March 2, 2008

My Own Private Willy Wonka


My dad is one of those guys who always knew everybody in town. I realize Green Bay was a small town (especially back in the ‘70s), but I get the impression he would’ve known everyone in town no matter where we lived. He just has one of those personalities.

            When I was growing up, he knew politicians, firemen, construction workers, store owners, radio deejays, bums, club owners, bankers, janitors, and journalists. He knew football players, executives in the Green Bay Packers organization, and the guys who set up the professional wrestling matches at the local arena. He even knew the one guy in town (Steve was his name) who gave scuba diving lessons. He knew the guy who ran the costume and novelty shop. If we were working in the front yard, cops would pull into our driveway in their cruisers just to chat for a bit (which, I learned later, always led to a great deal of speculation among the neighbors).

            When I was small—five, six years old—my favorite among all of my dad’s acquaintances was, without question, Pete the Candy Man.

            “There’ll never be anything like him again,” my dad said recently when we were talking about Pete. He’s right, too.

            I can’t say for sure how or why my dad came to know Pete, but we went to see him at his shop almost every weekend. Pete ran, sensibly enough, Pete’s Candy Store—a dirty, cluttered, rinky-dink storefront operation downtown, squeezed in between two dress shops. Even back then it looked like it had been there forever, and given Pete, it may well have been.

            He was the embodiment of “wizened.” He was ancient from the moment I met him. I apologize for being reduced to Star Wars references here, but the best physical analogy that comes to mind is Yoda: Pete was a tiny man with a prune leather face, squinting, delighted eyes, and a thin but ever-present smile. I never saw him without his red-checked short-sleeved shirt, his white apron, and his paper hat. (He gave me a few of those paper hats over the years—I guess so I could pretend to be him). There was something about him that told me he was different—almost alien. He didn’t belong in Green Bay. The heavy Greek accent was part of it. But it was more than that. He didn’t act like most of the other people in town. He was soft-spoken. Even though he put a Packers pennant up in his store, I never got the impression he cared about football very much. There was something indescribable—a mild aura of magic about him and his candy store.

            It was a long, narrow, and shadowy shop, with shelves along one wall lined with bulbous glass jars filled with various colorful wonderments, glass cases along the counter opposite the wall where he displayed the hand-dipped chocolates, caramels, roasted almonds, and peanut brittle, and three enormous wooden barrels on the floor overflowing with tootsie rolls and sour balls.

            By modern health code standards, I can imagine Pete’s Candy Store would be considered a nightmare. The uneven floorboards creaked dangerously, and could’ve used a good sweeping. The shelves hadn’t been dusted in years. The light shining through the front window illuminated the clouds of dust in the air. I didn’t notice that, though, given that the air was always filled with the smells of fresh popcorn and bubbling caramel.

            I don’t think he had any employees—he worked alone, and nearly everything in the shop was handmade.

            Every time my dad, sister and I went in there, Pete would disappear into the back room and emerge a minute later with a basketball-sized glob of fresh, gooey taffy. Then he’d hold it out to either me or my sister. We both knew the drill—grab a double handful of the soft taffy and begin backing up until we hit the counter, pulling a thick rubber band of taffy between us. Then we’d walk it back to Pete, who would mash the ball together again. Then we’d grab another handful, and do the same thing, again and again, until he was satisfied it was the proper consistency. Then he’d flop it down on the counter atop a sheet of wax paper and begin cutting it up. I remember thinking that he probably never let his customers know that some snot-nosed six year-old had been manhandling the taffy when they asked for half a pound.

            Come to think of it, I can’t say as I remember ever seeing another customer in there. And though my dad always made a point of buying a couple of bags of assorted candies from him, Pete always seemed to give away far more than he sold. Every single time I was in there, he’d give me hot popcorn in one of those red-and-white striped cardboard boxes with the clown on the front.

            Unlike most of the other adults I knew back then, Pete didn’t make me nervous. He was also the only adult I ever called by his first name. Part of that might have been due to his unpronounceable last name, but mostly I think it was just a question of attitude. Dealing with Pete was more like dealing with some sort of kind-hearted candy-happy elf.

            My parents have a picture of me and my sister and Pete standing outside his shop. He’s in his apron and his paper hat, and I’m clutching a cardboard box of popcorn. Behind us is the hand painted “Pete’s Candy” sign in fading red and white.

            I don’t remember when I saw him last, or even when the store closed down. I do remember being told that he had died, though. I was living in Minneapolis at the time. Christ, he must have been close to a hundred by that point.

            When I pause to think about my childhood these days, so much of it feels like it’s not my own—like it couldn’t be my own. It sounds more like something I read in a turn of the century novel. I mean, hanging out and pulling taffy at Pete’s Candy store? Who actually did things like that? Hell, we had deadly toys made out of metal, too, and my friends and I climbed trees and went swimming at the quarry. We even had a place not too far from our house that was called “the ol’ fishin’ hole,” where I actually went, um, fishin.’

            What ultimately convinces me that I’m not simply remembering someone else’s amber-tinted boyhood fiction is a sad and sick thing. A symptom of the overarching malignant psychosis of our times. In spite of all of my fond memories of Pete the Candy Man and his dusty old shop, upon looking back on those days now I can’t help but thinking to myself “Gee, I wonder if he was a child molester?”


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