... the best friend I ever had
As I entered the variety store on the corner of Bradford and Bucknam Streets for the first time, I could not know it then, but Cecil behind the counter was to become one of the best friends I ever had.
Cecil, I’d guess, was in his late 50’s. He was a fairly large man with a big gut that stretched his ever-present suspenders. His white hair was thin that seemed patted on his head, not combed. His glasses were thick and set upon his nose a little above his perpetual smile. He was as open and jolly as his brother, Eric, was morose. Cecil was a Canadian who, along with his brother, owned and operated the variety store. If no one was in the store, Cecil could be seen at a desk through a doorway, writing in a notebook with stubs of pencils he harbored. Cecil said he liked writing historical things, sometimes what he remembered and often, about politics. He said writing was a way to hold onto things. After I got to know Cecil better, I asked if I could read some of what he was writing. He put me off, saying, "Someday when his work was cleaned up, I might take a look."
I visited with Cecil in his store from the time I was 10 or 11 until after I left the U.S. Navy in 1952 when I was 22. I never did get a look at what he was writing. Today, I’m reminded of Cecil’s kind of secretive writing by a story Joseph Mitchell wrote, “Joe Gould’s Secret”. This is a story published in Mitchell’s collection, "Up The Old Hotel", later made into a movie where the oral history, claimed by Joe Gould, was never found.
My connection to this much older man was that he genuinely liked me. More importantly, Cecil took me seriously as if I really mattered. He wanted to know about ME. He wanted to know what I thought and felt about things. It was easy to talk with Cecil about things I would never bring up at home. Girls, for instance. In the 8th grade, I really like Norma. I was too shy to talk with her. Besides, she was one of the smartest kids in the school and I was at the bottom. One day I decided to tell Cecil about my secret longing for Norma. Cecil said he really understood how I felt and helped to plan and to finance a strategy to approach Norma. The idea was to find out if she was interested in any of the movies playing at the Granada in Malden Square. Norma lived just across the street from Cecil’s store. The next time she was sent to buy bread at his store, Cecil asked offhandedly if she’d seen any movies lately. Norma said, as Cecil reported to me with delight, she hoped to see “Dark Victory” at the Granada. She said it was a tragically romantic story with blind Betty Davis and her Dr. Merrick Vance, played by George Brent.
Armed with that information and bolstered by Cecil’s encouragement with money for the bus and movie, I asked Norma if she would go with me to the movie to see “Dark Victory”. To my great pleasure she did not hesitate a bit and said, “Sure, when should we go?”
I was pretty much at a loss for words as we rode the trackless trolley to Malden Square. Norma liked to talk, though, so she did most of it. I can’t remember what she talked about; I just remember listening most of the time.
We sat in the balcony of the Granada Theater. The balcony, in those days, was thought to be the most romantic spot. I sat on Norma’s left. After a while I put my arm around her shoulders and, thankfully, Norma moved a little closer to me. I was in kind of a heavenly daze, not knowing what to do next. As I barely watched the movie, I made my mind up that just before the movie ended I would kiss Norma. I did just that, smack on the lips, to the astonishment of us both. Then, Norma laughed and giving me another quick peck on the cheek, thanked me for taking her to the movie.
(As I write about that occasion, I blush a little with the memory of how awkward I was. I suppose it’s still true that young females develop aplomb and social grace long before young males?)
As far as I know, Cecil never married. He had girl friends, I knew. There was a phone booth in Cecil’s store, just to the left, inside the door. On many occasions, much to the consternation of some of the patrons, Cecil could be overheard on the phone speaking to Mary, a woman he dated. He was far more interested in his lover than the store. People would walk out in exasperation. Cecil more often left the phone booth open, speaking audibly, seeming not to care who thought what. Every once in a while he would close the door for privacy. More often, Cecil seemed proud and happy to parade his romance, saying, "Yes, dear." and "No, dear." to Mary on the other end.
Cecil was a romantic, far more interested in people and writing than in the business world. On many a day I would stop by Cecil’s store to talk and he would invite me to have a bottle of tonic and sometimes a small pineapple pie that I loved. As I drank the tonic and ate the pie, Cecil seemed to enjoy trying to find out from me what meaning I was making of the world. He might ask me what I thought of FDR, as if my thought as a teenager might matter.
Later, in high school, I sought Cecil’s counsel about another of my romances. At 16, I had a crush on Ricky. Ricky and I would take long walks on a summer evening and sometimes sit on a couch and neck in a house where one of the other girls was baby-sitting. On such a night, Ricky and I were deeply involved in kissing for several minutes when the heel of my left hand came to rest on the back of her left breast. During that moment I felt a mysterious, joyous feeling surge through me that captured my breath for a moment. Ricky tensed for a second or two, but did not move as we kept kissing. Shortly, I felt like I was doing something I shouldn’t and moved my hand.
This was the experience that I brought to Cecil to help me understand. Why was it, I asked, something beautiful that happened should be thought of as dirty? At that time, there were two kinds of girls, clean virtuous, or dirty scumbags. If you dared to do any sex at all it was with scumbags. How is it that touching a girl’s soft breast felt so joyfully virtuous, when I should have felt rotten about it, I asked Cecil? Cecil smiled and said something like welcome to sensuality. He went on to say what a marvelous discovery I had made and how much pleasure it would give me in the years to come. It is one of the most mysterious and beautiful of human experiences. Cecil said there was nothing dirty about physical lovemaking. The key to lovemaking, Cecil said, is mutual love and respect. He said, too, that sex is something to be grown into. “Don’t be too much in a hurry; sex will wait for you,” Cecil said.
It was not too many months later that I began thinking about joining the Navy. I was bored with school, not accomplishing very much. As that idea continued to take shape, I decided to ask Cecil what he thought about me joining the Navy. I think I thought he would laugh at that idea. Instead, Cecil asked me questions about my idea. Why did I want to join the Navy? What would I get out of it? I said something like I felt in a rut and a change might pull me out of it. Never once did Cecil try to talk me out of the idea, but rather explored the idea with me. It was this talk that established my resolve to join. Cecil wished me the best of luck.
I did not see Cecil again until 1952, after I had left the Navy. I drove to his store and was surprised to find him still there. Cecil did not look much different than I remembered and he greeted me warmly. We talked for an hour or so, between brief sales he had to make. Cecil said he could tell by the way I talked that I had grown up a lot. He said the Navy sure seemed to have gotten me out of my rut. This was the last time I saw Cecil. Maybe this was a way of leaving my boyhood behind?
Perhaps this story speaks for itself as to my deep feeling and appreciation for Cecil. I think it does. But I also learned from writing this story how I had unconsciously incorporated Cecil’s manner to my own way of being. I learned at Cecil’s knee of his deep interest in persons, his non-judgmental, exploratory manner that I have, with modest success, made my own.
April 6, 2007