I was just about to open a can of soda when I glanced out the window and saw my buddy Alner pull up next door and start unloading his car.
“I swear,” he said, heading toward his front door, two bags to a hand. “It’s like there’s some kind of conspiracy to annoy me. First, it’s off to the supermarket for a couple of things, then to the home improvement store four towns down the highway and then to the pharmacy in another mall and …”
When I grinned, his defeated expression told me he realized what he’d let himself in for. Within seconds, thanks to my power of metaphysical travel, we were strolling down a Wyoming Valley street of many decades ago.
“You know my ice cream’s going to melt,” he muttered.
“Relax,” I said. “I have many powers, and I’ve made sure nothing will happen to your pistachio coconut fandango supreme, or whatever it is.”
“That’s it, mock my tastes. Hey, where are we?”
“Alner, my man, we’re on a little shopping trip in the style of our parents and grandparents. Come on into this store here.”
He looked around in puzzlement as we entered.
“I can’t believe all this stuff,” he said. “It’s like four or five stores in one.”
“This is what they used to call a variety store. It’s small, but you can buy a pound of cheese, a pack of bobby pins, a cigar, a copy of ‘True Confessions’ and a balsa wood airplane for the kids and even play a game of pinball all in one stop. It’s probably within walking distance of your house.”
Opening a big soda case, I took out a couple of freezing glass bottles and handed one to him. When he stared at it, I showed him how to open it on the side of the case.
“Wow, this is …” he marveled, taking a sip.
“This is the way people once drank their sodas,” I smiled, paying the fellow at the cash register as we headed for the door. “Glass bottles chilled to about the temperature of the Bering Sea. By the way, you bring these back and get two cents apiece.”
Outside, Alner looked around and sniffed.
“Something smells good,” he said.
“We’re in a neighborhood commercial district – the ancestor of the shopping center. Every town or section had a little collection of stores of all kinds. What you’re smelling is cinnamon rolls from one of the bakeries down the block. Nothing packaged – rye bread and brownies and everything fresh out of the oven. If you go into a grocery store, you’ll find produce direct from the morning wholesale farmers market. Ever taste really fresh lettuce?”
“Not too many cars on the streets.”
“That’s because in this time most people used an antique mode of transportation known as walking.”
“Amazing,” he said with a shake of the head.
“I agree. Look at the lunch rooms, bars, delis. Down that way is a gas station where you can get repairs done. Want a new TV? There’s an electronics place just up two blocks – and they deliver. It’s next to the store that can fit you for a new suit. Hey, we have to get back.”
I was picking up a couple of his bags when he suddenly stopped and flashed his oh-so-superior grin.
“OK, what’s up, king of the malls?” I asked.
“Think you’re smart? We forgot to get our two cents for the bottles.”
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]