When I was a kid in Brooklyn, in the Sixties, the “candy store” was the local hangout, the crossroads of the neighborhood. Actually, these ubiquitous institutions were a combination of soda fountain, luncheonette and newsstand. We probably called them candy stores because as kids the candy we bought there was the center of our culinary universe, or just because they were called that by tradition. Old New York candy stores had a similar function to the barber shop in small towns and working-class black neighborhoods. They were a place where the generations mixed and local gossip was shared.
There were three candy stores in my immediate neighborhood, but our favorite was Fred and Rudy’s. Up front were the newsstand, the candy counter and the ice cream case, where they stored the tubs of Breyer’s for our cones. Then, as you moved further into the shop, there was the lunch counter, with revolving stools, of course, and booths. As kids we preferred the counter. It was our bar. We’d sit on stools and drink malteds, or egg creams, or cherry-lime Rickeys, or Rock ’n’ Root root beer in frosted mugs, or Cokes, large or small, in official Coke glasses. I remember when the price of a small coke went up from six cents to seven. We often munched on long two-cent stick pretzels while drinking and shooting the bull.
Fred and Rudy were like night and day, good cop and bad cop. Fred Leibowitz was a slight, bald guy with a mustache, a good-humored sweetheart. He reminded me a bit of Groucho Marx. Rudy Schiffman was a big bastard, mean and humorless. We spent less time in the store during Rudy’s shifts, especially since he often kicked us out when we got rowdy. There was even a little ditty, well-known in the neighborhood, that summed up the two men, sung to the tune of “Camptown Races,” but all I can remember now is:
Fred’s OK but Rudy stinks, Doo-dah, doo-dah!
I was a wise guy, even as a little kid, and I was always arousing the ire of Rudy. I remember, when I was ten or eleven years old I had been learning about largely defunct diseases, a favorite subject of fifth grade social studies in the New York City public schools. Mr. Malachowsky had taught us about scurvy, and rickets, and berri berri, as well as a rare tropical disease called yaws. Well, in Brooklyn we pronounce “yours” and “yaws” the same way. Rudy, when he would take our order, would often say, “What’s yours?” So one day I responded, “A rare tropical disease,” and my friends on the adjoining stools started cracking up. “Out of the store,” Rudy yelled. “All of you!”»
When Fred and Rudy weren’t looking we’d often stand by the magazine rack and peek at the Playboy centerfold. If Rudy caught us he’d make us stop. Fred usually turned a blind eye, though sometimes he’d say, “What do you think this is, kid, a library?”
A couple of celebrities grew up in the immediate neighborhood. One was a minor stand-up comic named Morty Gunty. The bigger star was Lainie Kazan, whose real last name was Levine. Lainie, who got her big break as Barbara Streisand’s understudy in “Funny Girl,” was extremely well-endowed, and in 1970 she did a photo spread for Playboy.
Lainie was long-gone from the neighborhood by this time, but her mother still lived in the old apartment. Lainie’s mother had to give Fred and Rudy’s wide berth for a while after one of the neighborhood wise guys (not me this time) said to her, “Hey Mrs. Levine, I saw your daughter’s big tits in Playboy--Hubba-hubba!”
Fred and Rudy’s closed some time in the Seventies, a few years before I left the neighborhood. For the most part the neighborhood candy store is a thing of the past in New York, but there are still a few left. I hope the kids in those neighborhoods appreciate their local treasures.
Peter Cherches is a writer who specializes in very short prose, both fiction and nonfiction. He blogs about food, travel, dreams and writing at petercherches.blogspot.com