Was the Woolworth’s from my childhood, on 79th and Broadway, special?
I bet the residents of the Upper West Side kvetched about it when it moved in in 1957, and said “FAN-tastic. Another Woolworth’s,” in the same way we all do now about another CVS or Bank of America.
But I have a soft spot for that store, maybe because:
It’s where I first spent my own money.
When I got a quarter a week for my allowance, I’d plunk it in the vending machine, the kind that’s like a gum ball dispenser but filled with toys stuffed in plastic egg-shaped capsules. Sometimes it was those clammy rubber things you throw at the wall and they climb down like they’re alive; sometimes Squirmels, the pet caterpillar-esque creature on a not-quite invisible fishing line, so you could pull it and make it almost look like it was alive and crawling up your arm. Also, I often got a plastic peanut on a necklace string, which I considered a booby prize.
It’s where I first stole.
Correction: where I first remember stealing. My mom says the theft took place at Red Apple, the supermarket my parents liked to call “Rotten Apple” because every other quart of milk we bought there had a yogurt-y stink layer on top. I boosted an orange-shaped container full of orange juice, with a green stem that functioned as a straw. I’ll trust Mom’s memory, because it might have been more traumatic and therefore memorable for her to realize she’d given birth to a corrupt little sticky-fingers than it was for me to be marched back and forced to confess to some cashier who couldn’t have cared less.
Either way, that warm and fuzzy “my first theft” memory is wrapped up for me with Woolworth’s.
I must’ve stolen something else there that my mom doesn’t know about, which means I didn’t get caught and it was probably gum, which I was only allowed to have every 5 years, or Lik-m-Aid Fun Dip, which I was only allowed to have every 7 years, two very arbitrary rules my mom came up with. She hated gum and thought Lik-m-Aid was poison.
It’s where I got my most important education.
Who needs college? They had great booklets at Woolworth’s. Young people: picture a Youtube tutorial, but in print with a stapled binding.
The ones with greatest impact on my life were:
A “Solve Rubik’s Cube” guide – that puppy helped me set records in school. I was only competing against myself, because no one else knew how to solve the cube. They could’ve bought the booklet, but those shallow kids didn’t even glance at the literature section of Woolworth’s. They skipped it on the way to the Wet ‘n’ Wild lip gloss.
A “How To Beat Donkey Kong” guide – Told you which fireballs to leap over, when to make your Mario wait right under the ladder, all that jazz. I’ve still got some skillz, by the way. Tested them at a place called Barcade. Never leaves your system, like chicken pox.
“Thin Thighs In 30 Days” – my friend and I each bought a copy. Pretty standard stuff. Wall sits, leg lifts, 20-minute walks. In 7th grade, I paired it with a regimen of after-school Jazzercise, for which I dressed in tiny athletic shorts, the kind with contrasting piping and a curved slit, over dark-tan L’eggs pantyhose, which I also bought at Woolworth’s.
One time, I bought L’Eggs Sheer Elegance (praised by the pretty lady in the commercial as “the look and feel of real silk from the Orient”), but the effect they brought to Jazzercise was more sweaty and slippery than silky or…dare I say…Oriental.
Oh, before you search ebay for the booklet, that thin thighs plan only works if you’re biologically capable of thin thighs. My body didn’t come loaded with that function, so the only thing truly skinny after a month was the booklet itself. But that little publication gave me my first taste of self-imposed exercise discipline, which would come in handy for my lifelong body-based craziness.
It’s where I saw my first pervert.
My friend Beth and I were browsing records (Young people – picture a Spotify section you can sort through with your hands), looking for something by The Doors or a 45 of Pass The Dutchie by Musical Youth, when we looked up and saw an old man outside, corduroy pelvis pressed against the window, flicking his tongue at us. We screamed “ew!” and kept looking up to see if he was still there (yes) but didn’t tell an adult. That “rat on the perv” protocol wasn’t in place yet.
The smell is still in my nose.
Not the smell of the pervert, though I could imagine a pervert smelling like that Woolworth’s. Part plastic and rubber, part new pencil, part old-person-smell-covered-in-powdery-perfume, part polyester uniform, part medicinal, part glue. My nose is the most nostalgic part of me, and it’s really holding on to Woolworth’s.
There’s a DSW in the Woolworth’s space now, forming memories for some local kid who steals designer shoes at bargain prices.
Where did you spend your first money?
Where did you see your first pervert?
Ever steal as a kid?
Remember that Woolworth’s?
TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS.