When I was 5 and my brother was 8 years old, my parents bought a corner grocery store in South West Philadelphia and moved us from our idyllic boyhood home in Allentown, Pa., over the strong objections of my brother and myself. When we saw our new house, we had a case of "Hate at First Sight". Despite our cries of, "Please don't move here!!", we were bundled from the family Nash and deposited into our quarters above and behind the corner store, a location that would become the setting for my boyhood dramas along with free lessons about religious and racial differences.
The business was destined to fail, doomed by the emergence of supermarkets. My father tried a number of occupations from insurance salesman to department store manager. My mother minded the store and the family until until she was released into her previously set- aside singing career by our subsequent move to Northeast Philadelphia.
One of the jobs that came with the store was "delivery boy". Our local customers called in grocery orders which my a brother and I delivered for whatever tips were forthcoming. A quarter was top dollar for a tip, dimes OK, nickels on the cheap side. One consistent quarter tipper was Mrs. P, who lived a short distance from the store. Mrs. P's orders usually consisted of one highly deliverable box full of groceries.
My first Winter time delivery to Mrs. P. required putting on thick socks, snow boots with buckles, trousers tucked in, a warm sweater or series of shirts, a bulky jacket, earmuffs and a woolen hat or a hat with built-in earmuffs, a scarf, gloves or mittens also clipped to the sleeves of the jacket. Upon reaching Mrs P’s house in all this paraphernalia, it was necessary to climb the porch stairs covered in snow, balance the box against the doorway, and ring the doorbell.
When Mrs P opened the door, the smell that wafted from the interior of her row house was like a sledge hammer to the olfactory nerves. One barely stood one’s ground in the head-wind of that odiferous onslaught! A delivery to Mrs. P.’s house was not for the faint of heart or breath. It required a few seconds to compose oneself, regain the ability to breathe, reacquaint oneself with sensation in the legs, and recover from the shock, all the while maintaining a pleasant aspect for our customer. Taking all of this in stride out of an 8 year-old’s loyalty to our father (whose leadership, strength of character, and ability to be pleasant to customers were obvious), I would plunge ahead into the house.
I had to traverse the complete interior of the house from front door to the very back where the kitchen was located while the strength of the odor increased exponentially with each step forward. As if pressing against a tangible weight, I moved my sodden snow boots ever forward into the darkening gloom of the household, through room after room until I entered the kitchen where I finally beheld in the dim light the source of that unbelievable stench.
There, in the dim light of the farthest room in the house was a large cage and in that cage was a monkey, the source of the smell. Graciously, I exchanged small talk with Mrs. P., as my father would do with all the customers of our grocery store. Small talk, I say, not smell talk, a subject to be avoided like Bubonic Plague (which I might have caught). And after discussing the weather, the state of Mrs. P’s daughters or whatever (smell wipes clean all memory of conversation), I would beat a casual retreat as if nothing were amiss, and be rewarded with a quarter at the front door along with the sure knowledge that there would be an argument about which brother would brave the next delivery to Mrs. P.