Undercover sweetness

As I recall, they were called Squirrel Bananas. They came in yellow and brown waxed paper wrappings (that was before cellophane was much in fashion) and were shaped like little logs. I think they were at the luxury end of the penny candy spectrum: the wrappers were folded over neatly like Christmas gifts, not merely twisted off like salt water taffy papers. Inside was a sticky brown confection with yellow swirls in it. I never could figure out what it tasted of. I only knew that, along with ham on Sundays and pine-cone fights in the back yard at dusk, they were among the best things in the world.

In those days, the coordinates of our school day afternoons were set by the fixed beacons of the small-town candy stores. The one that saw us most frequently was located in a block of brick buildings along Main Street on the route we took home. Sometimes we went uptown instead, to the newsdealer or the drug stores. But most of the time we ended up there in Randy's Store - a wave of wriggling, jostling boys, slamming open the screen door and surging up against the varnished wood counter.

Randy himself was a jovial fellow. His wife, in the Yankee tradition, was a bit more tart: she had a couple of pairs of children herself, and seeing us boil through the door probably took some of the sugar out of her life. But both of them seemed willing enough to spend inordinate amounts of time selling us a nickel's-worth of licorice or a fistful of bubble gum. They would stand aside while we stared at the jars and pondered. And such jars they were! There were gumdrops and caramels, chocolate kisses in foil and hard candies in garish yellows and purples. There were mints and taffies, bonbons and nonpareils, and the polished gleam of fat jelly beans. At Randy's you could even get what we called ''hoo-haa balls'' - large red spheres, hard as marbles, built up in layers alternating between a pleasant sweetness and a red-hot clovey tang. All you could do, to cool the raging tongue as the layers changed, was open your mouth wide and breathe ''hoo-haa.''

But Randy never had Squirrel Bananas - not even when he opened his second store a mile down the street. That was out beyond our house, so we never passed it except on our Saturday expeditions to the river. Even then, we never stopped in. Because just before Randy's other store, we came to Landry's.

I don't know which came first, or whose name was the imitation. Perhaps they were both authentic. Landry's store was more countrified: it stood by itself, a frame building fronting the road with a gravel turnout and a wide wooden porch. But inside was the same counter, the same painted tin ceiling, the same worn wood floor, the same shelves of Duz and Babbo and Postum and Ovaltine. And the same ranks of jars behind the counter. With one difference. One of them held all the Squirrel Bananas you could imagine.

I suppose, now that I think of it, that the Squirrel Bananas were merely a fringe benefit of our trips. I suspect that the real reason for setting out on those Saturday morning jaunts - past the field where the power lines crossed town, past the house of the man who worked nights and whose wife shushed us smartly when we made too much noise, past the Scarborough's damply affectionate St. Bernard, past the black iron fence in front of the spooky brick mansion - I suspect the real reason was to get to the Fort River and its grassy banks. But one can't be sure: had it not been for Landry and his Squirrel Bananas, would we have gone so often?

I don't know. I only know that in those days we stood - though we never knew it - at the edge of an era.We were in the twilight of unwrapped candies: behind us, marching in hygienic precision, would come the prim proponents of the Age of the Wrapper. Had we but peeped over the horizon, we would have foreseen ranks of candy bars where the jars once stood. We would have seen jelly beans in tight little bags. We would even have seen hoo-haa balls politely packaged in cellophane.

Now, I don't mean to bicker over which candies were gooey enough to require wrappers and which had them only for show. Nor do I want to get sidetracked into questions of litter - how many trees it takes to make the paper, or barrels of oil to make the plastic, that goes into the wrappers we pluck from our hedges or sweep from our streets. That's a subject for other days, other hands. No, the point here is a broader one. It is that we led, in those days, a kind of unwrapped life. I knew boys, to be sure, whose Saturdays were as deftly packaged as a Squirrel Banana: piano lesson, tennis lesson, haircut, lawn mowing , and so on. Ours were more open: we set out on our own, exploring the sidestreets, tramping through the woods, wading under the bridge. And always, come Saturday, there were more things to do than you could imagine: hours as richly varied as those widemouthed jars, and life, like a jovial shopkeeper, standing by while we made up our minds.

I didn't know it then; but I know now what Lawrence Ferlinghetti meant in his candy-store poem. ''The pennycandystore beyond the El,'' he wrote,

''is where i first fell in love, with unreality.''

He was writing about his own youth, his own city with its elevated railway, his own journeys to the source of sweetness.

Unreality: whatever lies beyond the so-called ''real world.'' That was it - though we thought, back then, that it was only candy we were after.

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