Corner markets were common in San Diego in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Whether you were a kid or one of those high schoolers that people had started calling “teenagers,” those little stores were the “go-to” for Babe Ruths and Hershey’s candy bars, for Orangeades, Cokes, and Pepsi Colas.
So, walking home after school from Hoover High, my friends Shary and Jackie and I would stop in at a little market on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Copeland Avenue. It wasn’t a place you’d notice, but it offered some groceries and household supplies and the only things that we cared about: candy and soda.
The owner always frowned to see us coming through the door. But then, all teenagers were suspect in those days. At thirteen or so, a kid fell hard from the grace of being indulged to the shock of being persona non grata. After all, people never knew when teenagers might undulate their hips to the rock and roll music played by that Elvis fellow on the Ed Sullivan TV show. Or a teenager might roll up a pack of Lucky Strikes in the short sleeve of his white tshirt, so that any time, he could pull out a smoke right in front of you. Teenage girls? They might slip that extra candybar in their purse when you weren’t looking. Or give you sass. They might even end up PG, if you know what I mean.
But even though the owner of the corner market wasn’t happy to see us, we liked the place because we could depend on it. Sometimes we might change things up by getting a Heath bar instead of a Babe Ruth, a Delaware Punch instead of a Coke, but the beauty of that little store was that it never changed. When we walked in, we knew there’d be the dusty-clean scent of the bags of flour, the faintly salty scent of Ajax and Bon Ami cleaning powders. When we pulled up the lid of the red metal Coca Cola chest to plunge our hand into the cold water for a soda, a metallic, icy scent would escape.
Until one day, everything changed. On that hot afternoon in late spring, the screen door thwacked closed behind us as usual. But then a smell hit us that was so horrible that we could not at first take it in. We tried not to breathe. It seemed to be everywhere: between the aisles, on the floor, on the cans of Spam and Borden’s Eagle Brand milk. We wanted to back out the door. We wanted to make a run for it. But that would be rude. We didn’t look at each other. We reached for our candy bars, our sodas, though the scent lay on them like a bad joke. We handed over our money.
But as we were leaving, Shary had to ask, “What’s that … smell?”
The owner snapped, “I disinfected the floor with vinegar.”
We burst out the screen door, exhaled and took big breaths. We knew we would never trust the place again.
- Anitra Carol Smith