It’s unreal to think of buying anything for a penny. It’s unreal to think that the candy would be there in bins, open to the air and dozens of grimy little hands.
It felt unreal to us then, too, but in wonderful, magical ways. Unreal that you could feel so rich, with just a quarter to your name. Unreal that the candy was colorful and whimsical and so varied that a person’s goal for their whole childhood could be to try every single one.
Unreal that such a simple thing could provide such silly, simple joy that the memory has lasted my entire life.
Did you have a penny candy store to go to when you were little? Do you even remember penny candy?