Sunday, June 6, 2010

Shooting Marbles

The Hula Hoop never caught on in my childhood hometown, but other gimmicky toys sure did. Remember Womper Stompers from Romper Room? The upside down red plastic bucket-looking things with yellow plastic strings attached that you held like the reins of a horse and then you clomped around on them about three inches above the cement that at some point you would inevitably do a face plant on?

Or how about the Wizzer? It was a top the size of an apple that you wound up on the floor and let spin. These babies were heavy too and could be used as a weapon when older siblings tried to push you around. Mine were decorated in these psychedelic groovy 60’s patterns so when they spun they looked other-worldly. Each one even had a groove carved into the top of it so you could wind up a second Wizzer and let it spin on top of the first one while it was Wizzing around the room. We had linoleum floors with little bumps and grooves, which made the Wizzer look a bit like an old Ford hopping down a dirt road. After I wound one up and stuck it in my sister Brenda’s hair, my mom took my Wizzers away and I never saw them again.

Of all the fads the kids in my neighborhood got sucked into, myself included, nothing ever compared to the craze that swept us up in 1975: Marbles.

I’m not sure why marbles was exclusively a boy thing, but as soon as the recess bell rang, we’d all grab our Cool Whip tubs of marbles from our desks, run out to the playground, and get as many games in as we could before Mrs Price and Mrs. Link, the yard ladies, shagged us back inside. If you had a really good day, your marble tub would be full and you’d have to put the overflow in your pockets. On bad days, and I had my share, you might go home with an empty tub.

Our version of the game was simple: Dig a hole about three or four inches deep and about three inches wide. Take ten good paces away from the hole and draw a deep line in the sand with the heal of your sneaker. After deciding how many marbles to play for, each player tosses their marbles at the hole. Whoever has the marble closest to the hole shoots first. The object is to shoot all of your marbles into the hole first. Do this and you win all of the other players marbles.

Playing was fun, but collecting marbles was an even bigger deal. We classified marbles into the following categories: swirlies (two or more colors blended together), cat-eyes (clear with a strip of color in the middle), clearies, (these looked like mini crystal balls, bu they also came in various colors), steelies (ball bearings, basically), boulders (three times the size of a regular marble), steely boulders, and the most prized marble of all, the cat-eye boulder (I once traded three of these for a hot lunch ticket so I could have my favorite lunch, hamburger gravy over mashed potatoes).

As the year rolled on and my shooting skills got a little better, the Cool Whip tub became inadequate for storing my marbles. My mother, who worked at a World War II era garment factory, came to my rescue. She used a heavy vinyl material, a deep red in color, to fashion my very own marble bag, complete with a draw string that was long enough to sling over my shoulder, and my name embossed on the side.

Little did my mother know, her invention would contribute to my early life of crime.

I hadn’t planned on Max Longcore, a burly sixth grader who towered over the rest of us by about a foot, getting into the Marbles game. As good as I was getting, I was no match for this pre-teen thug. It only took a week, and he cleaned me out of every steely, cat-eye, swirly, and boulder in my collection. My vinyl bag was empty

With no money, a bruised ego, and no marbles, I had to do something to win my collection back from Big Max. So I started taking trips to the Grant store between my house and my elementary school. (Grants was the department store that preceded K-Mart). I would empty packages of marbles into my marble bag until it was bloated with contraband, buy a pack of gum or a candy bar—so I wouldn’t look suspicious walking out of the store with a big red bag (with my name stamped on it) slung over my shoulder.

My scheme worked so well, I decided that my marble bag and I should take a trip to Carl’s Market, the neighborhood IGA store a few blocks from my house. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Novak, were a very old couple who lived around the corner from us. They were oblivious to a scrawny, dirty kid combing the penny candy aisle with an empty bag hanging around his neck.

Or so I thought.

I had no idea the pretty round mirrors in each corner of the store made up their primitive surveillance system. When I reached the counter to pay for my pack of gum, my bag much fatter than when I arrived, I must have turned white with fear when Mr. Novak asked me to empty my bag on the counter.

At recess the following week, picking the last few marbles out of my Cool Whip tub, I must surely have felt the humiliation caused by my short-lived life of crime. Shooting marbles faded quickly as a fad, and by the next year, we had moved on to Dodge Ball.

These are the childhood memories that occupied my mind as I pulled into the parking lot at Witherbee’s Market and Deli, the first grocery store to open in Downtown Flint in 35 years.

Located on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and University Avenue, Witherbee’s is a neighborhood grocery store and deli. The city of Flint is in full-blown revitalization mode—new housing, restaurants, college dorms, etc.—and Witherbee’s Market represents a key piece of the puzzle in establishing a sustainable Downtown Flint.

The market has two handicap-accessible levels, both of which are stocked full of everything from cereals to canned goods to health and beauty products to pet foods. As I walked up and down each aisle, I tried to think of things that I might find at Meijer or VG’s, and most of those items, I’m happy to report, can be found on the shelves at Witherbee’s.

The produce section is impressive in its variety and quality. You can find a good variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, herbs, and greens. And yes, there is an organic produce section as well. As one who works in the downtown area, I can easily see myself stopping by on my way home to pick up fresh produce for dinner or to grab that one item I’d otherwise have to go way out of my way to get somewhere else.

The deli and meat counter is also an impressive aspect of the store. You can get a wide variety of meats, cheeses, and home-made breads, Starbuck’s coffee, or the deli master will even prepare a sandwich for you while you wait. Coming to Witherbee’s for the first time felt comforting to me, and it did remind me a great deal of my old neighborhood IGA store. I have traded my marble bag in for an earth-friendly reusable shopping bag (and I’m actually paying for everything I put into it), but I’m already looking forward to building a long history of memories at my new neighborhood market. Welcome to Flint, Witherbee’s!