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Remembrance of Cokes Past

Those Cherry Cokes in a can the Coca-Cola people are selling these days are convenient, I'll grant you, and at least come close to tasting like the real thing. But, boy, do they take the fun and adventure out of the Cherry Coke. You want a Cherry Coke these days, you just reach into the refrigerator for a red and white can, pop open the top, and gulp it down.

Ah, but once you got Cherry Cokes at an exciting place called a soda fountain, served up by an important, white-jacketed person called a soda jerk. He'd dribble a little cherry syrup into the bottom of a Coca-Cola glass, dribble in a little of that top secret Coke formula, squirt in some soda water and drop in some ice. Then he'd slide the concoction across the counter, collect your nickel and ring up the sale — ding! — on a highly-polished, gold-plated cash register.

Back in the 1940s when I was a serious, pre-teen drinker of Cherry Cokes, we got ours at the fountain in the Hub Pharmacy on Market Street in San Francisco, at the outer edge of the city's downtown. It was just around the corner from the first-floor flat where I lived, near the top of a cobblestoned, three-block-long alley known grandly as Rose Street. Gritty black dirt blew down the steep, narrow alley, grating under our feet as we played, rarely disturbed by motorists. They avoided Rose Street; there were much faster and much smoother routes to and from downtown. But at least once a day a horse cart came clopping slowly over the bricks, bottles and tin cans rattling in counterpoint as they rolled this way, then that over rough wooden boards between swaying uneven stacks of yellowed newspapers and grimy rags and gunny sacks behind the driver. He sat high on a plank, an ancient man wearing a derby hat, holding the reins loosely as he sang his dirge: “Rags, bottles, sacks… rags, bottles, sacks…” His horse was all gray and swaybacked, and he was all gray and bent, gray and dusty, his worn greasy work clothes, his worn face, everything but his thick red purple streaked nose. “Rags… bottles… sacks… rags, bottles… sacks…”

The cobblestones are long gone, as are horse-drawn junkmen. But the temple of my youth is still very much there, and still looking on the outside very much as it did then, a clean, cool haven from the grime of Rose Street, a square, cream-colored building squatting on the corner. It's as neatly and freshly painted as ever, too. But it's now a picture frame shop with not the slightest trace of the soda fountain that once stood at its heart.

You can be sure, though, that I haven't forgotten how we'd lean our elbows casually on the fountain's shiny pale blue counter, swiveling on the narrow-stemmed stools, hoping avidly to look just like our big brothers and uncles and fathers looked as they sat at the shiny mahogany bar down the street in Kenealy's. We often peeked at them through the swinging doors of the saloon, so we knew that was how you were supposed to look when drinking.

Kenealy's saloon disappeared a long time ago, but if you look hard you can see, although now usually in other neighborhoods and in other cities, the sort of men who drank there. Tomato-faced, I suppose you'd call many of them, from the sun or drink, or maybe both; muscular in a clearly non-athletic way, and a little heavy around the middle. They'd usually be in uniform — coarse hickory shirts, narrow black stripes on a white background, and shapeless, faded black jeans held up by broad leather belts and broad black suspenders. Pinned to one of the suspenders of some were bright blue buttons with gold lettering around the edge — “Local 85 Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, Draymen and Helpers of America.”

The men leaning casually on the shiny counter at Kenealy's didn't favor Cherry Cokes, of course. Blended whiskey and a beer — a shot and a draft beer — was the drink of choice. They'd slap a quarter on the bar, gulp the whiskey down from a squat shot glass, then sip at the beer that was set before them in a long, thin pilsner glass, as they talked of women, of baseball, of jobs that demanded too much and paid too little.

They often spoke of the days a dozen years earlier when San Francisco, home of one of baseball's top minor league teams, the Seals, was the home as well of another Pacific Coast League team, the Reds. Both teams played at Recreation Park next door to Kenealy's before moving a few blocks away to Seals Stadium, where we watched our beloved Seals play.

They remembered that crackerbox of a park next door, the right field screen only 235 feet from home plate but 50 feet high, and about how outfielders stood under it looking silly when a ball lodged in the chicken wire and the batter circled the bases unchallenged. About how players could win 50 bucks for hitting the Bull Durham ad on the fence, and a fedora for hitting the ad next to it. About people watching games from roofs and porches all around the park. 

It's long gone now, a rundown public housing project occupying its former space. By the standards of the day, and certainly in contrast to old Rec Park, Seals Stadium was slick and modern. Yet it, too, was a true baseball park. The stands were so close to the field we could reach over the low railings and pluck at the pin-striped sleeves of our heroes' baggy flannel garments. We talked directly to them and they talked back. We could smell the field's grass, and smell the fresh, earthy odor of the basepaths.

We learned a lot, in any case, from the men who talked so much of yesterday and of today at Kenealy's. But we also learned a lot right there in the Hub Pharmacy. Sure, today's young drinkers of Cherry Cokes in a can have television to instruct them in the important matters of life — but we had magazines. They were racked, a tall, wide blaze of dazzling color, all across one wall alongside the soda fountain. There were hundreds of magazines, and if you were quiet and careful, Bud the soda jerk would let you sit right down on the gray linoleum floor and thumb through them for hours on end, to the accompaniment of the extraordinarily soothing popular music of the time. It would envelope you in quiet sound, the lilt of Bing Crosby, of the Andrews Sisters, of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, as it drifted easily from a juke box in the corner or from a radio behind another shiny blue counter to the left. That's where Bud's father sold prescription drugs, cosmetics and all manner of other merchandise — even magazines, should someone actually want to buy one.

The girlie magazines, remember them? All those ladies in garter belts firing up the imaginations of healthy young boys, and undoubtedly doing a far better job of it than today's fully-unclothed women in Playboy and the like. But as intriguing as they were, the suggestively-posed ladies in skimpy underwear were not yet our main interest. We cared much more for the heroes whose exploits were chronicled in the movie magazines, comic books and sports publications spread out beside us in such great abundance. Role models, I suppose I'd have to call them now.

There was Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne and the other white-hat cowboys of the screen, and the dauntless fighting men, John Wayne also prominent among them, who starred in those many World War II epics. We saw them all in our Saturday afternoon outings to the Midtown Theater where, for 10¢, we were treated to a double feature, still another chapter of an exciting serial, and a whole bunch of cartoons.

Usually, we'd “nip” a ride to the theater, 10 blocks away, by clinging furtively and precariously to the big rear bumper of one of the Municipal Railway's green and white No. 7 streetcars. The 7¢ we'd save would buy us a candy bar and 2¢ worth of penny-candy as well. If our folks had been feeling particularly flush, we'd also have enough to buy one of the 15¢ hamburgers with all the customary trimmings at Wimpy's next door to the Midtown.

As important as the heroes in the films and movie magazines were the innumerable football and baseball players in the sports magazines at the pharmacy, particularly the major league baseball players who performed their great deeds in far-off, exotic eastern cities, and most particularly our city's very own Joe DiMaggio. He had gone off to New York to win the fame and fortune we knew could also be ours someday; all we had to do was learn to play baseball like Joe. Which naturally we all had set out to do.

Yet there were others who were even more important than the sports heroes and movie heroes. They were the comic book heroes who could do things even Joe DiMaggio could not do, superhumans who were portrayed, not in the drab black and white of the photos that lay behind the bright covers of the movie and sports magazines, but always in vivid, glorious color. There was Superman, of course, and Captain Marvel, Batman and Robin, The Flash, Captain America, and so many others who could fly, leap buildings and win over any evil force, anywhere, any time.

We knew firsthand of evil, for we could see it in action as we sat drinking our Cokes, staring through the broad window behind the soda fountain counter and into the open doorway of the Hub Cigar Store across the street. The cigar store has been transformed, in its latest reincarnation, into a dull trendy cafe. But back then, it invariably was crowded with men in snap-brim hats who looked very much like the gangsters who were always up to no good in the comic books and in those serials at the Midtown Theater. They bent over a shallow oak box lined with green felt, rolling dice — for money, right out in the open where even the cop on the beat could see them! We heard they bet on the horse races there, too.

We saw many of the same extremely suspicious characters high in the left field stands at Seals Stadium. They'd be waving, way up above their heads, one-dollar bills, five-dollar bills, even ten and twenty-dollar bills, as they bet noisily on what the next pitch would be, whether the batter would get a hit, who'd be ahead at the end of a particular inning, on just about anything and everything.

But we were certain the scofflaws would get their comeuppance someday. We knew from our studies at the Hub Pharmacy that right and virtue and the American Way ultimately would prevail. That, to be sure, is something that cannot be said by the drinkers of Cherry Cokes in a can.

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