By Lee Alan Dugatkin
The door into Jo-Jo Toys swung out toward the street, narrowly missing the adjacent gumball machine. Just feet beyond the door sat a cardboard box with its flaps cut off. In it were brand new, hard-as-a rock Spaldeen rubber balls. Hundreds of them, and they seemed somehow to smell the pink they were colored. Written in thick black magic marker, a hastily scribbled “25 cents” on the side of the box drew every prepubescent boy, and the occasional girl, towards them. Though they all seemed identical to the adult eye, kids could detect subtle differences that required some serious sampling on their part. Picking out the ball of their choice, they would run it through a series of qualifiers and then proceed to give it a final “squeeze test” – the firmer, the better.
The quarter plus two cents tax price tag meant something different to each kid. For some it was nothing, a small fraction of their allowance for the week. For others it meant forsaking a Hershey’s bar or maybe a Slushie at the Baricinni Candy shop two doors down, never an easy decision when you are eight. For still others, often the kids from the Alphabet soup area southeast of Jo-Jo, this was it, their major purchase for the month. A quarter meant everything to them, the tax might even preclude the purchase; and the man behind the counter remembered who they were, in case a teary-eyed kid returned a Spaldeen that had worn out before its time.