I guess that I was I about six years old when my mother felt that I was sufficiently mature and responsible enough to begin doing chores and errands to earn my keep. One pleasant chore that I was given was to “Go down the block to Gumerick’s Grocery Store.”
When I walked into this provincial grocery store at that tender age, felt as if I was walking into a magical bazaar filled with exotic merchandise and medley of aromas. If I were to describe the aroma of that store as a formula for a perfume it would be as follows:
Mix the smell of a Jewish salami with the fragrance of garlicky pickles with a dash of the scent of caraway seeds on a fresh Pechter’s rye bread, a whiff of schmaltz herrings aging in a barrel, a smidgen of the redolence of fresh cut American cheese and the tiniest, sweet wafting scent chocolate from a huge of the slab of seven-layer cake I can still smell that blast of olfactory delight just as Marcel Proust could taste those madeleines of his time. That aroma will not be found on this planet again. Those stores that produced those sensual treats are just memories in the hearts and souls of their patrons whose numbers are slowly diminishing.
On these short excursions my mother would give me an abbreviated shopping list: A half pound of salami, four rolls and a sour pickle.
I was intrigued with Mr. Gumerick’s dexterity in first peeling the salami and slices of almost cutting off equal thickness. In retrospect, it was amazing how, when asked for a half pound of the checkerboard instinctively the pound of the density knew and volume of that particular cake from the Messing Bakery and deftly cut a rectangular piece that precisely weighed eight ounces. Then when the order was completed, he would pluck the stubby pencil that was perched on his ear and with the rapidity of an early IBM Univac Computer, he would write the prices on brown paper bag and totaled it in nanosecond.
On my way out, I would dawdle for a few moments at the glass case that enclosed the various candies he stocked. I remember an older girl buying what to me looked like a diamond necklace. When I asked what it was, was told that it was rock candy and Mr. Gumerick gave me a small crystal to savor. What a delight for a naive little boy who thought that he was eating diamonds!
As I skipped out of the store, bag in hand, the phantom of aromas followed me for a while as I wended my way home.
When I became a fledgling, I was now able to walk to other environs of the Village and I became familiar with the other grocery stores: Mr. Kurzer, Blaustein’s, Pessel’s, Buckstein’s, Markman’s and Lopilato’s Italian Grocery. They were all basically the same; each proprietor was draped in a white apron with a stubby pencil a perched behind his right ear. However, each grocer did have an individual personality. Mr. & Mrs. Gumerick were not effusive with words, but they seemed to like to serve their customers. Mr. & Mrs. Kerzer also had dour looks but were very nice to me. I started to “hang out” with Mr. Kerzer and worked my way up to his Passover order delivery boy, a very responsible job for a ten-year old. I would help him fill the orders from a checklist submitted by each customer, pack items in cardboard boxes and deliver them with dispatch to the denizens who eagerly awaited their matzoh meal to prepare their matzoh balls for the Passover meal.
I would carefully pack my homemade wagon – a large box from the Smoke House – (incidentally, the smell of lox lingered in the wagon for years) and wheels from a discarded baby carriage. I performed all these duties in anticipation of a tip, generally a quarter, since it took a bit of acumen and skill to deliver sundry groceries and four dozen eggs that had to arrive unscathed.
What a happy boy I was the first night of Passover as I ran down the street pulling my empty wagon and listening to the jingling coins in the pocket of my corduroy knickers anticipating my mother’s Passover fare: homemade gefilte fish with fiery horseradish; savory hot meat borscht that was the end-product of a huge crock that was kept in the cellar filled with fermenting beets that emitted a malodorous odor during the four preceding weeks; pot roast from the best cut proffered by Mr. Lupshik. After deep discussion and inspection which I would witness knowing that he would soon smile at me, pat me on the head and then cut a thick slice of salami and hand it to me as one would give a tender morsel to a favorite cat; and all would be washed down with endless glasses of my mother’s fragrant raisin wine.
Thank you, momma, for all your gastronomical delights which every master chef from Le Cirque could never replicate with all their pretensions and white truffles!
(This article originally appeared in the Middle Villager.)