The Nickel

To this day my siblings continue to remind me of events in our childhood that I don’t remember. My younger sister is constantly telling me stories and looking at me puzzlingly when I don’t recall our supposedly shared experiences. When I think of being six years old I do remember my first day in school. Because of some enrollment deadline issues my mother missed I did not go to pre-school or kindergarten. I went right into first grade and do recall I was terrified that first day. I remember clearly that I cried. I, being the oldest of four kids, was the first off to school. I realized then that I would be the trailblazer for the rest of my life.

It must have been a much safer world back in the early 1970s, or my family was dangerously irresponsible to the point of child neglect. I say this because the most memorable moment that I can recall, being six years old, was a trip to the grocery store with my younger sister. My family lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, in a four-story yellow and green tenement with a small neighborhood grocery store on the ground level. I recall most of our food shopping was done at that store and the proprietors knew my family well. I recall one day my sister and I were given shiny nickels to purchase some candy from the store downstairs.

As I look back on the memory, the horrific part of it all was that my step-dad allowed my sister and me, six and five years old respectively, to walk down from our apartment on our own, outside our building and into the adjacent neighborhood grocery store. Growing up I was told Brownsville was a tough ghetto so it may have been worse when I was a child. I don’t know much about the neighborhood today; however there is no way anyone would let their six year olds out of their sight for a few minutes in today’s world, let alone out of their home alone with a younger sibling.

I remember when I was a kid we were one of the few Latinos in the predominantly African-American neighborhood. We did not know many of our neighbors for I hardly remember venturing out much except for school. Our building sat on a busy two-way street. I attended the public elementary school across from us which was next to another grocery store. Years later I recall my step-dad yelling out the window at me to cross the avenue to get him a pack of cigarettes, but I must have been seven or eight then. At six years old my only trip was to the store downstairs.

That day with our shiny nickels, I recall holding one in one hand and my sister’s hand in the other as we made our way to the grocery store. It was an adventure for us both. We entered, which may have been the first time ever in the store without our parents, and glanced around to see what our coins could purchase. We did not get to far when my sister’s eye caught the roll of red metallic fishbowl-like gumball and toy trinket machines, the ones where you put the coin in and turned the knob for your prize. We must have been very young for we really did not know the value of money or what our shiny nickels could buy. My sister noticed one of the machines containing colorful plastic rings encased in round plastic balls. Her eyes widened with the possibility. She put her coin in the machine and turned the knob. But nothing happened. The knob did not turn completely, but got stuck just inches from the center. It was just too small for the machine, not the right coinage for the prize. We tried to get the nickel out, but to no avail. My sister looked defeated, teary-eyed and hurt as she realized the lost.

I still had my coin in hand and lead her to a smaller gumball machine. I gave her my nickel, which she put in the machine, and this time it worked. Out came a descent size red ball of gum. My sister cheered up a bit, not the prize she wanted, but something nonetheless. I remember it was the least I could do. I thought I should have known better and not allowed her put her nickel in the wrong machine. It was the first time I guess I realized that I would need to protect my younger sister. The lesson I learned that day was that I was going to be the oldest one all my life and would have to support my siblings any way I could. I was too young really to realize what that little trip meant that day, but I will always remember it. One of the few childhood memories I still recall.

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About Phil Velez

writer, blogger, & communication professional
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