paying tribute

by Elizabeth de Barros

Good neighbors are hard to come by.

Some are known only by their politician’s wave, never really close enough to get under the skin. Others will be there “if you need them,” but best to not need them is the message they send. Tidy enough. And then there are those who form you, make you see the world aright while they’re oblivious to the fact.

Herman Stelljes was always old, but that had nothing to do with the fact that he was an institution. Fortunately, he was our neighbor who happened to own the general store, aptly named “Herm’s,” which sat close to the two-lane highway near our house. He lived there, too — alone — in the back room. Except for a dog named Spike, it was all he had. A gold mine, nonetheless. Twenty years of living a hundred yards away gave me a schooling that would rival the halls of any brick and mortar, including seminary.

Herm’s was filthy. A hovel built of cement block painted white with dark green trim, its only decoration and signal for being open was the glowing sign in the window that read: Budweiser. For Herm’s to ever be closed was only temporary inconvenience. His monthly trip to town to make a bank deposit seemed reasonable and forgivable. Knowing he’d be back soon endeared me to the familiar smell of smoke, dirt and money I’d be hit with when he reopened, which was the extent of any patron’s reward. Friendly banter was out of the question. Only the weather, baseball and OTB were up for discussion. Anything else met with a grunt.

But this was where I first managed to get on in the world. At five, it’s where I learned to count, decide, and negotiate. When I wanted to buy a piece of bubble gum and a fireball, he’d let me slide when short a penny. By 10, my choices turned to Cracker Jack, Clark’s teaberry gum, ice cream sandwiches and five flavor Life Savers. Herm’s was a land where my taste buds blossomed this side of sweet.

On occasion, my mother would send me on a small mission to get either the Daily News, a box of Brillo pads or a can of Campbell’s tomato soup — or some other dry good guaranteed to be covered in dust with no expiration date. Back then, trust was policy. Since he wore a hearing aid, I’d simply yell, “CHARGE IT, HERM!” and make a run for the door. I hated to leave him in the lurch, but along with the rest of the neighborhood my parents kept a running account. The ’70s were odd in a charming sort of way.

Looking back, any people skills I now possess I owe in part to Herm. His monstrous height, flyaway hair, ashen skin, dirty T-shirt and Frankenstein pants spawned in me fresh courage every time I assumed position as customer. But the glass eye is what scared me most. I knew enough to be considerate and to not ask questions, relieved that he could only see half of me from across the counter.

Sweets aside, living near Herm was a privilege. He was a constant, gave us a sense of security. Whatever we needed — juice, milk, bread — Herm’s was our source of supply, open even on Christmas. I respected him, too, insofar as my understanding of respect had something to do with not walking on the grass. Especially his grass. He wasn’t afraid to yell — the unconventional way to learn proper etiquette.

But what I remember most is the year my parents invited him for Thanksgiving dinner. I can’t recall the origin of the event or any details, only his slicked-back hair and clean white dress shirt. Herm was shy, but seemed grateful to have been invited.

I was amazed he came.