We were jubilant in the early '60s, and my first job at Lastra's Pharmacy on Grand Central Avenue fueled my optimism.
Theresa DiMarco, the head cook, prepared lunch specials, a meat dish that always tasted Italian. Waitresses Mary and Solie served Channel 13's Hugh Smith, Salty Sol Fleischman and Andy Hardy, as well as kids my age who came in to talk about girls, sports, Elvis and The Beatles.
Behind the counter, we walked on wooden slats, and every Saturday morning I'd carry them out, hose them down and sprinkle them with Ajax. Then I'd scrub them with a brush until the bleached wood was fuzzy and clean.
"Nobody cleans 'em like you do, Freddy," Mr. Lastra would remark, and I'd swell with pride.
Arthur Lastra, the owner, coached at North Palomino, where I played baseball. He wore a safari hat instead of a baseball cap.
John, Arthur's oldest son and a big sports star, also worked in the pharmacy. "Hey, Freddy, how many you strike out? Still lost, eh? Too bad. You hit? Good. Eat, man. You too damn skinny."
Linda, John's girlfriend, worked the front register. One day, she came in wearing her cheerleader outfit and smiled at me. My first girlfriend had broken up with me, so I found reasons to help Linda until I saw John and Mr. Lastra glaring at me. I backed off.
Theresa, the head cook, suggested I ask Mr. Morgan about girls.
Every weekday, old Mr. Morgan shuffled in. I had his breakfast prepared and served by the time he sat down. One morning, as steam fogged his glasses, he smiled at me. "Mr. Morgan," I croaked, "my first girlfriend broke up with me. How do I pick a good one?"
"Freddy, I'll tell you. But first you gotta let me eat my breakfast."
Twenty minutes later, he lit up a Pall Mall, inhaled and blew smoke toward the ceiling. Looking left and right for privacy, he leaned toward me.
"Freddy, if you wanna know how your girlfriend's gonna look in the future, look at her mother. She'll look the same. You wanna know how she'll treat you? Look at her brothers and sisters. If she screams at 'em, you're in for it. If she treats 'em nice, you've found a good one."
"How'd you learn that?" I asked.
"Freddie, I'm 89 years old. Experience, son. Mistakes. Starting over. I gave you my advice 'cause you asked."
In 1963, thousands cheered President Kennedy as his convertible passed in front of Lastra's on his way to the airport. Motivated by his words, I later joined the Marine Corps, volunteered for Vietnam and was wounded twice for a lost cause.
Today, Grand Central Avenue is Kennedy Boulevard. I miss people like Coach Lastra, Mr. Morgan, Theresa, Solie, Mary, John and Linda.
Drugstores no longer have soda fountains or tables filled with friendly people, but when I walk into one, I'm compelled to look.
"Can I help you, sir?" the clerks ask. "Looking for something in particular?"
"Yes," I reply. "But I don't think I'll ever find it again."
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