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March 21, 1986 - Image 53

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-03-21

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Hanging around Shamroy's drugstore,
though I had dreaded the prospect, turned
out to be almost fun. Delivering a prescrip-
tion usually earned me a nickel tip; run-
ning upstairs breathlessly to report a call
to Shamroy's public telephone was worth
two or three cents. In a good week I took
in two dollars. Better than the money —
how could I know that at the time? — was
the chance that summer gave me to ob-
serve Mr. Shamroy and his drugstore from
the inside.
I came to know Shamroy as a many-
sided person, principled yet flexible, and
kindly, even generous. As far as I could
see, he had no pleasures outside his work.
He had no Sabbath and no friends, only
customers. He had a tall, matronly wife
but no visible children, never went to the
movies, didn't smoke, and had no time to
drink even if he were minded to. Whenever
he thought of it, he reached into his cash
box and handed me a nickel. "Here,
boychik, buy yourself an ice cream and en-
joy," he would say.
Gradually, I began to cultivate a low-
grade affection for him. Since I had lost
my father when I was four years old, he
became a father figure for me, and I sup-
pose I served as a proxy son to him.
Beyond liking him, I grew to admire the
man. Although he surely knew how deep-
ly ingrained haggling over prices was in
the folkways of East Siders, he would have
none of it in his store. He wasn't an or-
dinary storekeeper, but a professional with
dignity. Once, I watched a woman try to
bargain him down. He said nothing, just
began replacing her purchase on the
shelves. "But you charged my next door
neighbor less for the same things," she
complained, though she immediately put
her money down on the counter to placate
The customer was probably right, for
Shamroy was a one-man welfare agency.
He dispensed philanthropy together with
drugs, but on his own terms and in his own
way. There were degrees of poverty in the
neighborhood, and he knew where his cus-
tomers stood by observing them. He stud-
ied faces, hands, the sag of shoulders. The
woman who had bargained looked too well-
fed to need special treatment. He never
gave away merchandise — that would
have degraded the receiver — but he gave
discounts unasked. More than once, he
called to someone who was already on the
way out, "Come back. I didn't give you
enough change." He was gr acious to
whom he would be gracious.
I never saw Shammy's drugstore closed;
he seemed to live there without ever go-
ing home. Between customers, he would
snatch his meals — a sandwich or a piece
of kugel and a cup of coffee — and I
suspect that he slept on the cot in his back
room among the cartons of drugs.
Although he even rolled his own pills, he
never had a clerk. His wife relieved him at

the counter, kept the shelves neat, and
took inventory of his stock. As talkative
as he was taciturn, she sat on a camp stool
outside the store during slow times and
schmoozed with neighborhood women.
A bit of pharmacology even rubbed off
on me that summer. While I waited to be
sent out with a prescription, I studied
Shamroy's window display. No advertise-
ments, but retorts filled with colored
water, a mortar and pestle, a pair of scales,
and tiny heaps of drugs labelled with
names like fennel seed, quinine, digitalis,
and cassia fistula. (Cassia fistula, a popu-
lar natural physic, was sold in long, stick-
like brown pods. Since it reminded East
Siders of the legs of duck, they gave it a
Yiddish name, kotchke fissel.) Most fas-
cinating to me was a gallon jar crammed
with yards and yards of a tapeworm iden-
tified in Shamroy's European handwriting
as having been removed from a human

I early discovered that my employer was
uncomfortable with any of his wares which
were bland or, worse still, pleasant to use.
Possibly he believed in an unspoken role:
No remedy without some suffering. He fa-
vored iodine, which burned, over mercur-
ochrome. Skeptical of drugs which tasted
like chocolate or lemon pop, he sold ex-lax
and citrate of magnesia with a heavy
He had a puritanical contempt for
parents who bought cod liver oil in a pat-
ented emulsion of sweet-tasting malt.
"Give your children pure cod liver oil!" he
scolded. "Cheaper end healthier." (Never
mind that straight cod liver oil made them
retch.) And he took an especially dim view
of a doctored preparation called "Castor-
ia," which ads painted on walls pro-
claimed, "Children cry for." He wrinkled
his nose in disdain and snapped, "They can
take castor oil. It does the job!"

Continued on Page 62

Art By Michael Marzullo

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