Bubble Gum, Milk, and Merola’s [Memoir Series]

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Sticks to the Roof of Your Mouth

Merola’s Market and Deli was the convenience mart on the corner of North Avenue and Tracy Drive in Burlington, Vermont, down the street from John J. Flynn Elementary School, where I attended K-5. The store was owned and operated by WWII veteran and pilot Anthony Joseph Merola, who was born in Burlington in 1918. He also previously owned a Merola’s on Cherry Street and Dot’s Market on Archibald Street, both in Burlington.

But I never knew Anthony Merola, and this story is not about him.

Merola’s was a favorite spot for us Burlington North End kids in the mid 1980s. The shelves were lined with every goodie, candy, and snack imaginable. My best friend Jodi and I–and sometimes her older brother John–would stop at Merola’s on the way home from school to buy candy. Or sometimes Jodi’s mother, who was also my baby sitter, would make a pit stop there with all three of us in tow.

Our favorite candy to get was gum, specifically, bubble gum. Among my favorites were Bubblicious, Hubba Bubba, Big League Chew, and cigarette gum.

Hubba Bubba was probably the best bubble gum out there at the time. If I recall correctly, it was slightly less sweet than Bubblicious and had better bubble blowing staying power than all the rest. Plus, it was endorsed by Anita Baker in her song, “Been So Long,” as my brother would joke. I always got the classic flavor, blueberry, or cola. Whoever came up with cola-flavored bubble gum is a genius.

[Tweet “So much of what made childhood fun was the simulation of adult vices.”]

Then there’s Big League Chew. This was Jodi’s and my favorite. For those who don’t know, Big League Chew was bubble gum shredded to simulate loose chewing tobacco. The popularity of this gum is not surprising given the avid baseball culture in VT. At the time, I didn’t understand its inspiration. I just thought sticking a wad of stringy, pink, bubble gum in my mouth looked cool. It blew modest bubbles.

Our all-time favorite gum was the cigarette gum. Man, were they trying to turn us kids into early addicts or what? Chewing tobacco and cancer sticks disguised as fun. Jodi and I loved these deceitful little treats. The gum was, of course, shaped like a cigarette. It was wrapped in a white wrapper, and when you puffed on it, powdered sugar “smoke” would billow out. Thank goodness neither of us picked up the actual habit later on, but these things were so fun. So much of what made childhood fun was the simulation of adult vices. At least we were too innocent to be affected. Or were we?

White As Spoiled Milk

Merola’s sold other things too: actual tobacco products, alcohol, soda, bread–and milk.

One day in spring or summer 1986 when I was eight-years-old and finishing the second grade, I was in Merola’s with Jodi and her mother. Jodi was a year older than me and one grade ahead. While looking for other items, Jodi’s mother asked one of us to fetch some milk.

I was up for the task, so I opened the glass door, cool air brushing my bare arm. The refrigerator was open in the back, meaning there was a room behind it where all of the refrigerated products were stored to replenish the racks when needed.

I reached up to grab a carton. As I my fingers grasped the milk, I heard a young, male voice: “Hey, girl. Go get a white butt!” Startled, I peered through the milk racks to see two white, teenage boys snickering and smirking at me. Both were tall and one had dark, thick hair. One of them repeated the verbal attack: “Hey, girl. Got get a white butt!” I must have forgotten I was black at that moment, and the two teens, in their racist mirth, decided to remind me of that fact.

[Tweet “My heart began racing as I recognized the cashier as one of my taunters.”]

I grabbed a carton of milk as quickly as I could, shut the door, and moved away from the cooler.

Everything after that is a blur. Did Jodi’s mom buy the milk? Where was she? Where was Jodi?

I didn’t tell Jodi or her mom about what had just happened. I kept quiet. I initially didn’t even tell my parents. This wasn’t the first time white kids had thrown racist jabs at me. Since the first grade, the racist taunting had become an increasingly common occurrence.  Pretty much weekly with short reprieves in-between, lasting all the way through the fifth grade. I had already learned the year before to never talk about the racist taunts I was subjected to at school or anywhere else. Another thing I learned is to never let them see me cry. I buried these emotional assaults inside my childhood mind, and stored them there for safe keeping.

A few days later, my dad and I stopped at Merola’s to pick up a pack of Salems. My heart began racing as I recognized the cashier as one of my taunters, who from the safety of the store’s cooler told me my black ass wasn’t welcomed. The one with the dark, thick hair. He couldn’t have been more than sixteen. He smiled at my dad as he rang up the cigarettes. I don’t think he saw me.

But I saw him.

Up until that point, I didn’t tell my parents of the incident. But as Dad and I were walking back to our car, I cracked and confessed what had happened a few days ago. “Dad, that was the guy who told me to me to get a ‘white butt.’ ” Without hesitation, Dad grabbed my hand and marched us back into the store. “Come on!” he said.

I pointed out the perpetrator to my dad, the tall, lanky boy with the dark, thick hair who had just sold him a pack of Salems  and smiled in his face.

Back then, Dad had a temper. I don’t remember what he yelled at the kid. I just know that the offender looked like he was about to lose control of his bodily functions.

I never had any problems from him or anyone else in Merola’s after that. But the damage was done.

To this day, I still approach a dairy cooler with weariness. Sometimes I wince. I grab the Horizon or Silk Almond Milk quickly and let the door slam shut. I never linger. Sometimes I imagine those eyes leering at me and taunting me. It happens in a split second, but I never linger.

Bitter Aftertaste

At some point, Merola’s transitioned from a convenience mart that sold a little bit of everything to a liquor store.

Anthony Joseph Merola died in 2010 in the Starr Farm Nursing Home across the street from Flynn Elementary and around the corner from the convenience mart that still bears his name.

That same year, an alleged drunk driver plowed into the store, crashing into the cashier’s counter and causing major damage. It took then owner James Beaudoin a month to get the store back up and running; the site of impact was reinforced with concrete. Three years later in 2013, another drunk driver crashed into the store taking out the other side of the building, crushing the water heater which flooded the store, and knocking back the cooler three to four inches.

glowing Yelp review indicated that Merola’s was open through 2014.

[Tweet “When you’re a child, you tend to see things as brightly as you can, even when the darkness tries to creep in.”]

Merola’s is now permanently closed.

There’s a newer convenience mart and gas station across the street now, though I don’t know how long it’s been there. The whole area looks run down. It seemed so bright, sunny, and lively when I was a kid. But isn’t that how it usually is? When you’re a child, you tend to see things as brightly as you can, even when the darkness tries to creep in and snuff it out.

White butt. That was the best that creep’s racist, teenaged mind could come up with.

Merola’s sits on the corner of North Avenue and Tracy Drive boarded up and abandoned. I’m indifferent.

Let me smoke my bubble gum cigarette in peace.