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Jen Schneider

Guest Posts, memories

Walked (and Found) in a Strip Mall Drugstore

May 17, 2024

Most Christmas Eves, I worked the night shift in a small-town drug store tucked, not stuck, at the end of a suburban 70s-era strip mall. The store was located a few yards from a major highway, its exits and on-ramps always growling. Dinner consisted of a tuna sub with extra relish (ordered from the pizza shop next door just before its early close, owner’s treat), a full-sized candy bar (typically Twix) that I’d make last until twelve, and a bottle of cola (typically Orange Crush). I’d select the candy bar from the drugstore’s front display and the Crush from the ice box cooler, then count out my coins at the register. 


The stacks of leaning pennies, nickels and dimes would be anchored by a single quarter. In the towers, I’d imagine bright lights and big cities. I’d wonder if the holidays were celebrated similarly. My hometown went all in, with lights and carols, though my family, small – just my father, a goldfish, and me — rarely noticed. My father worked nights at the local hospital and took on extra shifts whenever allowed. I knew he grew up in what he called “the projects”, but I had always understood that to mean that we made something out of everything, and nothing went to waste. I saved extra earnings (tipping strictly prohibited, all register drawers carefully checked at shift changes and closing) for gifts come Christmas morning. I had them pre-picked and on layaway. 


While my tag proclaimed by official title – clerk, I embraced the role for all its unknown worth. I always felt at home in the store’s aisles. I thought of my job as service oriented. Christmas Eve, I adopted an even more universal attendance. I was as determined as Rudolph when it came to ensuring all customers left with a heartful of holiday warmth.


I manned the front of the store and the register – a manual machine with hand-stamped numbers and letters. One more soul in need of Christmas dough worked the store’s back wall. I’d eat just before eight. Then, I’d buy a pack of Life Savers (butter rum or cherry) and wait. Last minute shoppers were my pride and my forte. 


On one side of the storefront, there was concrete. Hard, unforgiving. A reality. On the other side of the chimed door, the wall-to-wall carpet was dark. Unnoticeable. Like me; I could blend right in. The store was more than a destination for pain relief; it was also a home to a new way to see. The shelves were stocked of items brimming with possibility. From Aspirin to Band-Aids. Clorox, Deodorant, and Eyelashes (fake). Gnomes from the 1940s. Hallmark cards and ice cream treats. I don’t remember the lighting, pot lamps I believe. There was a single camera, tucked in the back with the pharmacy and its mysterious bottles. It provided an aerial view of what, I believed, was a homemade Disneyland. Each day, and especially Christmas Eve, we created real-life manifestations of dreams.


Our customers were as varied as the store’s collection. Slumped shoulders in plaid overcoats. Construction workers in high-top boots. Suits and heels. After-doctor visit details. Those for whom we had to raise our voices to be heard. Others with whom signing to cross language barriers was the only path forward. Singles. Double. Triples. One of my favorite aspects of the chimes above the door was the unpredictability of who’d come into the store. 


Hello, I’d say. Welcome to Bluestones!


Most would turn, nod, then carry on. I’d designate characters as I watched. Jane Eyre, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Nancy Drew all shopped with needs to fill. Except for Christmas Eve, when all hearts were open and varied needs morphed into visible displays of need. A last-minute invite, oversight, oh my! Of sorts. Customers would enter the store, the chimes still on, and then take a hard stop. Like a deer (sorry Rudolph) in headlights, the 3000 square foot artificially lit box was a lot.


I’d get right to work.


“Merry Christmas! Can I help you find something?”


“Yes, please” was the most likely response.


I’d field requests for babies and bouncers. Grandparents and ghoulish neighbors. For first loves and final visits. Forgetful spouses. I’d lead and they’d follow. I had gift ideas from every aisle.


In between customers I’d take stock in preparation for the late-night, last-minute flock. I had patterns, as did they. While last-minute shoppers would typically start to wander in around eight, my work began days prior. I was anywhere from fourteen to eighteen. Dressed in black combat boots and spandex leggings. I wore my hair straight. A group of local boys liked to come in and giggle. “She’s Elvira,” I’d hear them say. They couldn’t bother me, as much as they’d try. Not on Christmas Eve. 


I’d curate mental notes of curious collections. Stationary, toys, cosmetics. I knew all the hidden sales. I prepped for all budgets (with most sales under $5), reminiscent of my own days at elementary school holiday shops and book mobiles. Cash in hand. Hurry, Transactions in demand. I helped process rebates (answer this, sign here), shared coupons (clipped and cut), and spread holiday cheer.


The gifts were as varied as the shop’s stock. Sock puppets, Sweet and Sour Mixes. Boxes of Red Hots, Jawbreakers, and L’eggs plastic hose. For the readers — three recent paperback releases (from Harlequin romances to Stephen King’s trances), tie-dye reading glasses (powers of 1.5, 2, and 3), and a case of Kleenex. Matchbox cars for adventurers. Jean N’Ate, heart-shaped box of Whitmans, and an I Love You sticky notes for first-timers. For the love struck: a small teddy bear, cranberry lip gloss. For the movie buff — five pre-selected dollar store flicks, microwave popcorn, and a fleece blanket. A traditional — 12 candy bars – one for each of the 12 days of Christmas. For the bird lover: dove soap, red robin hand cream, and hummingbird-shaped mints. Kodak keychains, rolls of film, print-while-you-wait images. Baby reveals and sounds of music.

Plastic recorders and handwritten dinner orders in a spiral notebook with a promise to clean and cleaning supplies. About faces – makeup bags for night’s in. 

I helped teens find gifts for working parents. I helped working parents find gifts for their support networks. One year, Christmas Eve coincided with a fiftieth wedding anniversary. We packed ten packs of Juicy Fruit (five sticks each), a soft teddy bear Beanie Baby, a faux rose for old time’s sake, and three packs of pop rocks. Love sizzled bright. For a builder — Potato Sticks tubes and letter blocks. The alphabet from A to Z. Toothpicks and marshmallows. For the word lover — word searches and a can of Campbell’s soup, all for two bucks.

I’d study the card aisle and I knew what overstock was in undershelf bins. I’d color coordinate all pickings — A $100,000 Grand bar and ten pouches of Pop Rocks for the guy who planned to propose a life of big dreams. Big League Chew and soda pop for an impromptu gathering of a baseball team.

We offered gift-wrap services for no extra charge. I knew how to tuck corners and apply invisible tape with no marks. As I wrapped, I’d listen. Visibly relieved that their shopping needs were met, the customers would inevitably want to chat. Some told tales of loss – a first, second, third holiday without someone or something. Each of them had a tale and, often, wanted to tell it.


I’d consume stories of sugar plum fairies and red brick houses. Three-tiered cakes, decorated with spice. Drops of candle wax, gold bands (engagements to be) and American Bandstand (nostalgia always sprouting like seeds). Carrots and walking sticks. Fountain sodas with two straws. Drugstore aisles stocked of final desires waiting to be shared or salvaged. One year, an elderly man was desperate to replace his wife’s scent. She had recently passed, and he couldn’t recall the name of the perfume she’d wear. The next year he returned in need of gifts for a newborn grandson. For some, the holiday was a blend of the beauty in the world and the terror of being alone. 


Sometimes, customers paused and took pity on me. “You poor thing,” they’d say. “What are you doing here on Christmas Eve?” At the time, I simply smiled. Truth is, even now, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. I’d return tomorrow if I could. But the local shops are mostly closed. 

 Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, works, and writes in small spaces in and around Philadelphia.

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Guest Posts, writing

On Lists and Women Named Lucy

December 5, 2023

The attic was long overdue for rigorous sorting if not deep cleaning. An oversized walk-up with easy access that was rarely assessed, the attic space had become a default location for anything (and everything) without a designated place. Earlier this summer, I spent an unseasonably cool afternoon sorting through boxes of clothing, mostly outgrown, with few fabrics worthy of much contemplation, and stacks of papers from a time before our world was fully digitalized.

As I sorted, I stumbled across school reading lists that I don’t remember saving. I’ve always been a fan of books, lists, and writing; truth be told they’re my love language, but that’s too close to home and overly sentimental. While saving the list may have been intentional, the act was more likely nothing more than an effort to move never-ending clutter. I never gave much thought to how simple it was to add more stuff to the attic’s heart (and warmth). The attic’s availability and familiarity opened up an opportunity for both delayed and default reactions.

I’d regularly store undersized coats, oversized toys, and unused stacks of most anything (Peanuts figurines and crib mobiles, for example), always saying I’d sort and recycle when I had the time. The attic made it easy to defer all decisions, even those in list form, of worth, relevance, and currency. But now, with sorting on my weekly to-do list, an old reading list caught me by surprise, as book lists often do, and I paused my, until then, semi-automated routine. Books, including in list form, had always been that for me – a reminder to be and to believe in possibility.

When my children were young, we’d review summer reading book lists religiously. We’d check all titles and reconcile those for which we had copies and those which we’d need to borrow or renew. Like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we were in perpetual states of readiness to consume — words as delivered, school assignments as listed, and comic strips as written. Charlie Brown and Lucy Van Pelt, along with my children, were regular sidekicks. We’d read the Sunday morning cartoons, delivered to our doorstep early mornings, religiously.

As my children are, now, nearly grown, I’m much less likely to know what they read. I don’t know when the bookshelves turned to dust-collectors, but unless my kids order something from our shared Amazon account or happen to mention a book club pick or a surprise find in a free library (a Peanuts collection a recent swap), we’ve stopped, somehow, regularly sharing the words and writings that inhabit our coat pockets. I hadn’t realized until the book lists knocked.

That afternoon, I cleaned in an empty home. I flipped through the newly rediscovered book lists and became less eager to refresh the space and more nostalgic for passed days. As my eyes scanned the titles, I was struck by just how similar the contents were to each other and, also, how male-dominated. Somehow, the distance and the change in circumstance prompted me to re-see what I had regularly consumed as ordinary. Suddenly, I felt a bit like Lucy Van Pelt.

Lists had always been something I’d receive and then treat as sacrosanct – at doctors’ visits, school check-ins, and other socially constructed things. When my children were young, I don’t know if it was that I was too busy to question or still too unsure of my own place in the world. I didn’t believe anyone would pay five cents for my opinion. I also did not think of school-sponsored lists as something which I could, or should, co-create. Now, I’m not any less busy, but I am much less trusting of authority.

Suddenly, the same lists I had previously treated as a guide to stay on track began to look different to me. I thought, too, of how different each of my four children’s interests were (and remain). Yet over a span of over eighteen years, they were largely assigned the same summer readings. The lists maintained remarkable consistency. Works like Several Short Sentences About Writing were a regular a bookend to classics like All the Kings Men, The Outsiders, and Call of the Wild. Each appeared yearly on lists with male voices, perspectives, protagonists, and plot directors, at the center.

At one time, in the hustle and hustle of a household on steroids, I might have shuffled the pages and continued. Now, something, something had changed. As I reviewed recycled lists (World History, Psychology, and English Lit), I saw patterns I hadn’t before recognized. Why weren’t more women authors short listed and why had I not before realized?

Alongside the lists, there were doodles formed of my daughter’s careful loops – squiggles of butterflies in beds, smiling pigs playing baseball, and talking dandelions. What I had before seen as idle sketches I now saw as a voice. Some of the sheets had tallies with my children’s initials at the top. Reading was as much a shared camaraderie as a condition. At the time, the school required all minutes to be tracked. There were also signs of distractions, a few rounds of Tic-Tac-Toe and Hangman.

A small game of Hangman, Charlie Brown’s Lucy Van Pelt sketched and penned in a right margin, prompted more unexpected reflections. How come we rarely read about Lucy’s in real-world form? I thought, for example, of Lucille Ball, the first woman to head a TV production company and activists like Lucy Burns and Lucy Stone. Instead, All the King’s Men, presents a single type of Lucy – Lucy Stark, wife to Willie, who repeatedly sees her opinions ignored.

The lists’ hand-drawn doodles made me think of Nina E. Allender, an artist, cartoonist, and women’s rights activist. Allender popularized new ways of seeing women and reimagined what it means to be a girl. Allender was a leader of the National Women’s Party, alongside others like Lucy Burns and Lucy Gunner Branham.

I studied the cartoons penned by my children. Where I’d once seen a butterfly, I now saw interlocked questions and cocoons in the past tense. I wanted to know why Nina Allender and a whole host of Lucy’s and women like them were not on the roster.

I’ve since run some fresh searches. In the cooler air of my kitchen, I’ve learned that little has changed. The site domains are updated yet the book rosters are largely the same. Much like the attic had become my default, the lists themselves had become static. Even now the assigned readings posted on my local district’s website are surprisingly uniform. Our district is not alone. Quick research reveals striking similarity and sustainability across years, lists, and titles. The Wayback Machine confirms. The book list persists as an easily scalable and sustainable device and tool to perpetuate the same.

How had I not recognized the consistency in and across lists over time? Default reactions denied, I had been on autopilot, focused on getting through each day. I readily consumed and complied, all while doing my best to meet all trains, planes, and automobile deadlines – Oh my. The lists, and their patterns, were as much in need of sorting and deep cleaning as the attic, yet, as expectations associated with required readings were school-authorized, I had relied on their expertise. Why?

It’s taken me years, but I’ve finally begun to understand the meaning of voice, including my own, the power of writing to make meaning, and the importance of making sure all lists are marked by more than consumption. As my kids grew, I drafted (and regularly checked) lists for everything – meal prep, carpool, who needed new socks. But the school’s recommended reading list, I left untouched. I accepted the canon rather than questioned it. Not until my children were all nearly grown, and I was cleaning out an attic did I begin to appreciate the dangers of as-is conditions.

As my children have grown, I became increasingly curious about pedagogy and curriculum. I went back to school and now teach full-time. I’ve also found more space to pursue my own interests and writing, and, with time to reconsider default reactions, I’ve found many of my choices and reactions surprising. I wish I had questioned sooner and questioned more. How had I not known?

Thankfully, I never lost my love for reading. Reading led me to teaching and teaching led me back to writing. Mothering has been an integral part of it all. Like the Lucy’s I came to know through their written words, I joined a movement to more deeply engage in the question and meaning of education and change. Over the past year, I’ve been reading and writing about lesser-known women’s suffragists. Suffragists about whom I knew very little. Suffragists like Lucy Burns, Lucy Stone, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, and Nina Allender. Lucy Burns endured more jail time than any other suffragist. Lucy Stone was a prominent orator, abolitionist, and suffragist. Amelia Jenks Bloomer was the first female editor of a newspaper. Nina Allender created more cartoons than any other. Their names and their stories, along with so many more, were neither on the recommended book list nor in the school-issued textbooks.

In my own reading and writing, I am less interested in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution than the lives of women subject to it. This past Spring, I joined an online writing group. I submitted a draft in progress, a novel following the life story of Lucy Burns, the most-jailed suffragist, and my writing teacher expressed surprise at the character’s strength – “I never knew,” she said, then added, “That’s what writing is for.”

For years the only writing I did was signing quarterly report cards. Now, I write daily across genres – poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and more. Writing has been a way for me to engage, to learn, and to inform. It’s a form of social activism, in forms I understand. That’s one of many reasons why I’m drawn to novels in verse (a quiet act of rebellion against form, pomp, and circumstance) and Nina Allender’s work. As a cartoonist, Allender used images to say what others couldn’t (or wouldn’t).

Motherhood changes lots of things. I don’t believe I’d have ever become a teacher if not for motherhood. I also don’t believe I’d have understood the depths and breadth of the challenges of being a teacher without the experience of raising my own children. Now, I believe that part of my role as a mother and teacher is to help write new stories and ensure less-known stories are told.

Most of all, motherhood has been the most powerful reminder of the continued importance of engaging with lesser-known stories and lists yet-to-be-written, I thank suffragists, Lucys, and others like them. As I continue to sort through boxes, prior lists, and telling markings, I hope my students and my children find their Lucy. I also hope they write new lists and write bravely.

Jen Schneider is an educator who lives, writes, and works in small spaces throughout Pennsylvania.


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