2006 9th-12th Grade Prose Winner
I figure that I have spent half my life, or at least a significant part of it, in the Duane Reade drugstore on Third Avenue between Seventy-Third and Seventy-Fourth Streets. While this emporium is not exactly as chic as Saks Fifth Avenue or as trendy as Starbucks, it shouts New York City to me. The garish, oversized red letters spelling out the name, Duane Reade, can be seen all too clearly among the small restaurants, mom-and-pop groceries, and clothing shops that line Third Avenue in the Seventies. There are other drugstores in the city, and hundreds of other Duane Reades, but this one is mine; this one is special.
Duane Reade, like the city it calls home, never closes. If I ever forget to pack a toothbrush, I can run around the corner to Duane's (we are on a first-name basis). Or if it is 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve and the neighbors in 6C drop off a gift for me and unfortunately they are not on my list, I can sprint over to my trusty store, purchase a box of Lindt chocolates, and put it under the tree in 6C by 10:05. No matter what time of day or night, some New Yorkers are standing in this Duane Reade reading the labels on vitamin bottles or asking a salesperson which is better, Tylenol or Bayer. It is comforting for young parents to know that they can run over to Duane Reade at three o'clock in the morning to fetch the prescription the doctor has just called in to the pharmacy for their sick baby.
Open twenty-four hours a day, the store is a haven for the insomniac and the lonely. It is a place to come in out of the rain, or to buy an umbrella to go out in the rain. Sometimes folks come in to just chat with the blue-uniformed guards who stand like sentries at the door to combat theft, but who also stock the shelves and direct traffic. I have never seen them catch a thief. Each watchman always has a smile and a kind word for the older customer with a walker, or the young child in the stroller who pulls the candy off the shelf and throws it to the floor. The guard always quietly picks up the litter and puts the carts back in a straight line after the customers leave them scattered about. No one here orders you to clean up your mess.
However, fights do break out in Duane Reade, mostly because this is New York and everybody is in a rush. The question: is there one line that feeds all the three cashiers, or are there three separate lines? This is where New Yorkers can be really mean. The arguments can get nasty if someone dares to push ahead or does not realize that today there is just a single line. Of course, this being New York, everybody takes sides, and the guard must stop the commotion before the customers come to blows.
Mrs. Williams, one of the cashiers, has been behind the front counter for years. She lets me know when she thinks I've grown an inch or two. She helped teach me how to count change. She is still always patient as I take time to put the money back in my wallet, pick up my backpack, and maneuver the packages off the counter. A kind, gentle little lady, Mrs. Williams asks me about school and I ask about her two daughters. I know that one is teaching and the other is graduating from college this year. Mrs. Williams is the cashier customers gravitate to for assistance because she always has the right answer, and she knows that the tissues are now in aisle four and the shampoo in aisle three. I can tell when there is a new store manager because all the goods have been moved around, and the light bulbs are no longer next to the dishwashing liquid. And just when I think I know where everything is, a new store manager appears and I cannot find the toothpaste. But there is Mrs. Williams to the rescue.
Duane Reade was, and still is, the local hangout for boys from the Buckley School. When I went there, my teammates and I would hop of the school bus on Seventy-Fourth Street and into Duane Reade after an away game. We drowned our sorrows in Gatorade and potato chips when our baseball team lost the league championship. The store is sort of an extension of the school for the Buckley boys, and even today I can meet an old friend, teacher, or coach standing on the checkout line. I laugh when I see young Buckley boys dash into the drugstore and come out with their arms full of soda and candy. Some things never change.
This Duane Reade store is the first place in the city my mom and dad allowed me to go to alone. It is around the corner from both my elementary school and my apartment building, and I do not have to cross a street to get there. I remember skipping down the stairs and out the front door of my apartment building to the street clutching the dollar bill my mother gave me for the perfect score on my third-grade math test. Destination: Duane Reade, to buy a celebratory Snickers bar. What I did not know until recently was that my mother followed me to the store at a discreet distance.
It was Christmas 1994, and I wanted to buy my mother a gift with my own money. Dad remembers that I had a few dollars and lots of pennies that I carefully took out of my British telephone-kiosk bank and put into my Lion King multicolored wallet. Now I know that Dad made sure I had enough money for my purchase and stuffed more bills in my wallet when I was not looking. Off we went to Duane Reade to buy Mom a beautiful Timex watch that I selected straight out of the circular Plexiglas case that twirled around and around. It has a brown leather band, Arabic numerals, and a button to push that lights up the face in the dark. My mother still wears that watch today. She tells me it is her favorite.