No matter the routine, things could get crazy. Fast.
Lunch with Bernard Olcott at Olcott International in 1983 followed a familiar routine. At around maybe 11:45 AM, after a few hunger pangs had already hit me pretty hard, I would head up to the top floor, the level that actually connected to the street, and ask if he was ready to grab some lunch. He would typically wave me off for another 10 to 15 minutes while he finished up some correspondence. Finally, he would call me back upstairs. We would then spend another 10 to 15 minutes looking for a pack-of-cards sized contraption holding perhaps 50 keys for the car, the house, the office, the boat, and God knew what else. Oddly they were never in the same place twice. And if not retrieved, well, that would have been the end of the world, as we knew it.
The next part of the routine would be to drive over to the Shop Rite supermarket on JFK Boulevard in Union City, New Jersey. This was located in a bustling area with a huge parking lot in front. However, it was only sensibly approachable from the southbound lane. This presented an engineering problem to Dad, the kind he loved to solve.
You see, the office was south (and east) of Shop Rite and getting over to the southbound lane involved making a huge arc through tons of traffic, stop lights and signs, the type of thing that Dad naturally avoided. So his solution was to take the I-495 highway north for one exit, thereby avoiding the lights. From the exit ramp, he would make a completely wild left turn against three lanes: the oncoming two-lane stream of cars as well as the very busy highway entry ramp immediately to his left. This was a death-defying affair, taking on the worst kind of finger-flipping, high velocity bilingual Joisey drivers imaginable.
Take a look at the graphic above. That’s one, two, three lanes to cut across. Hell, they’ve even added a bonus lane since the last time I looked at this! Do you feel lucky? DOT engineers from this century have now rendered this turn impossible. But back in 1983, those Jersey Barriers weren’t there and you could stop on the exit ramp to tempt the Fates with a left.
When executed, that turn always involved screeching brakes, foul language from at least three different drivers (including Dad), and me, sitting as I was shotgun in the front passenger seat, staring at the rapidly approaching chrome bumper from the inevitable oncoming car at one o’clock aimed squarely at my knees.
Reflecting back, he did eventually stop trying to make that turn and one can only wonder what actually happened to cause him to back off. Probably a very close call and I can only thank God that I wasn’t there.
Once safely parked at the beautiful ShopRite supermarket, we would walk all the way to the back, to the meat section to buy ground beef, which Dad always called “chopped meat.”
So on this particular day we walked in and Dad strode extra purposefully toward the rear of the store, making a detour towards the prescription counter. It was only then that I realized that Dad was holding a worn brown paper bag in his right hand. He had recently begun dating Rosemary (soon to be wife no. 5), whom he had met on a cruise boat (like Gloria, wife no. 4) and evidently needed to conduct some type of nefarious business. Dad was always doing the unexpected, so I just tagged along, bored and hungry; hoping whatever it was he needed to do was completed quickly.
The supermarket pharmacy was oddly deserted, with only one lady in a white pharmacist’s frock way in the back. In fact, there was no one around us either in the pharmacy or in the adjacent aisles of canned vegetables, Mop ‘n Glow products, and rubber gloves.
“Madam Pharmacist!” he chanted in a voice loud enough to be heard over in the chopped meat section.
The lady in the back, who looked quite bored herself, glanced up docilely, and strode up to the counter. Startled from the task of hunting down domesticated chopped-meat, my radar system had detected an inbound missile, coming in fast and low. I looked at my Dad to see what would happen next. It seemed like the pharmacist took 5 minutes to cross the vast expanse of tables, scales, pill lockers, and white linoleum. Dad waited patiently.
She walked up and said looked expectedly at Dad.
“Yes?” she said quietly.
The missile was about to hit.
“I purchased these prophylactics here yesterday,” Dad bellowed, “and need to return them since they are too small. These must have been made for midgets.”
The receipt was fished out of his left pocket and plopped on the counter.
“I would like a refund!” he demanded.
Madam Pharmacist studied the receipt as if she was really looking to match the product with the date and amount. Without a word, she slowly wandered over the cash register, counted out the $5.29 in change (including the 6 percent sales tax) and passed it over.
“Sorry,” she said meekly.
Dad was always about overflowing containers. It was part of his humor. I had to compliment him afterwards. He just smiled.
Copyright © 2015 by James B. Olcott