"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Yale, The Demise of Jimmy’s, And The End Of An Era

Jimmy’s Smoke Shop sold girlie magazines, newspapers, candy, cigarettes, and joke items.

The dwarf who handled the cash register never minded if we thumbed through Hot! and Come as long as we bought something – a Three Musketeers, Snickers, or a fake spider.

Jimmy never did anything to the store, and by the time we had graduated from candy and Slut to Mad Magazine, the place stank like a Bowery settlement house.  Jimmy let Frank Hauser, a bum who panhandled on Franklin Square, get out of the cold in the winter and sleep on the boxes in the back; but the reek of poor Frank seeped out of the storage room, and his rancid smell was everywhere.

Years of dropped coffee, spit, and ground out cigarette butts had stained and stiffened the ratty wool carpet Jimmy had put in to give the place some class; and once Jimmy got the Peter Pan commission, the smells of garlic, kielbasa, and cheroots added by waiting passengers stunk the store up even more.

Smells get into the woodwork, into the small cracks in the tiles, and cling to the grease on top of the ceiling fan.  The building was already old when Jimmy bought it, built in 1870 when New Brighton was enjoying boom times and was an industrial capital of New England.  The old beams, already smelling of creosote, had soaked up gas lamps, coal oil, and the cigar smoke of the town’s burghers who came to buy New York papers and talk business before opening up Farmer Bearing, Barter Works, and North and Jason.

Every year and long after I had left New Brighton, I returned to visit my parents and Jimmy.  The joke items disappeared, he stocked the Boston papers in addition to the Times and Post from New York, he got the Greyhound concession, and added Kools and Newports as his clientele changed from the old Italians and Poles who had settled before the War to the ‘colored people’ and Puerto Ricans who had moved in after it.  Jimmy added a few more racks to the girlie section after the Sixties opened things up in the porn business.  Editions of Crack and Cunt edged out Popular Mechanics and The Farmers’ Almanac, but the place itself never changed.  It stank worse than ever, and the carpet – which Jimmy refused to get rid of on principle – now had as many sores, holes, ragged tufts, and open wounds as the stray dogs rummaging in the trash bins in the alley behind the store.

After the factories left, downtown New Brighton lost its haberdashery, banks, and medical buildings.  Now there were hair and nail places, bail bond offices, and Jamaican curry take-outs.  It was trashy, derelict, and far from the respectable working place of doctors, lawyers, and shopkeepers of the Fifties.

Yet I kept visiting Jimmy, buying a Times and shooting the shit about the town and how it had gone downhill. “I’m moving to Florida”, he always said but never did.  He never made enough off of bus tickets and newspapers to save any money, and he kept waiting for the inevitable.  “I’ll die in this fucking place”, he said, and last year he did.  Jimmy Pantucci was 86 when he toppled over and sent the candy racks flying.  A small obituary in the New Brighton Chronicle noted that he was the son of immigrants who had had worked in the factories and who had made his way up to floor manager in the die press division before leaving the company to buy the store.  “Jimmy was a fixture in New Brighton.  He was loved, admired, and will be missed by his family and friends”.

Jimmy was really just an old prick who managed to keep a tacky business going.  He had no particular entrepreneurial acumen.  The bus trade just dropped in his lap, and he had been the go-to place for girlie rags for decades, so the creeps just kept coming.  The demand for cigarettes, snuff, and chaw went up as poor minorities filled the city emptied of its wealthy patrons who moved to Farmington and West Hartford.

After my parents died and I had no real reason to visit my hometown, I still took the exit off 84 on my way to Boston, stopped for coffee and donuts at the New Brighton Diner, and went to visit Jimmy.  Last week when I turned off on my way to New Haven, Jimmy’s was gone.  It had been sold to Lebanese investors who saw some likely small return from the store.  Gone were the girlie magazines, the stink, and the rat-shit carpet.

I was in Connecticut to attend my 50th Yale Reunion, my first reunion ever.  I was far from New Haven for my 10th, avoided the 25th and the pumped-up, silk-tie braggadocio reported by my older friends; but felt that it was now or never.  The clock was ticking, the tunnel narrowing, and the class getting smaller and smaller. 

More than anything, I hoped that my classmates would be able to offer some clues about how to deal with death and dying.  I had gone just about as far as I could with Tolstoy and his chilling accounts of the death of Ivan Ilyich and Count Andrei and needed contemporary insights if not solace. I was looking forward to meeting friends I hadn’t seen in fifty years, for I was sure that whatever I found attractive and engaging then would still be there.

Twenty years ago I attended a reunion of my country day school.  Our class was small, no more than ten, and I had liked all my classmates.  I figured that since we last saw each other when we were fourteen, the reunion would be more a meeting of childhood friends than an adult reunion, and there would be no posturing, or pissing matches.  I was looking forward especially to seeing Herbie C., my closest friend whom I had not seen for years. When I sat with him at the reunion dinner, I realized that he hadn’t changed a bit.  He was funny, even goofy, disarming, and warm. That was not the way I would have described him at 12 when we met, but children don’t yet judge, categorize, and conclude anything at that age.  Only as an adult could I see what Herbie was and what I must have liked when we were children.

College is different.  I knew very well why I liked H., S., and B., my closest friends at Yale; and because of my country day school experience, I was sure that they would not have changed; but I was curious to see how their particular and special humor, intelligence, and energy had evolved.  I was not disappointed.  They were no different. We were still friends and always would be.

Yale is a special place, but I didn’t know that fifty years ago.  I went in and out of Sterling Library, the stacks, and the reserve book room as fast as I could.  I made the long trek to Commons from the Old Campus as a Freshman three times a day to eat, but like Sterling, got in and out to return to a busy schedule.  I crisscrossed the campus, took shortcuts through Saybrook, Silliman, and Davenport, and played Frisbee on the lawns of Cross Campus.

On my return I saw things differently.  Sterling Library was a cathedral.  The residential colleges were Gothic, unusual, and all different.   I noticed friezes, inlays, statues, spires, and columns that I had never seen before.  Yale was truly a special and unique place.  It was not just any college.

Our formal Class dinner was held at Commons which I now saw as the monumental neo-Greek Classical building it is, not just as a dining hall.  It holds a thousand people, the number of Freshman in every incoming class, and it is vast – impressively big and austere – but familiar. When we sang Bright College Years, 500 male voices louder, more emotional, and more insistent than we ever could have managed fifty years ago, the vast hall was loud and resonant. No one could miss the point.  We were a part of Yale and its three hundred year history. 

With the closing of Jimmy’s I have closed the chapter on New Brighton.  I have no reason now to visit the town and I never will again.  I have never visited Yale in the fifty years since graduation, but I will from now on.

1 comment:

  1. I too failed to recognize the gift I have been given when I was submitted to Yale. It wasn't until the end of my sophomore year that I really began to catch on. As I look back, I realize what a difference Yale made in my life. For one thing, it helped me to prepare my children so that they were able to recognize the gift of college from the beginning. And while they chose to go to other top-ranked colleges than Yale, they understood and were able to benefit from the beginning. I had not been back to New Haven since our 25th; but my wife and I will make a point of stopping by every time we get a chance from now on. Another example of things not appreciated when we were young that would be wonderful to go back and enjoy now that we truly understand. Phil Anderson

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