Monday, April 16, 2012

Discovering the Places

(Old Poker Table  from early 1900s still resides in the back room of the local small town pharmacy.)

The “real” story behind the story for me is often in the history behind the characters I create.  Repeatedly, writers tell me “get to know your character, put them in the proper place and your story will emerge.  I don’t think I appreciated this fully until I was working on about the fifth draft of my novel and while there were multiple chapters I had written and discarded, it was in these discarded pages that we had become friends.  There was too much background material to include in the novel, but enough for me to get a clear picture of the people I had created.  They become real in my mind with jobs and families that I knew and understood.  I have to remind myself, like Lake Wobegon, they are all fictional.

In developing a character and the place there is usually something that starts my juices flowing…someone who always wears pink, or a particular meeting place where the locals all go.  Once you notice a quirk, it’s a lot easier to embellish and move forward. Where did that quirk come from?  How do other people respond to it?  It’s kind of fun seeing how people and places shape up.  Sometimes it’s too much.  I have to let something go.

I lived in a small town with enough stores on Main Street to count on one hand.  One of those stores was a pharmacy.  Another was a local restaurant.  Both of these places are where much of the action occurs in my novel.  While the local mom and pop diners haven’t yet become extinct, the small town local pharmacies are getting hit pretty hard.  When you take into account the chain-drug outlets and recognize anyone can get their prescriptions filled at most grocery stores and then add the online Medcos and Express Scripts  there’s not much room left for Shuckers Local Pharmacy on the corner.  Pharmacists now stand behind mega counters shuffling pills and plugging in insurance codes while supervising a half dozen pharm techs.

When I started writing about a small town pharmacy operating in 1992, I remembered a place where people helped themselves to a cup of coffee out of the pot that sat on the counter and you spent the first ten minutes catching up on the family before the pharmacist got up to fill your prescription. When I wanted to find out how it was fifty-five years before that, I went to Billy, one of the few remaining small town pharmacists.

Billy walked me through the years he worked as a soda jerk when he was in high school. The soda counter sat at the front of the pharmacy. Ice cream and milk shakes were the order for the after-school crowd.  Seltzer water with a spurt of cola syrup or lemonade made from a jug of sugar water and two or three squirts of hand squeezed lemon juice were other favorites. In the morning there was a checker game going in the front room.   Billy was responsible for having all the orders off the table in the back by 3 pm in preparation for the daily poker game.  A special table (pictured above) had ash trays set in each corner of the table for the cigarettes which were always a part of the daily ritual, although as years of use show, frequently a lot of the cigarettes didn’t make it into the tray, but sat directly on the table leaving circles of wood burns to attest to the longevity of both the table and the game.

Certain customers were known to have their favorite drinks waiting.  A teaspoon of bromine in a coke could settle-your-nerves, and a squirt of ammonia in a coke was used for a pick-me-up.  The first sales of Coca-Cola began in a pharmacy, Jacob’s Pharmacy in Atlanta, on May 8, 1886, with an estimated nine milligrams of cocaine per glass.  It was claimed to cure everything from headaches, heartburn, and depression to impotence.  The cocaine was removed in 1903 when the Stephan Company in Maywood, NJ, started using a cocaine-free coca leaf extract.  To this day it remains the only manufacturing company authorized by the Federal Government to import and process the coca plant.   The cocaine that is extracted from the leaf is sold to a pharmaceutical manufacturer that purifies it for medicinal use.

The particular pharmacy I knew in 1992 isn’t there anymore.  The owner died.  People either mail order their prescriptions or pick them up at a Wal-Mart thirty miles away.  A couple of independent pharmacies still hang-on in adjacent towns, and yet Americans are buying more drugs than ever before in our history.  Still, I write about how things were, (not so very long ago, really) not so much because I want to return to those days, but because some things are worth remembering and passing on.  The local pharmacy “where everyone knew your name,” is one of them.  As one grandchild was heard to ask, “Grandma, how did you get on the internet before computers?”  Come sit down, child, and let me read you a book of how it used to be not so very long ago.

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