Thursday, May 28, 2009

Walter's Variety

Lawrence - My Hometown

Walter’s Variety

By Richard E. Noble

Walter owned a little variety store on the corner of Center and Willow in North Lawrence. It was one block over and just down the hill from the Howard Playground on Lawrence St.
Walter would let us little guys hangout at his place. This was greatly appreciated in those cold winter months. We always knew that Walter “loved” us little guys but, nevertheless, his patience had its limits. Periodically we’d hear a scream, “Okay boy’s, on your way - time to clear the house here.”
“But Walter, it’s still snowing outside,” we would whine.
“And so it is. On your way! Go to the boy’s club or someplace.”
“Let’s go up to Clifford’s.”
Clifford was another case entirely. We had to buy something in order to be allowed to sit in Clifford’s Ice Cream Parlor. So as we dragged up the hill to the corner of Lawrence and Chelmsford through the cold wind and driving show, we would all start counting our pennies. Usually one or two of us had enough cash to buy something. Six or seven of us would pile into a booth and one or two of us would order a hot chocolate. His hot chocolate was only a dime. He would top off the hot chocolate with a little spoonful of vanilla ice cream. We could take a long time drinking the hot chocolate using the excuse that it was too hot to drink quickly.
Occasionally he would play his organ for us. We really didn’t care much for his organ playing but if we gave a loud enough cheer he would continue playing and we would get to stay inside and soak up more heat. He had a fancy Gulbranson’s deluxe model organ. He loved that organ.
“Wow, that was great Mr. Clifford. Do you know any more songs?”
“How about this one,” and off he would go.
The next evening we would be back to good old Walter’s Variety. By then Walter would have reconsidered his impatience of the previous evening and everything would once again be hunky-dory. But nevertheless there would come an evening when Walter would get sick of us and we would be off to Clifford’s to get a ten cent hot chocolate.
One day Walter asked a bunch of us if he established hot chocolate and ice cream at his variety store would we buy from him instead of Clifford? Why of course we would we told him. We thought he was just jealous and needed to be reassured.
Within a week or two Walter’s Variety was under construction. We kids could not believe our eyes - or ears for that matter. What was Walter doing?
Walter actually built a complete soda fountain out of the front portion of his storage room. It was beautiful, complete with ice cream cases, shake machines and a barrel that sat on the counter flashing a sign that boasted “Hot Chocolate.” The hot chocolate sign waved back and forth on the top of a big hot chocolate barrel.
It was a great idea but none of us kids really had much money. We only bought hot chocolate at Clifford’s because Clifford would not let us stay inside out of the cold unless we bought something. Walter would let us hangout most nights, all night. It was always warm and cozy inside Walter’s. At Walter’s we could get our traditional bag of Granite State potato chips and a C&J unique soda of our choice. Curran and Joyce (C&J) offered unique flavors like orange phosphate, sarsaparilla, lime rickey and more. Who needed a hot chocolate?
For weeks at closing time Walter would come storming into the soda fountain where we would all be sitting and grab that barrel of steaming hot chocolate and pour it down the drain.
“Gee Walter, if you are just going to dump all the hot chocolate down the drain, why don’t you give each of us a free cup? It ain’t right to just waste it like that.”
For a long time Walter simply ignored our pleas. His face would get a little red and he sometimes stuttered a little, but nothing intelligible dribbled out. We couldn’t understand it. Walter was usually very generous hearted.
One night as we all leaned over the counter and watched Walter pour the hot chocolate down the drain, he exploded.
“You guys drive me nuts! I pay good money to put in this whole soda fountain and buy this hot chocolate maker and I don’t think that one of you guys has bought an ice cream cone or a hot chocolate.”
“Who buys ice cream in the winter time, Walter?”
“Well, what about the hot chocolate?”
“We only bought the hot chocolate at Clifford’s because you threw us out in the cold and the snow.”
“Well my god, I wish you would have told me that before I went to all this expense.”
“You never asked.”
Finally one cold snowy night after that explosion, Walter lined up a bunch of paper cups on the counter. Instead of pouring the hot chocolate down the drain, he poured us each a cup. He had a big smile on his face until one of the guys asked if he would put a spoon full of vanilla ice cream on top like Mr. Clifford used to do.
I snatched up my hot chocolate and ran. I knew what was coming would not be pretty.

Richard E. Noble was raised in Lawrence, Mass and is now a freelance writer. He has published five books. Two of them have Lawrence as their setting, A Summer with Charlie and Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother. A Little Something is a book of poetry portions of it inspired by life in Lawrence. Hobo-ing America, is a workingman’s tour of the U.S.A and The Eastpointer is selected pieces from his award winning column about life in a sleepy fishing village in the Florida Panhandle.