Growing up has its share of mortifications, gym class, lunchroom politics, and summer epiphanies like where babies come from or that my cousins were always morons. To be honest, growing up in the 1970s really is a time long ago, an era filled with childlike innocence and dopey disasters that still bring a warm smile to my jaded bouche. For example, that warm, summer day where I learned that the universe is run by both God and his royal Darwiness in tandem.
As an only child with humble expectations and limited options, I took to my cousins as surrogate siblings. It was a poor fit, a round peg, a square hole where I was never in the “inner circle” but instead was treated as the clueless, insufferable tag-along. Now mind you, book smart will never beat street smarts, but as you might guess they had neither. They were three, spaced-out and spaced apart in age — I wouldn’t say evenly because of the 8-year gap between the oldest and youngest while seeming normal to me back then, bespeaks “accident” or menopause baby or gender desperation to the adults in the room.
#1, the oldest one, a coarsely built girl, and the petty tyrant of the group.
Always meting out harsh rules and punishments for us, she was as much leadership material for us as was Mussolini to his beloved Italy. Needless to say, her self-appointed dictatorship led her to be often ignored and occasionally attacked by our surly, insubordinate mouths.
#2 was the classic, middle child…a middling temperament that always managed to steal all the “love oxygen” out of the room. I can understand her parents, my aunt and uncle fawning over her, but she also managed to steal my Mother’s adulation often, which I couldn’t forgive. She was marked for vengeance in my marble notebook.
#3 was basically a human monkey. The kid was the third attempt at a boy and while they got the gender they had hoped for the child was anything but normal. Gangly and annoying, he always managed to cause trouble with his spindly arms and simian ways. He was a food fusspot and always sickly & drippy…
Then there’s me, “goldfish girl”. I was chunky or what was called the dreaded “husky”…to this day, I always consider myself a bit of an outsider, an outlier. I spent a lot of my childhood drawing and reading dinosaur, botany, & geology books when most of my peers were busy mating Barbie and Ken in the “Cuntry Camper”. To would break the monotony of my solitary world with visits to this familial circus. My life was much like that of the goldfish, floating, staring, with not much else to do…just not sure which side of the glass I was on.
On any given day in Summer, my Mother, and my Aunt would make the pilgrimage with us to Woolworth’s also known as “The 5 & 10” back then. It no longer exists on Bell Boulevard in Bayside, Queens, or anywhere else to my knowledge. The closest thing to it is today’s Dollar Store. To us, it was paradise loaded with all kinds of colorful schmink! We were always able to con our mothers into buying us matching toys and candy dots or edible jewelry. So this particular Summer I was nine and fairly fat & irritated by the whiney antics of my cousins.
We arrived at Woolworth at about 1 PM filled with the promise of the toy and candy reward. Our Moms asked us to wait outside, saying they would only be a few minutes in the Notions Department — that means sewing things if you have no notion of the word. We remained outside on our own devices with Tyrannic-Saurus Rex, the Elder to loosely supervise us. Woolworth’s storefront was about 1/2 block long with large awning for shade, tall plate windows and tiered racks of potted annuals and perennials fancying up the normally drab block. Petunias, salvias, marigolds –all the usual suspects were present. a classic line-up for a school’s plant fair and then there was something else… I was intrigued by the innocent-looking, verdant leaves of a waxy little plant that had many yellow, red, and orange pods hanging from it. Row upon row of this exotic, little species fluttered slightly in the afternoon breeze of the cloudless July day. Out of boredom and sheer stupidity #2 & #3 start laughing moronically and begin ripping off the pods. They squeezed and mangled them in their apelike hands, giggling and tearing into the seed purses without any remorse.
Scary-Dactyl immediately swoops in to yell and parent but her tender age of 12 gets the best of her and she joins in on the plant mutilation. At this point, I’m watching this drunken melee of plantatage and say loudly, “You shouldn’t do that…”, but it’s too late. The seductive little horns of color were each filled with atomic levels of chili oil. They were lava-filled cayenne plants, armed with capsicum and hot juices with ratings up to 10,000 on the Scoville scale! My voice echoed still, trying to preserve reason, “I think those are hot peppers!”, but by now all was lost. Lips had been touched and were already looking bee-stung. In a nano-second, the quiet street broke out in a chorus of agony with eyes having been rubbed.
By the time our Mothers returned, my cousins were writhing on the ground and shrieking like the damned! Reading those nature field guides sure paid off as I could easily recognize a pepperpot without slathering it on my face. When the panicked Moms asked what happened, I proudly tattled…it was a glorious moment of Mankind stepping out of the proverbial cave.