Essays - Spring 2019

The Man Behind the Counter

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A neighborhood grocer, inscrutable and gruff, lingers mysteriously in my memory

By Lynne Sharon Schwartz | March 4, 2019
Feliciano Guimarães/Flickr

As a small child in deepest Brooklyn, postwar, pre-cool Brooklyn, I had many wishes, mostly extravagant and drawn from fantasy. But one of my most fervent was modest and attainable: I wanted permission to cross East New York Avenue by myself. I was allowed to wander around the neighborhood on my own or with friends—parents then were far less anxious and hovering. But East New York Avenue, which ran perpendicular to our narrow street, was forbidden: it was dauntingly wide, with heavy two-way traffic, a bus route, and no stoplight. You had to wait for a break in the swishing parade of cars, as you might at the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele in Rome, and then dash across, a leap of faith. When I went back years later, I found, as often happens, it was not so wide after all, nothing compared with the broad avenues of Manhattan, never mind Rome.

Finally, when I was about eight, I got my wish. My goal was the dim, cramped candy store on the far side of East New York Avenue, with its abundant riches. My father began sending me there to buy him cigars and would reward me with their gold paper rings.

But this privilege carried with it the unlooked-for task of getting groceries for my mother at Mr. Blustein’s store, which was next door to the candy store and, like it, the size of a luxurious walk-in closet. I was glad to be judged grown-up enough for this errand—my mother was pregnant and, given her history of miscarriages, was advised to stay in bed as much as possible—but I also dreaded it. I was intimidated by Mr. Blu-stein, the grocer, who sat on a high stool behind a counter, surrounded by boxes and cans.

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