Across the street from the schoolyard was a candy store—actually more like a wooden shack—with a big glass display case filled with penny candies. This was an essential stop on our way home from school, a place where we socialized as we made the day’s important decisions about which treats to choose.
Our still-forming teeth were subjected to the tortures of Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls, peanut chews, and strands of twisted cherry-flavored licorice. Our front teeth picked off the dots from long strips of paper. And our molars mopped up melting sugar as we sucked on sourballs, which we couldn’t resist crunching before they were totally dissolved on our tongues.
But perhaps best of all was Bazooka bubblegum. The bright pink sugar-dusted pellets were about the size and shape of our school erasers. They could be bought in individual wrappers, or if you had a nickel, you could buy a whole roll, from which you could twist off individual chunks—to freshen the flavor as it faded with chewing, or to share with friends if you were feeling generous.
Inside the outer wrapper, a thin waxy liner unfolded to reveal a tiny comic strip, to read as you popped the pellet into your mouth and began to chew.
The instant you opened the wrapper, you’d be hit with that unmistakable bubblegum smell—a sweet saliva-stimulating aroma that shot like a bazooka into your nose.The smell was an inseparable part of the taste that was unleashed inside your mouth as your teeth worked hard on the first few bites to soften the thick wad into chewable form.
There were those who merely chewed the gum, occasionally putting forth puny little bubbles, but then there were experts like me who practiced the fine art of blowing bubbles of improbable proportions that hovered precariously in front of my face—where they had to be defended against jealous kids who tried to pop them in their glory—and then swoosh them back in without having them break.
I’ve paid for my penny-candy, sourball-sucking, bubble-blowing days with more than my share of fillings in my teeth. So today, as my niece’s little boy brushes his teeth with bubblegum-flavored toothpaste, I’m torn between the irony, and the nostalgia for being back in the shack across from the schoolyard, where my best friend Linda is blowing bubbles and waiting for me to walk home from school.