I come from a very large family and at an early age, I became aware that we were poor. We were not poor in the sense of having to settle for the older version of the new gaming system. We were poor in the “mom knows you took a dime of the grocery change to buy a bubble gum ball” sense. That was a problem because I was a kid who loved candy.
I would do about anything to get it and I knew that my parents would never buy it for me. Halloween was the greatest holiday ever, but you can’t live on Halloween candy all year long. I knew I had to earn my own money.
I was eight when I convinced my parents to let me get a job delivering newspapers. That was a few years too young to get a traditional paper route. It was not too young for “Grit, America’s Good News Newspaper”. I mailed away a coupon in the back of a comic book and they sent me my first papers. I practiced my sales pitch for a week with my dad. Then I traipsed around the neighborhood extolling the virtues of a newspaper with only good news in it.
When I finally got a paycheck, I went right to the penny candy store. It was a little place called Cacchiachuties and because I was a boy I always used to say girls couldn’t go there because they would catch the cooties. This store was heaven to me. There were dozens of types of candy and most of them could be had for a penny.
I arrived with my dollar and seven cents. It was more money than I had ever spent on candy before. With tax, I could buy 100 pieces of candy. I stared at the bounty that could be had and started doing math that would have made astronauts jealous.
It was the same kind of math you can see when kids turn in their tickets at an arcade and chose prizes. I could buy 25 of the sour patch kids, and 28 Swedish fish and 23 wafer saucers and 24 squirrels, or I could drop the fish by 8 and split the difference in sour cherries or I could buy the wax lips for a dime since they would last so long and were so big. I always got tricked by the wax lips. It was like they had some kind of pheromone that made you buy them and then regret it but buy them again next time.
I finished my purchase, convinced I had chosen the absolute perfect combination of one hundred candies. I knew I had reached a new level of affluence because the shopkeeper, Pat Cacchiachutie himself, had to use a medium sized brown paper bag for my purchases. I’d never gotten a medium sized bag before.
As I walked home I felt like everybody passing on the street or in a car was looking at my bag in admiration. “There goes a boy who can afford his candy”, they must have been saying. I didn’t save much money that summer, but I got what I wanted. I had a supply of candy that was mine, that I earned with my own money. I couldn’t eat it in front of anybody for fear of my mom making me share with my brothers and sisters. I would hide in the closet, take it out from my hiding place and eat it in the dark. I knew I was successful.
I never got over the sweet tooth. Years later I was able to get a real paper route for the local paper. The first time I collected money on this new paper route, I headed to Cacchiachuties. I had a dream and it was about to come true.
I had always wondered what it would feel like to buy an entire box of candy. I had watched as the storekeeper had rooted around in the boxes before and when he emptied them out. There were five hundred pieces in a box, plus tax of thirty-four cents.
I walked into that store like the Godfather. I watched patiently while he waited on a few small kids. They were carefully choosing how to spend their dimes and he scraped pieces out of the candy boxes for them.
Then it was my turn. The kids seemed to know that something big was going to happen. They stuck around waiting to see what kind of candy the older boy would choose.
“I’ll take the sour patch kids I said”.
He asked how many I wanted and I said.
“I’ll take the box.”
The kids were paying attention now and I was feeling like a banker.
“You want the rest of the sour patch kids in the box,” he said?
I think he worried that he would have to count out several hundred pieces for me.
“No”, I said. “I want a whole box.”
He looked surprised, the kids looked shocked, and I felt like I was going to explode with the tension. I placed four wrinkled dollars on the counter and four quarters, then counted out three dimes and four pennies. He smiled at me and reached under to counter to bring out a fresh box. He packed it in a large bag, a large brown paper bag. I walked out of that store and my feet didn’t hit the ground until I got home.
I went right to the closet and separated the serrated edges of my box. I opened it like they did in the store. I had always conserved my candy to make it last, but now I had the supply. I had the whole box and I wasn’t sure what to do.
I smelled them and they made the whole closet fruity. I threw four of them in my mouth and then a handful more after that. I licked the sour coating off the next few and then I took little bites and tried to find new ways to eat them.
I wasn’t a third of the way through the box before my tongue got swollen, bumpy and painful. I wasn’t worried though. Candy doesn’t make you sick. It had always been a constant in my life, a dependable source of joy and how could that be bad. The only thing you had to worry about with candy was cavities, everybody knew that.
I came down with hives an hour later. I was called to supper and my mom took one look at my face and nearly lost her Irish Stoicism. She had me open my mouth and saw my multi-colored tongue. It was abraded to shreds by little gummy sugars and somehow she knew. She didn’t make me tell her though or get rid of my stash. She did smile knowingly when I choked down supper. I didn’t taste a thing for a week.
Those sour patch kids lasted me a month. I ended up sharing them with my brothers and sisters. I could never eat more than a few of them again without my tongue swelling up.
I learned you really could fly too close to the sun. I had learned my lesson though, sugar coated things were not for me. A couple of months later I got a box of Swedish fish instead.