"It's Cruel, Mickey"

Tales from Mavis Street - Summer of 1962

Playing "War" on Mavis Street.  1959

The main hangout for the kids of Mavis street was the “El Mercado,” a mini-shopping plaza of little quaint shops located across the street from the Model Market, only a five-minute walk from those small middle-class houses we all called “home.” In the middle of the “El Mercado” was a modestly tiled water fountain which served as the hub for a fish restaurant, a jewelry store, a travel agency, a rattan furniture store, a tobacco shop, a barber shop and a large toy store. Inside my favorite store, old Mrs. Sund’s toy store, were many tables filled with an assortment of cheap plastic toys, most of which were manufactured in Japan; other toys that were not so cheap like “Robot Commando,” “Mr. Machine,” and “The Great Garloo”; a plethora of various kinds of candy, and of course, baseball cards.

Old Mrs. Sund was a kindly lady who always wore a net in her hair, and she had the uncanny resemblance to Miss Frances, the teacher of Ding Dong School on TV. Always smiling and very friendly to all the kids who visited her store, Mrs. Sund was like our dear little grandmother who had no qualms about selling as much candy as we wanted, just as long as we had the money to pay for it. When she smiled, it appeared that her teeth were false just like my real grandmother’s, and she always smelled of baby powder. Words cannot describe the almost mystical experience and anticipation of buying baseball cards from Mrs. Sund and opening each pack while sitting by that old water fountain at the hub of “The El Mercado;” the smell of the powdered sweet gum stick, the colorful green wrapper being torn asunder and the pure ecstasy of finding a Duke Snider or a Mickey Mantle within the newly purchased pack of cards. 

In 1962 I never did find a Snider in all those green packs of cards I bought and only once did I discover a Mickey Mantle. My disgust was exacerbated when one day I invested a whole dollar and bought twenty packs of baseball cards from the smiling Mrs. Sund. I figured there had to be at least one Snider card in all those packs. But instead, I ended up with twelve Phil Ortega cards. He was the skinny new Dodger pitcher. It was indeed a revolting situation reminding me of the time when my father bought an entire box of 1959 baseball cards only to end up with ten Herbie Plews cards and absolutely no Sniders. 

The Model Market was our neighborhood grocery store. Half the size of the big Safeway market by St. Mary’s Church, it had a superb meat department managed by Elmer, the bespectacled butcher who always wore big black gloves and carried around a cleaver. The produce section was located in the back and I remember seeing its manager, a frail skinny Japanese man named Lester, always stacking apples, oranges and grapefruits, and squirting water with his little green hose. To the left of the produce section was the post office, and inside there was the man we all feared, for he was an older man with a mustache and he had a steel hook instead of a left hand, and he always wore dark glasses. No one as far as I could tell knew his name. He just sold stamps and money orders and looked dangerous. The liquor department was run by Melvin, a bald-headed little man who seemed very nervous when we kids hovered around all the wine and whiskey bottles. Melvin was especially proud of all those electronic beer advertisements hanging over his counter; Pabst Blue Ribbon, Falstaff, Lucky Lager and especially the Hamms beer ad with that smiling bear and its brightly lit words: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters” and the animated river that seemed to flow right out of the sign.

And who could forget Dorothy and Gladys, the two very friendly ladies who efficiently operated the big brown cash registers, located at the entrance by the magazine rack and comic book stand. Both ladies wore low hanging earrings and gypsy-type blouses of green, purple, red and white, and their sleeves tightly hugged the upper part of their arms revealing an array of moles and fine dark hairs. Their skin seemed to droop a little, but they were both very congenial, loquacious women who seemed to possess vast amounts of esoteric, intimate knowledge about all the regular customers, and they were on a first name basis with everyone as far as I could tell. Once when I was in line buying Hostess Snowballs, Gladys smiled at me very concerned and said: “Hi Stark, have you gotten that Snider card yet? Hope so.” “No mam, not yet.” To this day, I’m not at all sure how she knew I was desperately wanting a 1962 Duke Snider baseball card, and as the summer waned, I grew more anxious and nervous about it. 

Besides obtaining the new Duke Snider card, my other goal for the summer was to catch a “Monarch” butterfly. It seemed most of the kids on Mavis street were hunting and collecting butterflies that summer with green nets that were on sale for $ 1.25 at the “El Mercado.” The little kids, like Randy Koontz and Jeffy Sabatini, had no trouble catching the slow white “Cabbage” butterflies. And they didn’t seem to have any problems catching the orange “Painted Ladies” and the black “Mourning Cloaks.” But for those of us going on eleven years old, we were interested in catching the fastest and highest flying of all the butterflies to be seen on Mavis street; the big “Monarch” with its distinctive dark-orange and black wings. High atop the elm trees they would soar during the late mornings and early afternoons, and Dennis, Kenny, and his little brother Larry, and the Wooster brothers, both Steve and Robbie, and I would hang out in front of Randy Robertson’s house and keep our eyes and heads turned upward in the direction of the dark green tree tops of all those towering elm trees; some being fifty feet in the air. I can remember many quiet, hot afternoons that summer standing atop the brown wooden picket fence by the Robertson driveway, with a green net in hand, searching the blue skies and the deep green shade of the elm trees for my first monarch. Both Wooster brothers already had several monarchs in their display cases at home, and Dennis Nelson had caught his first monarch in late June. 

We had all been together at the “Ocean of Grass” that day when I heard Dennis yell: “Monarch! Monarch!” and he tenaciously chased that butterfly from one end of the grassy playground to the other until finally netting it. And with sweat profusely pouring from his forehead, Dennis Nelson was jubilant: “I did it! I did it!” “You luck out,” we all said, as Dennis carefully carried his “catch” back to Mavis street. Kenny Stultz, too, had recently caught his first monarch butterfly in front of the “Cupcake Man’s” house, Mr. Gumm. Both boys had been congratulated with much fanfare and hoopla by all the kids and Mrs. Wooster too, and she was very generous when it came time to borrow her chloroform and pinning board to get their catches ready for their display cases. As for me, I still awaited the proud moment when I, too, would be a “luck out” and have a monarch in my collection. 

Sometime in late July, all of us boys were sitting at our usual butterfly hunting spot. The “Good Humor” truck was slowly making its way down Mavis street which meant we would soon be eating “Sidewalk Sundaes,” ice cream sandwiches, big nutty chocolate drumsticks with vanilla ice cream and plain double cherry popsicles. And maybe, just maybe, one of us would end up with a “Free Stick.” The arrival of the blue and white “Good Humor” ice cream truck in the afternoon marked the high point, the climax, of our day during that long ago summer. All of us kids would begin to congregate out on our front lawns shortly after lunch time with our dimes and quarters and just sit in the shade and wait. The truck would start its daily journey in our tract way over on Messagrove, then it would proceed up the next street over, Ben Alder. From there it would travel down Adele, and it was on that street, two blocks from Mavis, that we could begin to faintly hear the “Good Humor” jingle wafting through the air and between all those tract houses. And then we would begin to get excited and hyper and start to count our coins. From Adele street the truck would drive tortuously slow up Carley, and it seemed to take an eternity to get up that street, for like Mavis street, Carley was inundated by children, and it seemed every one of them bought ice cream from the “Good Humor Man.” 

And finally, perhaps an hour after first hearing the jingle way off in the distance of Adele street, the ice cream man would arrive, wearing bright white trousers, shirt and captain’s hat. “Hi kids,” he would say as he skipped to the little freezer door at the rear of the truck. For a few seconds, we would all carefully study the colorfully illustrated menu attached next to the freezer door, and Dennis Nelson would usually be the first to order. “You got a fudgesicle?” And then the “Good Humor Man” would open that freezer door and out would emerge all the icy mist hitting the hot summer air, and deep inside that freezer he would stick his arm, and in a flash, out would come the fudgesicle. It amazed me that he knew exactly where everything was located and that he retrieved the ice cream almost instantly. 

On the day I caught my first monarch butterfly, the “Good Humor” man was reaching inside his little freezer when I happened to look up and see a golden flying thing amongst the high tree branches above us. “Monarch! Monarch!” I yelled, startling the ice cream man. Since I was the first to spot it and yell “Monarch,” it was my butterfly to catch. Dropping my half-eaten popsicle, I grabbed my net and ran after it, while the monarch, oblivious to my desire to kill it, innocently and casually flew down the street in the direction of Orange Grove School and the “Ocean of Grass.” So as at least a dozen kids circled around the “Good Humor” truck, there I was, running like a maniac by myself after a harmless butterfly down Mavis street; past the Ghan’s house, past Mr. Gumm’s with his big white Hostess Bakery truck parked in front; past the Stultz house, the Myers, the Walkers, the Sabatini's and the Nelsons; past the Hopes, the Koontz’ and the Wooster’s house. Past Mrs. Black’s and the McGehees, all the way down to Orange Grove Avenue and across the street to Orange Grove School. It was on the Kindergarten playground that it finally happened. As the monarch circled above the sand box, it abruptly flew in low over the grass, about three feet off the ground, and with a quick flick of my net, I adroitly snared it. My first monarch was a full grown female with two little black dots on its flawless golden wings. 

While proudly walking back up Mavis street from the “Ocean of Grass,” I was met by Dennis, Kenny, and the Wooster Brothers. “I got it!” I exclaimed. “You luck out,” Dennis said, giving me the A-OK sign, and like a big brother, he put his sunburned arm around me. “I knew you’d catch it.” The “victory” party took place at the Wooster house with Mrs. Wooster patiently showing me how to chloroform and pin my catch. “That’s a great monarch Stark,” she said. And then she literally made my summer. “Here, you can keep this pinning board for all your future monarchs.” “Thank you, mam.” “By the way Stark,” she said with a knowing smile on her face. “I hear you’re looking for a Duke Snider card.” “Yeah, I am.” “Well here,” she said, “I cut it off the back of the cereal box this morning.” “Thank you, mam.” It wasn’t the official Topps card of Snider with the ugly brown borders, but it was a Snider card and it was good enough for me. In fact, I would’ve taken anything of Snider. As it turned out, this was the best day of that long ago summer, and I’ll never forget the rare generosity and kindness shown to me by my good friend Dennis and the lady who lived across the street, Mrs. Wooster, mother of Steve and Robbie.

That night as I sat on my bed looking through my baseball cards and listening to my radio, my mother came in to see how I was doing. Every night she would come in and ask how my day had been and look at everything; all my toys and models and statues and books, and she would always pick up my Hartland statue of Duke Snider and we’d talk about things. On this night, I remember vividly the song “I Remember You” by Frank I field playing over station KRLA, and my mother happened to notice the pinned monarch butterfly, “resting in peace” on my desk. “Mickey,” she said with a tone of shocked urgency, “that thing is still alive.” Up from my bed, I bounced to see what she was talking about, and sure enough, my “catch” was still living, even with a pin sticking through the middle of its body. Evidently, Mrs. Wooster hadn’t quite chloroformed the poor thing enough, and now it was moving its strong lithe legs against the black pin, trying in vain to remove it from its thorax. “It’s cruel Mickey, “ she said very seriously and succinctly and walked out closing the door behind her.

I just sat there at my desk for the longest time, listening to song after song on KRLA, feeling guilty and watching intently, that beautiful golden thing struggling to remove the pin from its body, and I had to admire the creature’s grit and determination to stay alive. Finally, after about an hour of watching it writhe in apparent agony, “The Locomotion” came on the radio, and I noticed that the struggling had ceased. It was at that moment that I decided to end my butterfly hunting career.

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"It's Cruel, Mickey"